Beyond Bots: why brands must establish relevant conversations

Brands will soon have to think more about crafting conversations and less about designing messages, explains Niklas Zillinger in this guest post.

We all know there is a paradigm shift emerging that will re-define how we interact with computers.niklas_zillinger_sapientnitro

More than 20 years ago a keyboard and a mouse enabled us to interact with personal computers. Roughly 10 years ago touchscreens made it more intuitive and we went mobile. And the next interaction paradigm will be about natural language. It will enable us to interact with computers in a truly human way.

Humans are communicators, so it’s no surprise that messaging apps have become so successful. With a year-on-year growth rate between 19% (KakaoTalk) and 60% (WhatsApp) messaging apps represent six of the 10 most used apps globally.

These platforms are evolving into central communications hubs, surpassing major social networks when it comes to user activity (figure 01).

the-messaging-app-report-business-insider-companies-bi-intelligenceFigure 01: MAU messaging apps vs. social networking apps

They even offer integrated service ecosystems (FB Messenger, WeChat) which enable rich interactions and a multitude of business transactions.

But what does this paradigm shift mean for brands? What are the consequences for design, marketing and business operations?WhatsApp

From aesthetic design to conversation design

For years we established and followed best practices in human computer interaction through a visual interface. In hindsight, however, we haven’t humanised computers, we have mechanised humans.

We trained people to press big buttons, navigate mega menus and follow a predefined checkout. The rules are set by the computer, not the person in front of it.

But customer expectations for today’s services are changing. Downloading yet another app and learning yet another interface becomes a barrier. Our connected lives and the plethora of digital services creates the demand to individually combine different products and services.

People want to design their own personal experiences. We are moving from human-centred design to humans as designers.


This requires an infinitely flexible interaction layer that sits on top of all these services. And it looks like this layer is going to be a conversational interface (Chats, Siri, etc).

In the near future brands will have to think less about designing messages and more about crafting conversations.

  1. In order to have authentic chats with customers a brand’s tone of voice has to apply phatic communication, the local style in social conversations. With that, unexpected or witty statements can convey memorable personality.
  2. Brands won’t have luxury of presenting their story in all aspects. Their value proposition needs to fit into bite-sized pieces like a short text or an image.
  3. It’s not only about copywriting. Conversations aren’t linear. Thus it’s important to think about which different paths customers could take and have strategies in place to bring them back on track when they go off.
  4. Timing becomes crucial. Brands must think about when to speak and when to shut up (and listen). Not every response has to be immediate. Sometimes a little delay can create anticipation or emphasise a thorough answer.

viber-logoHowever, even the best crafted conversation can only work if the topic is relevant. In a Forrester report([1]) from May 2016 analysts revealed how powerful messaging can be, and how badly it’s done today.

The report shows Twilio statistics that state 90% of SMS being opened within three minutes. But it also shows nearly 90% of consumers opt out of notifications and in-app messages. The reason? The information is irrelevant to them.

Conversational experiences have no room for flashy interfaces that can cover the lack of quality content. Or to quote Matt Mariansky, co-founder and product designer at Meekan: “Your content is your style now.” ([2])

From Apps to Bots?

Obviously there is big hype now around bots. Facebook, Microsoft et.al., are all jumping on it. It seems a little short sighted, however. It’s not about the bots. It’s about the interaction paradigm they establish. This includes all types of conversational interfaces([3]), which facilitate communication with both humans and bots. It’s just that one day, we probably won’t be able to tell the difference.

So, what’s the consequence of this? In its 2016 trend report Fjord talks about the trend of “disappearing apps”[4], which (for now) seems to be a slight exaggeration. However, the underlying principle of the “atomisation of services” exists.

Apps might not disappear, but they will definitely fade into the background. Messengers, interactive notifications and voice based assistants will become the new interface frontier for consumers.

In the near future, we will see more examples like Uber, where it doesn’t matter anymore if you access the service through the app or a chat.UberFrom machine learning to machine intuition

Messaging – especially relevant conversations – is highly dependent on the sophisticated use of contextual data. Thus analytics tools will have to address a broader spectrum beyond owned touchpoints. It’ll be essential to track and connect customer messages, their behaviour and their use of related services.

Of course, all of this requires a customer’s agreement, but in order to have meaningful conversations, brands must know the person they are talking to.

This brings many new challenges for existing segmentation and related data models in order to store the gathered information logically.

Furthermore, once those models are established, the next step must be the integration of AI systems. It’s the only way to economically scale one-to-one conversations to all customers.

However, these systems need time to learn. They’ll have to understand both the relevant answer for a customer’s question and how to reply in the brand’s tone of voice.twilio-logo-with-words

The sooner brands start to train an internal cognitive system, the sooner those AIs will be able to add value and enhance conversational experiences for customers.

Furthermore, it’s important to note that conversations don’t only happen externally, they’re also part of the internal enterprise communication.

Once customers start talking to a brand, they will expect to be able to talk to every individual touch point or department within the organisation. That means businesses have to re-think their operational model and start evolving around a customer journey rather than focusing on individual touch points.

In order to deliver on what’s being said, all in-house teams must be able to participate in the conversation.

The good news is, once a brand is able to create conversational experiences and to deliver on them, it’ll have the flexibility to combine the individual elements in yet maybe unforeseen ways.

Because in a future with connected devices and voice based interfaces it doesn’t matter which technology eventually succeeds. What does matter is if a brand’s products and services will be part of the conversation.

Related: Google in fresh bid to conquer messaging space with launch of Allo after ‘graveyard of failure’

Niklas Zillinger is  the experience design lead at SapientNitro


[1]  https://www.forrester.com/report/Mobile+Messaging+Catalyst+And+Core+Channel+For+Commerce/-/E-RES134341

[2] http://alistapart.com/article/all-talk-and-no-buttons-the-conversational-ui

[3] https://medium.com/chris-messina/2016-will-be-the-year-of-conversational-commerce-1586e85e3991 – .2iv2kq1kr

[4] http://trends.fjordnet.com/


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