When a huge room at a busy conference is packed full way before the session starts, the subject matter, or at least the title of the panel, is obviously resonating with a bunch of people. This was the case with ‘Get the Message! The Rise of Conversational UI’. Designers, developers, strategists and entrepreneurs piled in to hear about the next wave of interface that’s redefining the relationships they have with their customers.
This discussion of ‘Conversational UI’ featured some of the rockstars of this emerging field. Jeff Xiong (former CTO of Tencent, the makers of WhatsApp), Julia Hu (CEO of Lark, you should try it) and Chris Messina: a former Googler who recently became Design Experience Lead at Uber. And who invented the hashtag.
Conversational UI comes in many different forms but in general, it stems from developments in artificial intelligence, chat environments, chat bots (like those often integrated into Slack) and voice (where increasingly computers talk to you and vice versa).
These experiences typically offer a convenient, consistent and familiar way to interact with brands and services. They’re easy to share and install, because generally there’s no additional app. Often you just add a contact in your text or messenger app. And there’s no new interface to learn – you simply interact with a business, brand or organisation as you would a friend.
Lark is an interesting (and very well funded) startup in this space. It aims to clone the methods of the top doctors and behavioural scientists. The platform creates moments of conversation in healthcare that recognise what you’re going through and recognise your efforts, in this instance, in eating better and losing weight.
Jeff Xiong recounted the astonishing success of WeChat in China and, potentially, impending charge at Western markets. If you’ve never used or read about WeChat, it’s worth looking it up. More than an app, it’s more like a chat based operating system. You can transfer money, buy products and services, make bookings and heaps and heaps more. Xiong said that in China, if you didn’t have WeChat , you’re probably not Chinese. In China there are more than 10 million businesses on WeChat. Broadcast news and people interact with the business. People love talking to their banks, utility providers, schools… the kinds of companies that you have some form of relationship anyway. And for many the quality of these interaction are vastly better.
And now these services are emerging everywhere. From Uber ordering being deftly integrated into Facebook Messenger to the New York Times bot developed for Slack, or the bot made for students applying to Stanford (many people are more comfortable dealing with a bot than a human). You can have the kind of two-way relationship with an entity that suits you.
The final point made by the panel was that the kinds of people who are developing these experiences are not necessarily interface or app designers. More often than not they’re experience strategists and service designers – and occasionally, an improv comedian to help with creating natural, heartfelt responses.
So next time you wonder in a research or strategy session, “If this brand was a person, who would it be?”. The answer could well be “itself”.