SXSW: 4 Best Practices to Make Bots the Next Big User Interface

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The Bot Shop on the Kik messaging app.
The Bot Shop on the Kik messaging app. Credit: Kik

People spend more and more time on their smartphones, but with such a limited set of apps that it's becoming harder and harder for newcomers to reach them.

Chatbots are the solution, two proponents told a crowded ballroom at SXSW on Saturday, day two of the conference. That's because they play out on one of the entrenched sets of apps that people already chronically use, they argued: messaging apps.

"We believe that conversations will become the new user interface," said Laura Newton, a product manager at the youth-oriented messaging app Kik.

But we're a long way from the world of "Her," Spike Jonze's 2013 classic about the love between a man and an operating system. Consumers don't know what to expect from bots, but are easily disappointed. Brands build bots that try too hard, that don't deliver on their promises and that don't belong in the conversations people are already having.

"You are interacting with the user in a space that has been reserved for a conversation between them and their closest friends and family," said Omar Siddiqui, CEO of Kiwi Inc., which created the bot platform Sequel. "You have to be relevant in that context."

Ms. Newton and Mr. Siddiqui proposed four best practices for brands building bots:


Bots need to have a conversational reason to be, Mr. Siddiqui argued.

A successful example on Sequel's platform is "Romance Now," which lets consumers play through and experience romantic stories almost like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, Mr. Siddiqui said.

Great graphics are one thing, on the other hand, but do they have anything to do with why a consumer is talking right now? And is it the appropriate response? Usually not.


"This kind of came out of a brand practice that we saw in the first few months of bot development," Ms. Newton said. Marketers wanted to do too much, believing that they had to offer robust features in order to attract users. But bots on existing messaging apps have much lower hurdles for consumer adoption than new apps that have to be installed. "You can do one thing and do one thing well and still get users," Mr. Newton said.

A sassy Kik bot that plays Tic Tac Toe with users has over a million users, she said by way of example." You would never in your wildest dreams download a tic tac toe app," she said.

Simplicity also doesn't mean you can't be creative, Mr. Siddiqui said, citing a bot called Icon8 that returns users' images in new artistic treatments every day. It's doing one job -- making consumers look creative -- very well, he said.


"A teen is not going to find a stat bot interesting," Mr. Siddiqui said. And a bot on Kik should operate differently than a bot on Facebook Instant Messenger even if both are designed for teens, he said.

CNN's Kik presence includes a bot that quizzes users on news events and offers smaller bites of info in conversational style, as opposed to asking the predominantly young audience on that app to just read long news articles, Ms. Newton said.


Bots can and often should operate well in group chats. Ms. Newtwon and Mr. Siddiqui cited bots that can randomly pick which friend will pay for lunch and that assign group members parts to play in a murder mystery. That last one has been one of the most successful entertainment bots on Kik over the last six months, Mr. Siddiqui said.

The next frontiers in bots are audio interfaces and multimedia conversations, the speakers said. Amazon Alexa and Google Home are leading the way on voice bots. "There's all these limitations but there is a new medium there," Mr. Siddiqui said. Video will also emerge and then, over time, VR, he added.

But that's later. Right now marketers still need to have realistic expectations about what they can achieve with their bots today, Mr. Siddiqui said, offering a bit of a final best practice.

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