2016 was the year of chatbots and it seems like 2017 will be as well; the hype is growing fast as every company now wants to interact with its customers via a bot. Why such hype? Because of the user experience! Chatbots can handle human conversations, how cool is that! It’s the best way to engage with customers. What about user interfaces ? This is where it gets odd; chatbots are a mixed bag of futuristic and minimalist interfaces. Let’s look back to the beginnings of digital to understand why.
From matrix CLIs to mobile apps
Interfaces matter a lot. They are the window to your product and directly impact your user experience. You may have developed the coolest tech in the valley, but ship it with a bad interface and your product is ruined.
So, at some point in their career, every developer really should study the history and evolution of user interfaces.
Route planning, how heavy can it be?
Let’s take a concrete example to illustrate our interface story: route planning. Your customers faced a simple problem: finding the shortest way from point A to point B. Lucky for them, you provided this service. Throughout the years, the service would not change but the interface and its complexity certainly did.
It all started with green text on black screens
It was the very beginning of human-computer interactions: the command line interface. The scary, matrix-like, black screen with flashy green characters. CLIs were primitive and not user-friendly but they shared a beautiful minimalistic essence: you interacted with your computer by entering text!
For some, entering text is simpler than any other form of interaction. This simplistic design is the reason CLIs are still so popular, several decades after their introduction.
Everything goes graphical with the mouse
In 1973, Xerox introduces the graphical user interface (GUI) and its key component: the mouse. Apple and Microsoft follow up in the 80’s and GUIs spread like wildfire. Finally a user-friendly interface, with icons and data visualization!
Your route planning program just got better. Customers can scroll through potential starting points and destinations. Instead of a textual itinerary, the route is traced on a map and users can interact with this map.
But it’s not all perks and no downsides: these programs are much heavier than command line ones and were often printed on dozens of floppy disks.
Stop installing programs, just browse the web
This had a decisive impact on the amount of data exchanged with your customers. To plan a route, users would load your webpage, post a request with point A and B and load the response: much lighter than installing a graphical program.
Now going back to installing apps on your phone
Last but not least, mobile apps. The ultimate extension of your hand! Tap, press and swipe to interact with millions of applications. A very cool interface, but a drawback in terms of experience: users go back to installing and managing hundreds of applications. Our route planning service just got heavier and people are noticing.
Back to the future with chatbots
After CLIs, GUIs, web applications and mobile applications, a new kind of interface is gaining traction: chatbots. It’s the future of user interfaces and you definitely want to expose your route planning service via a bot. What can you expect from this interface and how heavy would it be for your customers?
Route planning with a chatbot
Disclaimer: our choice of service was not random :p Transilien recently launched a route planning bot for the Paris train system.
Using it is pretty straightforward: start a new conversation with the bot on Messenger, enter your starting point and destination and the bot replies with possible itineraries.
Your service could not get lighter! Nothing to install and update, no webpage to load, only a text exchange with your application.
Chatbots are the CLI of modern times
Chatbots are futuristic and primitive at the same time. We could say bots are like command line interfaces because you interact with a service by typing commands. The commands are much easier to remember though since they can be expressed in natural language.
Some bots make the interface more graphical with advanced replies made of cards and buttons.
You could say that bots are like web applications because there is nothing to install and the application is seamlessly updated.
So chatbots are an optimal mix of all previous user interfaces. It combines the best of each interface, remaining light and minimal.
Stop installing apps, just converse
What about mobile apps? Let’s be honest: apps are a pain for companies and users.
Every company has faced the challenge of maintaining a website and developing a corresponding mobile app. Going from web to mobile is extremely expensive: you have to simplify the interface, reduce the number of features and port it to several mobile OS and screen sizes.
Users on the other side have to install your app and experience a reduced version of your website.
Conversational UI is the next step. Chatbots are simple and minimal: perfectly suited for mobile devices. There is no maintenance cost of web and mobile versions and finally, users don’t have to install anything more than a messaging application.
There is only one thing left to say: go conversational!