Conversational Interfaces

The core and most important function of digital design is its user interface. Industry stalwarts have realized that and are pumping their energies towards building the UI of the future i.e. Conversational Interfaces. The aim is to make the user interaction as intuitive and natural as possible.

What is a conversational interface?

Conversational interface are interfaces that allow users to chat with bots or instruct intelligent devices to get your daily tasks done.

Many years ago, we moved from command line interfaces to Graphical User Interfaces (GUI). Though our world got much better, the reality is that the closer we get to a natural human interface, the more comfortable we will be using them. Spoken language has always been the most effective communication technology.  People are also used to texting/messaging and use it much more than any app; about 20 million messages are sent every minute. This is the reason why any language based interfaces such as chatbots or interactions on devices via voice are intriguing and opens new frontiers. These are the tools of the future to access all sort of services.

Again, one might argue that even Chatbots came into existence long ago, but their real potential is utilized only now! With the advent of analytics and machine learning, chatbots give an opportunity to interact with a system using natural language. Some may see it as a return to command line interfaces but the difference is you no longer need to know the exact command! Modern bots are tweaked for NLP and can be programmed to accept similar utterances making the entire process much more user-friendly and intuitive!

Most chatbots are programmed in the form of “intent-based” systems, which allows a chatbot to understand a user’s intent. For example, to ask someone how they are doing, you could ask questions such as, “How are you”, “How are you doing?”, “What’s up?”, “How goes it?” or even “What’s cooking?”. An effective NLP based chatbot should ideally understand and accept all these phrases as they mean the same thing, or have the same intent.

The rapid development of conversational interfaces (voice based or chat based) in our daily lives makes it clear that this technology is rapidly becoming the UI of the future and a welcome alternative to graphical user interfaces. When we talk about conversational interfaces there are two versions that are gaining rapid popularity – A) Voice based interactions and B) Bot/Chatbots based interactions. We will examine the differences and similarities here:

 

1. Voice based interactions using intelligent devices like Amazon Echo / Google Home/ Apple Pod Cortana are very popular. Today you can find an Alexa skills app for just about anything. Recipes, playing music, booking a cab ride/flight etc. Amazon also supports Alexa for Business API which opens unimaginable playground for businesses.  For e.g. at V2Solutions, we have built an Alexa Skills App to integrate with Salesforce and perform various Salesforce functions including a dashboard briefing using Alexa!!

Tools & Platforms

  • Alexa Skills Kit https://developer.amazon.com/alexa-skills-kit – Build for Voice with Amazon – Amazon Developer Alexa Skills App that can be used on Amazon devices like Echo, Dot etc.
  • Google Actions https://developers.google.com/actions/ Build Google Assistant enabled apps that can be used with Google Home enabled devices
  • Siri Kit https://developer.apple.com/sirikit/ With the intelligence of Siri, users control HomePod through natural voice interaction and can conveniently access iOS apps that support SiriKit Messaging, Lists, and Notes.
  • Cortana https://developer.microsoft.com/en-us/cortana Build Cortana skills to interact with devices that can also understand the intent of the conversation through a natural language understanding tool such as LUIS.AI

Benefits of using voice-based interactions:

  • Fast communication – People can speak a lot faster than they can type. We can process audio far more quickly than all other media.
  • Simplify routine tasks – Voice interfaces can help users save time on routine tasks. Checking the weather, setting an alarm, play music, replying to message, searching for a recipe — these are examples of tasks we do every day.
  • Easier and natural way of communication – Voice is not just faster; it’s also easier than typing a message. Voice communication is also a natural way for humans to communicate. There’s a reason why in China, people send voice messages to each other rather than text.
  • Accessible technology – Voice technology is accessible to people of all ages. I have even seen kids use Alexa devices to play games or ask the device to tell a joke!!
  • No Downloads – We do not need to download a separate mobile app

 

2. Chatbots are bots that can reside on websites or on popular messaging and social media platforms such as Slack, Facebook or Skype. These bots help users perform tasks on these apps in much more intuitive manner. For e.g. Just search for bots on Skype and you will be amazed at the variety of bots available. A global study shows that 90% of our time on mobile is spent on messaging and email platforms. Since chat is the new email or phone, chatbots will be the tools users use to access all sort of services. You can say Chatbots are the erstwhile chat apps with NLP + AI built in and easy integration with popular apps.

Tools & Platforms

DialogFlow (Formerly api.ai) https://dialogflow.com is a good platform to build “intent-based” chatbots. Connect with users on your website, mobile app, the Google Assistant, Facebook Messenger, Skype and other popular platforms and devices with one single interface.  You can even extend the functionality further by deploying web hooks with Python or NodeJS code behind.

ChatterBot is also a good open source platform to build Chatbots. https://chatterbot.readthedocs.io/

ChatterBot is a machine-learning based conversational dialog engine build in Python which makes it possible to generate responses based on collections of known conversations. The language independent design of ChatterBot allows it to be trained to speak any language.

Benefits of Chatbots

  •  Delivering and Consuming content – Businesses are using Chatbots to deliver content. For e.g. News bots like BBC, NBC Sports Update. This bot delivers news content directly to a user as a conversation — users can get news feeds and then also choose more information for the topics they are interested in.
  • E-Commerce using Chatbot – AI-powered chatbots are interacting with their customers on behalf of the brand, to enrich the customer journey. Whether you want to buy flowers online or you are scouting for loans or credit cards there is a Chatbot available. Popular lending sites have Chatbots that can get u quotes on various products after you answer some of the questions. Based on your answers, it suggests the right product type.  You can choose to finally opt for one of the available choices.
  • Welcoming and guiding new users – Chatbots are great for onboarding new users to a platform. Many websites now have a Chatbot that can help first-time users to navigate to the page or article of their interest. Slack, a popular corporate messaging app has Slack Bot, which welcomes first-time users and provides all required information in an easy-to-understand way.
  • Automate tasks – Various bots on websites and popular messaging apps help people automate tasks like scheduling meetings and notifying people about upcoming appointments.

 

What is the future?

I see that many of the businesses will turn to conversational interfaces. For example, for L1 support Chatbots are now preferred. The perks of doing so is quick support for customers without the wait time and cutting costs on customer service representatives. There is a provision for humans to jump in only when the bots are unable to take care of the issue at hand.

Many Internet of Things (IoT) devices such as Smart homes, thermostats, lights etc. are connected and integrated using voice based interface likes Google Assistant/ Alexa/ Siri and we are fast moving towards a connected world.  To add to that, conversational interfaces are changing the way users interact with their devices every day.

Voice based user experiences extend the power of computing to people who are unable to use screens and keyboards. Today visually-impaired users can use their voice to command Alexa or Google Assistant to perform some of the tasks without depending on others. This surely is one of the most satisfying moment and a win when technology not only enables businesses but makes it a better place for humans themselves! We can truly feel proud and take a bow!!

Drop in your comments on your experiences with any chatbot or conversational interface that really impressed you!

 

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