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Designing Successful Chatbots  

Published by Emilea Avery 

Chatbots! Chatbots everywhere!

Consumers have seen a surge in chatbots over the last few years. Prominently found in eCommerce, chatbots have been appearing where you might not expect – everywhere from healthcare to finance, from insurance to social media. Some have even purportedly developed their own language, as reported by recent news. (Cue chatbots taking over the world?) Regardless of where they started or how they’ve evolved, one aspect remains the same of all chatbots - they were intended to be helpful.

The reality is, though, not all chatbots are created equal. Intelligent or not, many fall short of meeting their users’ needs and are more a nuisance than effective, leading to high rates of abandonment and sometimes outright avoidance of a tool that is intended to be intuitive, time-saving, and easy to use. Some businesses might spend time and money investing in a trendy new chatbot only to find their call centers are just as busy as before.

As we know in UX, interaction can make or break a product. There is a world of opportunity for UX designers to improve chatbot interactions and make a positive impact on both businesses and consumers alike. So, how can we prevent more subpar chatbots being released into the wild?

What is a chatbot, anyway?

Simply, chatbots are programmed artificial intelligence scripts that users can converse with using a chat-like interface. While the first chatbots were nothing more than language processors with limited to no intelligence, today’s chatbots possess varying levels of artificial intelligence and natural language processing, making them capable of understanding questions, misspelled words, and even doing some basic decision making along specific paths. Sometimes, chatbot dialogues can be mistaken for a conversation with a human. Chatbots are usually employed as customer service aids, allowing customers quick and convenient access to answers and resolution to issues while reserving employee time and brain power for complex issues. 

Clearly, chatbots are a double-edged sword. When designed well, chatbots can be a powerful tool for customers and businesses alike, by allowing them to save time, money, and resources. When designed poorly, they can do more harm than good. The question is: what do we need to consider when designing a successful chatbot?

Designing Chatbot Interactions

The first step of designing any interaction is to know thy user. From recent research, we learned what users expect from chatbots, and derived some solutions.

Comprehension is the most significant pain point when using chatbots

Chatbots need to understand the users, regardless of how text is entered. If they don’t, users will get frustrated and either abandon the interaction, or use another means to find the information they need.

SOLUTION:

Utilize natural language processing to understand keywords, phrasing, and misspellings.

Efficiency is key

Fast interactions and direct responses are necessary to make the most of users’ valuable time. People are busy and are looking for a quick answer, not a long dialogue about their day with a pseudo-friendly human impostor.

SOLUTION:

The responses coming from a chatbot should be straight, “to-the-point” direct answers that are relevant to the query. There should not be any additional “fluff” such as “thanks”. It should not try to mimic a human conversation. Users are in a hurry and every response should be focused on helping users achieve their task. When appropriate, help users save time by providing choices to select in the form of buttons or links, without having to type a response.

Accuracy influences trust

Users want to know they are getting the right answer the first time. If they’re presented with too much or inaccurate information, too many steps to find the right answer, something that doesn’t quite match what they’re looking for, or feel like they were misled, users will walk away with a poor perception of the chatbot, and perhaps the company.

SOLUTION: 

Let the user know they’re not interacting with a human. The chatbot should be named appropriately, providing a clear indication that the user is not interacting with a human being. Don’t overwhelm the user with too much information.

Control is necessary

Users want to initiate and control the interaction with the chatbot. Pop-up chat boxes, sound, sudden page redirect, and insistent are all deterrents.

SOLUTION:

Allow the user to initiate the interaction with the chatbot. The affordance should be obvious. But, the chatbot should not automatically be presented to the user. The chatbot should be easily noticed on the help, contact us, and any other relevant pages. The chatbot affordance might be in the form of an icon/text. Provide users an option to redirect the page when appropriate.

Chatbots are not the be all end all customer service tool

While users preferred chatbots for quick answers and simple tasks (such as “what’s my flight number?”), they preferred talking to a human being to resolve complex, context based, or emotionally charged issues (more along the lines of “I need to fly my cello across country, and I’m not sure how. It’s my livelihood and if something happens to my instrument, my career is doomed! Help me!”).

SOLUTION:

Provide options for the user to contact a human.

AskJenn

One example of a well-designed chatbot is AskJenn, the automated assistant for Alaska Air (https://www.alaskaair.com/content/about-us/contact-us/ask-jenn.aspx). AskJenn uses simple interactions that reduce the user’s cognitive load while improving the overall experience by delivering relevant information quickly and effectively.

In response to a simple query, Ask Jenn not only redirects the user to the relevant page but also provides a brief and specific answer to user’s question and instructions on what to do on the page. AskJenn also provides links for further reference in the chat dialog, if the user wants to explore the background to their answer on their own.

Chatbots are one of many interactive tools being incorporated into business models, and while they are becoming more popular, the complexities behind them are still being refined. While chatbots may rule the world someday, in the meantime, we can instill in them a sense of usefulness, helpfulness, and conciseness that can improve our interactions with them. Maybe in the future, we’ll be more likely to accept overly helpful chatbot overlords if they were designed well.   

 

EmileaEmilea Avery

Prior to joining the UXC, Emilea held customer service positions in health insurance, mobile technology, and higher education. Most recently, Emilea worked as an administrative assistant at the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, where she supported the Center for Academic Enrichment’s operations, English as a Second Language community programs, and collaborative departmental initiatives.

Emilea holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Arts and a minor in Computer Information Systems from the University of New Hampshire at Manchester. She is currently president of the User Experience Graduate Association at Bentley University and is pursuing a Master of Science in Human Factors in Information Design at Bentley University.

If you enjoyed this blog post check out Making Accessibility Accessible - Tips and Tools for UX Practitioners also written by Emilea.

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