By Alex Kaplinsky
Not unlike websites or apps, there is risk for brands in getting chatbots wrong. No one wants to build the next Tay — Microsoft’s teen-friendly chatbot, which Twitter users turned into a crazy racist in record time — nor does anyone want to be responsible for creating Clippy 2.0 and annoying users everywhere. Either building the wrong functionality, wildly misjudging your audience, creating the wrong user-experience, or just having slow crappy performance and functionality (engineering/integration) could make a chatbot project go horribly wrong.
Once you see chatbots as not just a small digital tool companies are adding to their arsenal but as a new communication platform, it’s clear that companies will need more than just an internal developer working on their bots. In much the same way that a website needs more than just one guy on your team who can write HTML, building chatbots are going to require a team and a strategy — and yes, that team will include engineers and designers, too, as well as writers, project managers, and brand strategists.
In fact, I see messaging-focused digital agencies building the same sorts of teams that already exist in digital agencies that work on web and mobile projects today. Here’s how I see the teams of today mapping to messaging teams in the future:
Project Managers as Product Managers
The best digital project managers, whether building a website or an app, carry the skillsets of a product manager. While not necessarily engineers by trade, they must understand business strategy, user-experience, and software engineering. More importantly, they must be able to think of these disciplines in an integrated manner where the end result solves both a business problem and a customer need. As we’ll describe below, the disciplines to make a great messaging app will be varied and thus demand the same integrated capability.
User-Experience as Interaction Design
In messaging apps, user experience will morph to include not just designing visual interfaces but also architecting a text and call-and-response-driven architecture. While much of this will live at the AI level, there will be a large need to structure how you guide and respond to a user through a series of text, commands, and options. User personas will now be matched to “chat personas.”
Calling All Poets and Screenwriters: This Is Your Moment in Tech
Know a poet or screenwriter? Someone who makes great web series, maybe? They’re about to become a hot commodity for the first time in their lives. Brands are often described as having a personality, but nowhere will personality be more important than in chatbots. The goal of a great messaging experience is one that is largely indistinguishable from interaction with a wonderfully helpful and engaging person. Writers with backgrounds in performing arts will help define and create the interaction style and overall persona of every chatbot. Some brands may even opt to have multiple different chatbots, personalized to different types of users. Some will want a funny chatbot, others a super-friendly one, and all will want bots that both align with their brand and help them stand out amid a sea of other bots.
Text AND HTML
The front-end developer has always had the role of taking the data from the back-end systems and presenting it in an appealing format to the user. The same role will need to be applied with chatbots, but here’s the big shift: instead of using only HTML as the display mechanism and form fields and clicks as the input mechanism, front-end developers will also need to be parsing text for meaning, and then inserting the data from the back end into a meaningful text output to the user.
As chat platforms begin to support more than text — some do already, and all will need to soon — it will be text, images, links, tables, and possibly even full HTML widgets that will be the input and display mechanisms. But the front end developer will still need to take the inputs, pass them on to the back end systems, get back responses and display those to the end user. It will be just as imperative that this is done in strict compliance with the brand voice as it is that on a website the look and feel of the final site matches the visual design handed off to the developer.
Back-end Development Will Still Be Necessary, and Will Still Be about Business Logic and Systems Integration
Back-end developers generally care little about the form factor that the user integrates. Generally, they get inputs, have to search a number of systems and then return results. With the development of AI, machines can possibly do more of this work themselves rather than having to be told exactly what to do, but the first bots will likely have a proscribed set of capabilities that will be codified in the business logic of the back-end systems.
As with today’s modern web- and app-based systems, the back-end developer will be working in virtualized environments where they are integrating cloud platforms that drive content, commerce, loyalty and support systems. The underlying systems and the inputs and outputs will remain fairly constant from today’s frameworks as the same systems will need to support multiple channels with integrated data and business rules.
A Little Less Click Bait
Analytics for chatbots will be less click-driven and more about behavioral responses. Web analytics have become increasingly sophisticated but largely are used to track a user through a traditional funnel. In messaging, analytics teams will continually look at the “middle of funnel” engagement patterns to see where user needs are going unmet and where users are being disappointed. A/B Testing of different personalities, phrasings, and responses will become commonplace. So much so that it will become central to iterative development.
So, while chatbots will be able to avoid some of the development costs of other digital platforms — they’re inherently platform- and device-agnostic for a start — playing in the chatbot space will still require a lot of the same people you need today for web and mobile applications, albeit with some new and different skills.
Want to know more about chatbots? Read Part 1: Why Messaging Is Happening and What It Means and Part 2: How Messaging Transforms Transactions