Chatbots are the future--you've heard it countless times.

And while it's almost a cliche at this point, there's good reason to believe they are. Despite the many death knells and humorous examples of people posing as bots, chatbots are still viable for a number of applications and have enormous potential to provide value to businesses and consumers.

That said, failure abounds. While some chatbots are successful--Slackbot being one of the best examples--many chatbots provide a poor user experience and alienate customers.

So what's the difference? What separates the good from the bad?

In many ways, it's all about how much you can make a robot feel human.

I, chatbot

Anyone who's used a chatbot before is familiar with their most popular refrain: "I'm sorry, I didn't understand your request."

And while it may seem innocuous enough, this is the downfall of most bots out there. For Tari Weiss, creator of reminderbot Raiya, this kind of failure is critical.

"If you have this natural, conversational experience, and all of a sudden the bot comes back with a really robotic response, that's a very disheartening thing. The user feels kind of cheated," she explains. And she's right: how frustrating is it to ask a simple question and have the program rebuff you because you used a synonym it didn't understand?

Weiss says that a successful chatbot must be both functional and use natural language. Although, she cautions against calling it human-like.

"You know what, the bottom line is, bots aren't human," says Weiss. "And if you act like they are, you're setting yourself up for failure."

Instead of trying to make bots act like humans, the key is creating a bot that feels natural to interact with and has a fluidity with its language.

And--perhaps even more importantly--writing a program with personality.

Personality problems

Under the hood, chatbots are similar to traditional programs. The difference is that instead of buttons and screen flows, a chatbot performs its functions through a conversational interface.

This makes the personality of the bot--its tone, its word choice, how it phrases a given response--hugely important.

Most chatbots perform a similar set of functions, so what really makes them stand out is their personality. This is one of the things that made Slackbot so successful: Between cheery compliments and the ready admission of its own stupidity, Slackbot was endearing at a time when few chatbots were.

In building a chatbot, seek to create something that feels unique and distinctive to the user.

Contextual conversations

Beyond general personality, chatbots also need to understand the context of the "conversation" they're having. For Mattan Danino, founder and CEO of WEBITMD, chatbots can help engage website visitors at different points in the sales funnel.

"If a user is on our blog, we may prompt via a chatbot question for more exploratory dialogue," he explains. However, "If a user is deep into our site within our offerings and downloading assets, the tone is more direct and seeks to bring visitors down the sales funnel."

For Danino, the bots are a way to provide a human-like interaction, answer user questions, and also improve the efficiency of the sales process. After all, any question a bot answers is a question an employee doesn't have to. "The time savings is priceless for me," he adds.

Personality over features

The chatbots that succeed--that provide value to customers, save time for the business, and further your brand--do so because they feel distinctive and, at least a little bit, human.

So what does that mean for chatbot developers?

It means that before you write a line of code, you need to think about persona. Build a character that goes deeper than just a name or a company story.

Your chatbot needs to stand out if you want it to succeed; it needs to feel real. To do that, you need to focus on creating a distinctive, recognizable personality for your bot before you sit down to really create it.

Beyond personality, it's important to understand the purpose of a chatbot, and in particular the purpose of the bot in a given situation.

A chatbot may be intended to answer customer questions, but it also needs to anticipate the different questions that different customers may ask. Someone on the homepage likely has a different set of needs than someone comparing pricing options.

To succeed with a chatbot, the key is to build with a strong personality and a strong purpose. If you can imbue your bot with both of those things, from the very start of development, you can leverage chatbots to build your brand, satisfy your customers, and grow your company.

Published on: Oct 11, 2017