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Chatbots. The new, hip and trendy way of carrying out everyday tasks. Find your next outfit from H&M. Order a pizza from Domino's. Check the weather with Poncho. Get answers to questions about insurance with TopDanmark. 

A lot of different industries are using chatbots to increase or replace their (human) customer service, or to offer something different to the user than their traditional communication and sales channels can.

Certain services let you build a chatbot in no time. On Chatfuel, for example, you can set up a simple conversation really easily, and start exploring the benefits and challenges of conversational UI. 

There are a lot of benefits. Conversation is a natural means of communication for most people. Using conversational UI (I include both spoken and written conversation in this term) to carry out tasks can be easier and faster than navigating through a series of steps on your smartphone or your computer. A lot of chatbots currently live on Facebook Messenger, or on the popular US platform Kik. This means that users can speak to chatbots and get their stuff done (buy a shirt, order a plane ticket...) on a platform they are already using.

Although the entry hurdle into chatbot tech is low, creating a truly useful chatbot that really works comes with a number of challenges. 

Firstly, conversation is complex! Human-to-human conversation includes not only the words we say or write, but also an enormous amount of unspoken stuff: facial expressions, body language and pre-existing knowledge that the two participants have about the topic and each other. It's not impossible to re-create the same awareness of what is unsaid, but it's difficult. Further, people have countless ways of expressing themselves, and it is cumbersome to program a machine to understand all of those. It can quickly become a maze of rules when you try to include all the variations of a question the chatbot may receive. And if you don't include all variations, the user will be faced with the extremely annoying "I am sorry, I don't understand what you're saying because I am just a robot. Can you please rephrase your question?" 

The trick to handling the complexity of the conversation is to control the conversation as much as possible. Rather than letting the user freestyle their questions, give them a list of questions they can choose from. This limits the risk of miscommunication and misunderstanding. 

Secondly, despite conversation being a natural form of communication for most, some people are uncomfortable using conversation to complete purchases, find information etc. User research, that we have done with one of our clients, shows that some people (usually the less tech savvy users) find it... weird! to talk to a robot. Conversational UI is new and different and this novelty alone creates a barrier that has to be overcome with time, as more and more chatbots enter the digital sphere and people get used to talking to robot.

What this means for the brave companies out there, who are the first to put chatbots on their staff list, is that they must expect a period of scepticism from some of their potential users before their robot employees will be fully accepted.

Finally, scope can be tricky. It is important to communicate clearly to the user what the chatbot's scope is. The big players like Siri, Alexa, or Google Home serve their users successfully regardless what needs the user may have. But building the next Alexa is demanding on both resources and time. And in most cases, unnecessary! Most of our clients will need a chatbot that reliably performs one task, or a small number of tasks within a very limited scope, and does that well! 

So the recommendation here, is transparency and clarity around the chatbot's purpose of existence. Set the framework in your hello message, let the chatbot state it's goal and its boundaries, so that the user knows who they are talking to, and what they can talk to the bot about. 

The complexity of successful chatbot design can seem overwhelming, but don't let that challenges scare you off. Using chatbot technology is not only a great way to expand your offering to users/customers (chatbots don't mind working 24/7). It is also really fun to work with conversation. And the process will bring you closer to your customers, your brand and your organisation values as you work on crating a bot-personality that represents what you stand for. 

Jayway was interviewed about our take on chatbots and conversational UI by the Danish debate and networking forum K-Forum. Read the interview for more thoughts about the potential of chatbots.

Natalia Barbour