Forget ‘user-friendly’ bots and focus on advanced usefulness

Just a few months into 2017 and we’ve already reached an inflection point for consumer automation software. From Alexa stealing the show at CES to an explosion in bot development from major companies, the impact of bots can be widely felt.


The path for the bot revolution has been laid by four converging trends. It started with app fatigue, as consumers recognized that while there may be an “app for everything,” there are really only three or four we use on a daily basis. Then one form of application that picked up enormous traction is messaging, so every utility imaginable has been adding messaging components just to get a share of people’s attention.


That increased interest in development around messaging has resulted in new technology frameworks from Microsoft, Facebook, Slack, and IBM — all focused on making smart software agent development nearly as simple as building a WordPress site. Lastly, we’ve become more comfortable talking with bots. While Spike Jonze’s Her bot may be a ways off, Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have all been carrying on useful conversations with consumers, often to their great delight.

The market for artificial intelligence — of which bots are a major subset  —  is expected to become a multibillion-dollar industry over the next decade. VentureBeat published an own overview of the market and discovered over 170+ companies, $4 billion in funding, and thousands of bots currently available.

Giants like Facebook and Slack are opening their platforms up to bots; startups are flooding the market with new skills and bots; and even the old guard, like Microsoft and IBM, are looking to get in on the action. As with all technology, the mass emergence of bots will take time. But the advances in voice technology have been greater in the last 18 months than in the last 30. And in the tech world, that’s a serious trend.

But if there is so much potential, why isn’t it being unleashed?

Developing the bot itself is just the beginning of an intelligent system. And building those are hard.

You need:

  1. Centralized, interfaceable data — Not just from one supplier, but from a range of data holders all working together. Now think how hard companies have been working to centralize profile data in one place, combine sales and marketing data, and then combine that with information about their customers outside their own domain.
  2. The smarts to predict behavior — Now that is real magic.  We are getting closer to predictive ambient systems that help us do things before we know we want to, like Netflix promoting shows it thinks I like and LinkedIn showing me people I may want to schmooze with. And we are getting to banks that advise me on how to spend my earnings and grocery stores that recommend product.
  3. A well-designed user experience — This is the hardest yet. Designing calm systems that are helpful, utilitarian, and yet engaging is the dream of UX.

Over the last few years, we in the bot community have all been focused on designing user-friendly software, but if we continue to design these bots to just be “friendly” we are missing a million opportunities. From personal trainers to bankers to doctors to insurance brokers, bots can help, but we need these agents to deliver more than friendliness. We need motivation, empathy, discretion, and relevance, at least.

Designing systems to interact with us at the right time in a calm fashion is going to get really hard really quick. Ultimately, we are designing bots to act like humans or to seem like they are humans. This is probably the toughest frontier for us as designers — machines need to be more than fast and accurate. They need to be useful in a way that’s even hard to quantify.

If we ever get there, how do we redesign our businesses to accommodate these new bots? Do we protect them like we do our employees when customers are rude to them? Do we make laws to govern them if the information they provide is wrong? And what do we do with bots when they are not useful anymore?

We need to design for a complex, messy world with competing demands, a world where user experience design means making something completely new.  And, as designers, we need to get really smart about understanding ourselves and our needs as we embark in this new world.

Toby Barnes is the Group Strategy Director at AKQA, an ideas and innovation company.


Leave a Reply