Users’ guide to Chatbotics!

Well, its been an year since Mark Zukerberg famously announced the coming of chatbots on Facebook! One year hence, chatbots are still not commonplace. In the year 2009, the phrase ‘there is an app for that’ caught on and next year, ‘App’ was voted the word of the year. How long do we have to wait until the same happens for ‘chatbot’?

There are dozens of articles writing Chatbots off already. I think, we are probably over-reacting. We need to give the tech some more time to mature. With more consumers interacting with chatbots, designers and developers are working hard to improve the technology. This will eventually result in chatbots that consumers will find easy and interesting to use.

Parallely though, there is a huge need to educate consumers about what chatbots actually are. Why? Because most criticisms are due to the mismatch between consumer expectation on chatbots and what was eventually delivered to them.

At the fundamental level, Chatbots are computer programs that have a conversational style of interaction. But they do have many other features that are not common to all chatbots. Some do learn to become better overtime. Some do understand natural language. But not everyone of them do. Such discrepancies in description cause mismatched expectations which then goes on to cause frustration in consumers who start to use chatbots.

There are at least four questions that consumers should learn to ask about chatbots. They should also have a fair idea of what to expect in response to those questions. And this precisely is the purpose of this article.

1. Where do I find your chatbot?

When a brand introduces its new chatbot to you, you need to know where to find it. What does that even mean? Imagine I told you, I have built an app. What would you say? You’d ask me in return if it is available on Android or AppStore. Wouldn’t you? You have a very good idea of where to find apps. Don’t you? But where do you find chatbots?

Most chatbots reside on a messaging platform. Unline apps, chatbots need not be downloaded. There may be exceptions where a chatbot is embedded within an app, which means you need to download the app in order to talk to the chatbot. Another exception would be that it is embedded in a website, so you could access it on the website using a web browser.

Where is the chatbot?

Messaging platforms are platforms such as Facebook Messenger, Whatsapp, Skype, etc that allow us to chat with our friends and family. Many messaging platforms now host chatbots. So if your chatbot is available on one of them, say Facebook Messenger, you could open the FB Messenger app on your mobile phone and search for it. And when you find the chatbot you are looking for, click on it and say ‘hi’. This is how you get started.

Messaging apps on smartphones (many host chatbots)

FB Messenger is one of the popular platforms for chatbots. Other platforms where you can find them are Skype, Telegram, Kik, WeChat, Slack, etc. Most of these platforms can be accessed using their apps or websites. For instance, FB Messenger is accessible via mobile apps (Android, iOS, etc) as well as its own dedicated website. So, once you have the app on your phone or visit the website, you can access all the chatbots that are available on the platform.

Voice chatbots are also becoming popular. These are available on platforms like Amazon Echo and Google Home. On these platforms, chatbots become skills. :) For instance, Uber’s chatbot (or skill) on Amazon Echo can be accessed by saying, “Alexa ask Uber for a ride”. What happens here is your first invoke Alexa, the assistant residing within Echo and then activate the skill by saying ‘ask Uber’ and finally the natural language command for the skill (‘for a ride’). But to use a skill, you need to enable the required skill on Alexa. You can do this on the Alexa app or by visiting the Alexa skills store.

2. How do I interact with the chatbot?

Once you know where to find them, you need to know how to interact with them. Some chatbots are designed to understand natural language, and others use plain old buttons. Some chatbots use both. In some chatbots, you can type in natural language text and get nothing but ‘Sorry I did not understand’ in return for even the simplest of phrases like ‘hi’, ‘yes’, ‘thanks’, etc. This is because they are simply not designed to deal with natural language. Knowing how to interact with a chatbot can reduce frustration.

Use buttons when they are available. Buttons are used to prime the user with available choices and facilitate seamless navigation through the conversation. The conversational capability of such chatbots may be limited. In most cases, your response must be made using buttons only. For some responses, like when asked for your name or address, you could type in text.

Many platforms still do not allow for button based responses. In such platforms, you will be expected to interact with the chatbot using text messages. Some of them offer a way to do it in a controlled fashion (e.g. numbered options) whereas others allow for free text input.

YourMD chatbot interacts using numbered options

While typing in free text, keep your text message simple and easy to understand. Use fewer words. Simple sentences. Common place words.

Hi Poncho bot responding to text input

Another interesting side question to ask is if the chabot will understand GIF, emojis and images. We do use emojis, emoticons, images, memes, GIFs and so on to express our emotions in a funny way when we chat with our friends and family. Can we still use them with a chatbot? Will the chatbot understand those messages? Even when the chatbot uses GIFs and other media types itself to express its emotions, it may not be able to understand them when they go the other way around. Beware!!

HiPoncho trying to figure out a GIF I sent!

3. What can the chatbot do?

Once you know where to find them, you need to know what they can do and cannot do. Chatbot is a computer program designed and developed for a specific purpose. As long as you understand the purpose of the chatbot and keep your conversation within that boundary, you could get a great experience!! Knowing what a chatbot is designed to do is important as it allows you to progress beyond the welcome message.

For instance, both Dominos and PizzaHut, have chatbots on FB Messenger to take food orders from customers. As long as you let the bots take the lead and order food, all is good. Although this is not what you would want, this is the current state of chatbots. Chatbots that can deal with clarifications, side chatter, smart conversation, etc are yet to come.

Unlike apps, chatbots do not have the visual elements to make their capabilities explicit. A well designed chatbot would introduce its capabilities in its welcome message so as to set the right expectations. And probably get you started with some buttons in the welcome message.

If the chatbot does not welcome you with a message, you could try starting the conversation with a ‘hi’ or ‘hello’ message. Most chatbots are designed to handle these greeting phrases and in return, they will introduce themselves and their purpose.

Dominos Pizza Bot responding to ‘hi’

Type ‘help’ if you need help. Most bots respond to request for help when you are stuck.

Dinner Ideas chatbot responding to ‘help’

4. Does it have a persona?

Finally, does the chatbot have a persona? By persona, I mean, having a name, a visual identity, personality traits and possibly a back story as well. Such chatbots could be entertaining to talk to as you could ask stuff like its name, age, gender, its favourite food, movie, etc. It would be able to answer some these questions with an interesting answer or two. Other chatbots that mean serious business, will stick to what their primary tasks are and will not really respond well when you ask them for a joke or a limerick.

Hi Poncho is a weather cat with a personality!

Well, thats it guys! Four questions that you need answers to get started with any chatbot. Why don’t you have a go at the following chatbots and figure out answers to the above questions. :)


Please do share comments on your experience with chatbots below. :)

Srini is an expert in chatbotics! Started building chatbots in the year 2000. PhD in Artificial Intelligence and Natural Language Processing from University of Edinburgh. 5 years of post-doctoral experience. Over 50 scientific publications. Director of Dhiyantra, a chatbots design and development agency based in Edinburgh, Scotland. A keen industry observer and blogger.

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