Archive for January, 2016

Some thoughts on “Conversational Commerce”

January 20, 2016

I’ve largely neglected this blog lately (too focused on getting Querki off the ground), but this post from Chris Messina got me thinking.

He’s talking up 2016 as the year of “Conversational Commerce” — saying that the coming year will be the time when many companies begin to figure out how to leverage the various chat streams, listening to what users are saying, taking commands that way, and providing services through it.

It wouldn’t surprise me if he’s right about the core point: that companies are going to start aggressively plugging into the chat networks and leveraging them.  But let’s get past the happy dreams of e-commerce riches and look at the implications.

My general reaction to all of this is mild skepticism — not so much that the companies will embrace it, as that the users will.  In particular, my BS detector kind of got pegged by this line:

While you may have bristled when that news app alerted you to “new stories”, you might appreciate a particularly friendly newsbot delivering a personalized recommendation with context that you uniquely care about.

I think he’s underestimating the creepiness factor here, and how people react to intrusions in their conversational stream.  Yes, folks are getting somewhat desensitized to it over time, but I’ve found few who “appreciate” it.  I’m constantly talking to folks who are subtly unsettled by how much the bots, collectively, know about them.  And contrary to the wishful thinking of the various companies, not many people like them.

In general, folks don’t like uninvited intrusion.  We’re all rapidly learning to work around it in news feeds and the like — one can’t survive long on Facebook without developing the mental reflex that renders advertisements and promotions invisible.  But in any sort of true conversational context, it just feels rude to be interrupted.  Too many marketers are forgetting the psychological lesson of spam: when you intrude into an electronic space that people think of as personal, they don’t just quietly ignore it, they get angry.  And you don’t want customers angry at your brand.

There’s a tragedy of the commons here.  If the conversational tools make it possible for commerce to intrude into them, that will be abused by over-eager marketers and technologists.  And at that point, you quickly get into the traditional problem, that bad traffic drives out good.  The line between “good” and “bad” isn’t just fuzzy, it’s entirely subjective — different users will object to different intrusions.  And it won’t take many bad interactions to turn people off the idea entirely, and get them to demand off global off switches.

What about requested interactions?  He also makes the point that customers could initiate operations with all of those bots through the conversational stream, and that does make a lot of sense — I can see some real appeal to being able to make requests and have them serviced quickly, without interrupting my flow.

(For example, someone on one of my Gitter feeds the other day introduced a little bot that lets you evaluate expressions right in the conversation — it’s great for illustrating technical points, and folks have taken to it quickly.)

But then he undermines the point:

Discovery of discreet conversational services becomes less of an issue if users are slowly trained to think and type more like programmers.

Annnnd we’re back to wishful thinking.  For decades, the programming community has been like Henry Higgins, bemoaning all those Eliza Doolittles out there and wondering why they can’t be more like us.

Basically, the idea here is that these service-oriented bots become much easier to code if the users would just type in proper commands to them.  The example shown is:

/partyline create:task Write about the future of text-based interfaces

Yes, that’s easier for the program to understand.  But even this simple syntax is going to be enough to turn off the vast majority of customers.  The real core ones, the folks who depend on your tool day-to-day, who are willing to invest real brain cells in it, sure — they have enough skin in the game to make the effort.  But it’s hard to build a business plan around just that hard core.

Somewhere, I’ve got a button that reads, “If it has syntax, it isn’t user-friendly”.  Much though we might wish otherwise, it’s still true.  There might come a day when the average person is comfortable with precise command syntax, but I’d bet that we’re still quite a number of years off.

(This topic is near and dear to my heart, since template formatting is a key feature of Querki.  I wound up writing a whole new programming language, just to make it as easy as conceivably possible — and I’m still quite sure that we’re going to need a WYSIWYG wizard on top of that for most users.)

Is it steam-engine time for conversational interfaces?  Probably — the technology is there, and there are uses.  But let’s not forget that we’re in the “hype” part of the cycle here: the reality is going to be more gradual and humdrum.  Syntax-driven interfaces like the one shown above are going to be a niche market — the companies are going to have to invest serious time and money into more naturalistic parsers if they’re going to succeed.  And everyone involved in this growing ecosystem needs to be careful about allowing too much intrusion into the users’ conversational streams.  Otherwise, 2018 will be the year when customers, en masse, begin to reject Conversational Commerce…