To understand these shifts, it’s critical to understand a little history of the tech industry. In the mid-’80s, the way we used computers was through desktop OS and clients. Along with the birth of the personal computer emerged a new way to use those computers. The keyboard, monitor, mouse were all designed around the desktop metaphor. Developers created client-side desktop software such as MS Word, Lotus etc. The desktop was the paradigm until the mid-90’s when the web emerged. Network speeds improved, infrastructure was put in place and the Internet arrived to people’s homes. The way we used computers was through browsers and websites. Websites such as Netscape, Yahoo, Amazon and Google emerged as the key players in the ecosystem during the web era. But with the advent of smartphones in the mid 00’s, the paradigm changed again – this time to mobile OS and apps. While we gained mobility, we took a step back with client-side software development approach to compensate for network speeds. Apps like Instagram, Snapchat and Angry Birds dominated the smartphone era.
Predictably on schedule, the paradigm has shifted again in the mid 10s. Messaging is emerging as the new platform. This is leading to the rise of bots. Chatbots are merely software programs that users can interact with via a chat interface. In that respect, chatbots are just the latest re-incarnation of desktop clients, websites and mobile apps. Developers are building messaging bots to support specific use cases. Messaging bots have the same advantages of server-side development as websites. The cost of development and upgrade is lower than apps. The end-user experience is also better suited to the small screen, since users don’t have to switch across different apps. According to a survey by Business Intelligence, the number of monthly active users on the Big 4 messaging apps (WeChat, Viber, Facebook Messenger and Whatsapp) overtook the number of users on the big 4 social networking apps (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram) in early 2015 and has only increased since. This is why chatbots are great for consumers. They can stay within the messaging app that they already love, accomplishing all tasks through messaging.
Chatbots live on messaging platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Slack, and Skype etc. Users interact with chatbots as they would with any friend. You can text a chatbot and it would give you a response that is both personal and has context – similar to how a friend would. Let’s take the example of a pizza-ordering chatbot. A user can chat with the bot to find out what options he/she has and then place an order. Going forward, the user can just say “give me the usual” and the bot knows exactly what pizza to order.
The hype around chatbots started earlier this year when messaging platforms announced that they were opening up their platforms for businesses to build bots in. The hype reached its peak in April during Facebook’s Developer Conference – F8 where they announced the launch of chatbots on FB Messenger. Ever since then, developers, media outlets, brands and industry folk have been talking about the rise of chatbots. Some of the tech companies that are working with providing the technology for chatbots include Facebook, Microsoft, Google and Oracle. Brands have also jumped on the chatbot bandwagon with Barclays, Sage, Uber, Conde Nast and HDFC releasing chatbots to engage with their customers. Celebrities have their own chatbots as well. Redfoo and Selena Gomez have launched their bots to engage with their fans. If you think chatbots are just a novelty, think again. They have been used very effectively for social causes too. Joshua Browder created a chatbot that managed to overturn 160,000 parking tickets in New York and London. He is now working on a chatbot that is tackling homelessness in the UK.
One of the great things about this paradigm is that it is quite straightforward to build a chatbot. Software developers will find many tools and platforms that make it easy to build bots. However, there are also tools that don’t require any knowledge of coding. In fact you can build a simple conversational chatbot using graphical tools or a pre-existing template. Before building a chatbot, there are few things to consider. You will have to decide what functionality you are going to build in and what the requirements are. You will then have to script out your bot interactions. In the bot world, conversations are the new UX. You can choose to create a structured or an unstructured chatbot. A structured bot has buttons and menus within the chat application whereas an unstructured bot is wholly conversation based. You also need to choose what level of Natural Language Processing (NLP) you want your bot to have. Once the script is ready you can develop your chatbot. There are many tools and platforms that enable you to easily build bots – They range from online developer environments to single-click templates. Once the bot is developed, the bot has to be tested on various messaging apps. Testing is tricky for a bot developer given the diversity of messaging apps, and the differences in message rendering. Once the bot has been tested, it is ready to be published.
Chatbots are poised to take off in India as well, as messaging is already used by millions of smartphone users here. Expect the number of chatbots and chatbot users in India to grow exponentially once Whatsapp opens their platform. They have announced that they will be doing so very soon.
There is a plethora of information about chatbots online as it is truly the next big thing in the consumer tech world. With all the tools available at your disposal, businesses should be looking at chatbots to fuel their innovation and growth. Happy bot building!
The writer is Founder & CEO, Gupshup Technologies