From science fiction to reality, artificial intelligence (AI) has come a long way, however media and popular culture these days have painted an image in our minds that AI can do anything and everything: including chatbots. This might be the case in the future, but at the moment we’ve only just uncovered the surface of AI's potential. When building interactive chatbots, we need to be mindful of this and carefully consider the user experience we're offering.
What is AI?
AI is defined as the simulation of human intelligence processes by machines, such as learning, reasoning, and self-correction. However, for most people, when they hear those two words they’re thinking of Terminator style robots and machines going out of control and replacing us. Whilst we are still a long way away from that, we have already begun interacting with AI. It’s just not that obvious to us, as it’s been inconspicuously embedded into the software or interfaces we interact with everyday on our computer or smartphones.
How has AI been immersed in our everyday life?
A good example of AI is reflected in the creation of chatbots. Broadly speaking, a chatbot is a conversational interface powered by AI that simulates how a human would behave as a conversational partner, allowing businesses to do commerce and users to complete key tasks by talking to the chatbot (e.g. finding information, booking tickets, sending payments).
WeChat, as one of the early adopters of AI, utilised this technology and created a service oriented chat platform where businesses could set up chatbot accounts to connect with customers. It has become one of the favoured ways for businesses to reduce the amount of customer services work they do online. In fact, a lot of businesses in China create an official WeChat account before they even launch their website.
Other companies have also jumped on the bandwagon and introduced chatbots into their business. For example, Facebook now has business bots on its Messenger platform and Swedbank (a Swedish bank) has an AI powered chatbot called Nina on their website to assist with customer enquiries. Even fast food chain Taco Bell has created a chatbot on the Slack platform to take customers’ orders and accept payments for food.
How do UX and AI work together?
UX needs to be engaged at the beginning stages of AI immersion to direct where and when AI technology can be used. By understanding the user and the customer journey, UX could highlight best use cases where AI technology would be especially useful in solving user problems or assisting with user task completion. The application of AI technology needs to be well thought out in order to be useful, otherwise it would just be another 'gimmick' users have at their disposal. Chatbots for example need to have a well thought out user experience, you can’t just stick a chatbot anywhere, it needs to be well defined in the user journey and help with a specific user need otherwise it won’t be utilised properly and end up being a waste of money.
On the flip side, with these increasingly creative applications of AI technology we must also consider the user experience (UX) when designing AI powered systems or interfaces. This is because no matter how advanced the AI system becomes, and no matter how well we incorporate it into our current products or services, it will always be interacting with humans to a certain degree.
At the moment, the UX of AI powered chatbots has been an afterthought at most.
The experience for the user hasn’t been the greatest. In fact, it's often problematic, especially when the bot can't answer a user’s question, gets confused, is too slow to respond or too ‘robotic’ in its response.
Take HealthTap, a Facebook based chatbot, for example. It was designed to allow users to ask health related questions. The idea was to leverage the private space of Facebook Messenger and provide another avenue for people to seek help, since they don't like to visit the doctors in person. However, instead of creating a natural sounding conversation to encourage people to open up and seek medical help, HealthTap ended up sounding robotic and disengaging to users. This was because it used canned prompts such as 'see options' or 'see answer', which sounds clinical and unnatural. By considering UX this issue can be avoided. For example, user research could reveal how people actually talk to their doctors. HealthTap could then leverage this to design a more ‘natural’ response option to keep users engaged in talking with the bot.
How to apply UX in chatbot design?
It has become apparent that the user experience of the bot can be improved by ensuring that it has a ‘personality’ reflective of the brand and business, whilst still being designed with the end user in mind. To achieve this, experience designers should ensure that the chatbot's visual elements, vocabulary, tone and overall 'personality' resonates with the business's target customers. To achieve this conduct thorough user research and document the findings as personas and user journeys. This will help you get a better understanding of your user’s behaviours, needs and motivators and therefore design a bot personality that better matches these aspects of your end users. Otherwise, without good user research, the experience of a chatbot can fall flat on its face, as a non-existent or mismatched chatbot personality will confuse or frustrate end users. Ultimately, this can dilute and diminish user engagement and lead to a poor or weak brand as the bot is unable to deliver a valuable experience catering for key end users.
Another issue with AI powered chatbots is that like with any new technology, there is still a lot of user uncertainty especially in terms of completing transactions or making purchases via the chatbot. To overcome this, it is important to ensure design standards are implemented with consistency which is key to building an environment where users feel safe to explore. For example, rather than using the same button for distinct kinds of interactions, e.g. redirecting to another site vs. continuing the conversation in the chatbot, use distinct button styles for each action and make it clear to users what each button will do. This will ensure consistent behaviour of buttons for each interaction, without which, users can be wary of using the chatbot and simply tap out.
Some of our top UX tips to keep in mind when designing AI powered chatbots:
- Onboard your users during their first interaction. Users aren’t familiar with chatbots, so one way to get them started is to ensure that they’re given a proper on-boarding introduction. This can also be achieved by providing useful tips and examples on how to use the chatbot when users first use a chatbot.
- Include variety in the interactions to make users feel like they’re not talking to a bot. Avoid using the same phrases when users repeat or ask the same thing and avoid sending canned robotic short phrases such as 'See More'. Even something as simple as a slight wording change can make a difference and allow users to feel as though they’re engaging in a natural conversation flow. This would prompt them to continue engaging and talking with the bot.
- Manage users’ expectations and let them know that it is still a chatbot at the end of the day and not a human. Highlight the bots’ limitations so that users are aware of them, reducing the frustration experienced when their expectations are not met.
- Always have a backup. Should the bot fail, allow for a human agent to step in. This will ensure the user will not leave feeling frustrated and have their enquiry unresolved. This is especially important for customer support, complex transactions or non-standard enquiries.
One final word…
As the popularity of chatbots continues to increase, it will be crucial to keep user experience design in mind when implementing these interfaces.
Each interaction that the customer has with the chatbot provides an additional opportunity for the customer to judge and form an opinion of the brand and business.
By considering the UX of chatbots it will help shape an optimal user experience and leave a lasting impression on them to help businesses stand out from the rest of the pack.
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