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Hey Siri, What's a Conversational User Interface?

May 16, 2016

“What’s the best steakhouse in Chicago? Could you make me a reservation for a date this evening?”

“Certainly. I’ll find a great steakhouse near you and get a table for two.”

Conversations like this may no longer happen between a visitor and hotel concierge, they'll happen between a human and a computer. Welcome to the future of product design: the conversational interface. Whether you want to negotiate a better deal with your cable company, book a last-minute hotel, or even plan a party, conversational interfaces are quickly changing the way that we interact with technology.

What’s a Conversational Interface Anyway?

A conversational interface is any user interface that can mimic human interaction, whether typed or spoken. Think HAL 9000 without the murderous intent. This technology has come a long way over the past few years, and advances in voice processing have finally transformed it from science fiction into realistic technology.

In the past, conversational user interfaces were dismissed as simple programs, regurgitating pre-made phrases (think back to the early AOL chat bots). Today’s CUIs are much more complex than that. Modern conversational technologies combine voice recognition software with search and synthesis capabilities that together can form remarkably “smart” interfaces. Many of these programs have personalities, too.

"You Seem Like a Person But You're Just a Voice in a Computer"

A great example of how far conversational interfaces could go is seen in the 2013 Spike Jonze film "Her". In the film, a man develops a relationship with his new computer. The operating system needs no keyboard or mouse to operate - simply talking to the computer can achieve anything you'd want to do. Speaking to the computer (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) is indistinguishable from speaking with a real human and the man subsequently falls in love with the intelligent and charming AI.

How Will It Benefit Businesses?

It’s not just the science-fiction fanatics who are excited about the possibilities this technology opens up. Conversational user interfaces offer a truly cross-platform experience, functioning well across smartphones, tablets, laptops, and devices like the Amazon Echo, which doesn’t even have a screen. They don’t require regular updating, they offer a streamlined design, and they can even integrate with social media platforms like Twitter and Snapchat. 

But the biggest cause for excitement is how these interfaces will change interactions with technology. While graphical interfaces allowed people to search and find answers for their questions, conversational interfaces will allow anyone to have their problems solved for them. Instead of typing in search terms and receiving a list of Google results, we’ll converse with our technologies organically, asking them to make decisions and take actions on our behalf. Whether they’re used for customer service, employee training, or sales automation, today’s conversational interfaces form the “human” face of technology that business leaders have been waiting for.

The Best Conversational Interfaces

Several fantastic products already take advantage of conversational interfaces as their unique differentiator. Here's how they do it:

Magic

Unlike the other products listed, Magic’s “magic” starts with something everybody already has on their phone: text messaging. The on-demand service allows users to text a phone number with their demands, which it promises will then come true — just like magic. But there’s no trick involved. A human is at the other end, and he or she does the dirty work. While AI can help by using the requester’s location to recommend the best solution, it’s ultimately a human who interprets the request, works to fulfill it, and overcomes logistical obstacles. So how could Magic be made more magical? I see two routes for improvement:

Monetization: The cost of using the service is directly related to how hard the task is to complete, but this poses a challenge. Most people won’t use the service to buy a sports car; they’re much more likely to use it to reserve a table for dinner. For Magic to really take off, it needs a more viable business model.

Greater third-party partnerships: To cut down on human intervention, Magic needs strategic third-party partnerships. Computers are smart enough to make purchases on command, but they'll need to be able to find the right item first and then resolve any payment and delivery logistics that may crop up. These types of tasks cannot currently be done without human help.

Quartz

Quartz offers its users bite-sized updates on current affairs. Unlike the Yahoo News Digest which came before it, Quartz will send you push notifications to keep you up-to-date on news throughout the day. Despite initially appearing to be a simple chat app, Quartz instead functions as a clever news delivery service. The app is intentionally designed to mimic what popular back-and-forth chat apps actually feel like, even down to the familiar ellipses that appears as you eagerly await a response. This gives the app more freedom to experiment with monetization methods and how to present their content while still adhering to well-established design patterns. Quartz has personality, too. You don’t just get a sterile single-sentence description of news; you get a well-informed friend who throws in a dash of humor and the right emoji at the right time. But how could Quartz be improved?

Greater diversity: Quartz’s content is well-suited to a young, casual demographic, but its coverage will need to broaden to other media outlets. There’s already some variability, with contributions from publishers like The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Guardian, but a lot of the content is repurposed from the company’s web publishing platform.

Better responses: There are two canned responses for a Quartz news item: a few cheeky words and emojis or a quick skip to the next story. More truly conversational interactions could make Quartz a groundbreaking experience. For instance, if you have a question about a story, wouldn’t it be great if the app could answer it for you?

Facebook M

Facebook M has the potential to be the most revolutionary of these three products. It can leverage your likes (and other personal information you may or may not realize Facebook knows about you) to provide a custom-tailored service. For instance, if you’re planning a vacation, it could check your likes and past checkins to find places you might like to visit. Next, it may cross-check locations your friends have posted, since you're more likely to respond positively to recommendations made by close friends. Finally, Facebook M might even check your events calendar to ensure you don't have any plans on conflicting dates, or to find things happening in the area you'll be visiting. Much like Magic, it makes use of a platform most people already use: Facebook Messenger. Even Facebook’s offering, however, has some room for improvement:

Improved technical capabilities: M functions through a combination of AI and human intervention, but if the company is to scale the technology to Facebook’s huge audience, it needs to minimize humans’ role. There aren’t enough people out there to respond to Facebook’s 1.23 billion monthly users, so Facebook M must become even smarter before the social media giant opens it up to all users.

Greater third-party partnerships: Third-party developers like Uber and Lyft are already putting Facebook’s technology to good use, but Facebook will need to roll out more strategic partnerships. This model has already proven its success in the Asian market with hugely popular all-in-one apps like WeChat and Line, and Facebook must look to follow their footsteps.

Tomorrow’s Conversational Interfaces

The future of conversational interfaces lies in a hybrid approach that combines human intervention and algorithmic intelligence. The key challenge will be striking a balance between the two that minimizes man-hours and maximizes functionality.

The human-algorithm hybrid approach is taking hold with services like Facebook M, but there’s still work to be done. Simple questions like “What time does the grocery store near my house close?” can be answered by a computer, but more complex queries like “Can you help me find my lost luggage from the Beijing airport?” still require significant human intervention. If conversational interfaces are to become the standard for technological interaction, they’ll need to be as simple as Siri but as miraculous as Magic. Products like Viv, from the creators of Siri, are already starting to bridge that gap with startling speed.

Yeti wants to partner with businesses to advance the “human” edge of technology with conversational interfaces. Our prototyping process can create scalable, smart technologies that decrease service costs and increase customer engagement. Will your company be a part of the conversation?

Image credit Magic, Quartz, Facebook

is a Yeti Alum. He designs and builds digital products to help solve meaningful problems. You'll probably find him behind the lens of his camera. Follow Mike on Twitter.

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