Adventures in Botsitting

Seven Steps for Setting Up a Bot (for Non-Coders)

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After trying to make my own existence obsolete by creating a bot, I've discovered that I must continue on in my corporeal being, as bots still have a few kinks. But this attempt at bot creation offered a good taste of what bots can do, what they can't, and what marketers will need to overcome in the short term.

Kik Bot Shop
Kik Bot Shop Credit: Courtesy Kik Interactive

The bot, which connects to my corporate Facebook Messenger page, took several tries to get right, and it will always be a work in progress. While I had been curious to create a bot for a while, I wasn't motivated to launch one until I read a Medium article by Esther Crawford, "How I Turned My Resume into a Bot. (And How You Can Too!)" I skipped ahead to the "you can too" part, which has four steps. One of those four steps actually has five steps, and most of those five steps are so foreign to a non-coder that they read like Ikea instructions written entirely in Swedish.

In the process, I registered for four services: GitHub, Twilio, Smooch and Heroku. If you know what most of them do, you're far ahead of where I was when I started. To spare details from weeks of attempts at working like this, the bot worked for a little while, then it stopped, and then tech support stopped responding.

I needed a solution for a non-coder. Fortunately, there are several options for this, including Chatfuel, Motion AI and Sequel. I created accounts on all of those, among others, but stuck with Chatfuel, largely because it was the first I used and has a short learning curve. Plus, Crawford had initially recommended it to me.

In some ways, Chatfuel is limiting, as it is solely for Facebook Messenger, as opposed to working with other channels such as SMS or Slack. The two most important elements of Chatfuel are the Structure, which are the blocks of content that are delivered (including text, images and forms), and then the AI Setup, which has you define the rules for which queries call up which content blocks. It's like playing Jeopardy. In the structure, you write the answer ("I am doing well, thanks!"), and in the AI Setup, you write which questions trigger it (having that answer appear when someone writes "How are you?", "How's it going?" or "What's up?").

If you dive into bots, here are a few pieces of advice from someone who has made and remade one, while trying dozens of others.

1. Set expectations. Decide what your bot is supposed to do and stick with it. My bot doesn't tell you the weather, jokes or local recommendations, although there are a few Easter eggs (and batches of responses to too many swear words). Your bot doesn't need to respond to every command imaginable.

2. Iterate quickly. Constantly monitor all the queries people enter and use that to improve the experience. The most exciting aspect of bot creation is that changes go live immediately. It's often hard to predict what people will say, so embrace that, and use each person's exchange with your bot as a learning opportunity. That's also a good reason not to publicize your bot too widely until you've had a small group of people test it.

3. Avoid dead ends. Bots should be circular rather than linear -- with a few exit ramps from the roundabouts marked by calls to action. For my own bot, a successful end to any session is when someone contacts me, schedules a meeting (the command "calendar" "or "meeting" triggers a link to my Calendly page), or completes a goal they had, such as requesting my bio or headshot. If you have a personal bot and someone asks for your name or location, don't just provide the info and wait for the visitor to come up with something to say. Ask them questions, or suggest other commands they can enter.

4. Break your bot. For my bot, the queries "logo" and "logos" yielded different results until I corrected that. When testing your bot, try to break it. Invite others to do the same. In time, bot software will detect issues like this and automatically clean them up. In the meantime, accept that not everyone will write exactly like you do.

5. Expect to be disappointed. Do you want to provide your contact information to those who request it? Facebook allows direct links to external sites via Messenger, but you can't have clickable email addresses, so people will have to copy and paste those -- a minor hurdle, but a nuisance. My bot malfunctioned due to an error of mine, but I only caught it when doing a live demo. Do-it-yourself bots typically don't have any kind of memory, so it's very difficult to deliver personalized experiences unless you invest more in development resources. You get what you pay for.

6. Have fun. Even if your brand doesn't have a lot of personality, your bot should. Some bots are so restricted with their flow of what the brand will say that they don't respond to even the most basic greetings. You may be building a bot, but you're communicating with real people.

7. Constantly try other bots. I love the Streak Trivia multiplayer game on Messenger. The world of bots also extends far beyond Facebook. Younger-skewing messaging app Kik has a Bot Shop with more than 100 bots. Using Kik, Sephora has one of the better shopping bots, delivering personalized recommendations. Foursquare launched Marsbot to deliver proactive local suggestions via SMS. Chat with as many as you can, as every response you receive can offer inspiration to make your own bots better.

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