Archive for the ‘Conversation’ Category

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…

“Tumblr’s Killer Feature”, and the mixed blessing of comments

May 22, 2013

I’ve largely neglected this blog over the past couple of years, especially since Google Wave got canned. My time right now is mostly spent on my new startup, Querki — folks who are interested in the details should check out its development blog.

But I’m still quite interested in the topic of online conversation, and so I had to post a link to this recent article from my friend Siderea. She makes a very good argument that comments are *not* always a good thing — and that, indeed, a chunk of Tumblr’s success can be attributed to the fact that it decided to not have them.

Well worth reading and thinking about. The upshot isn’t that comments are inherently *bad*, mind you — but that the presence or absence of comments, and how they are managed in an online system, will have strong effects on how that system behaves. There are costs to comments, which aren’t obvious unless you look carefully.

Or to put it more concisely: decisions have consequences, and the decision of whether or not to include comments can have *big* consequences. So don’t make that decision casually…

Task-oriented conversation is demonstrated again

November 8, 2010

Here’s an interesting little article in Ars Technica a little while ago.  The upshot: people having conversations via SMS/text follow pretty much the behaviour patterns you would expect from a focused conversation.

Basically, they built a mathematical model that describes what you’d expect from two people having a conversation that is about something — an initial burst of activity, then gradually trailing off — and then compared that against real-world SMS traffic data.  Not too shockingly, with some adjustment of tunable parameters, it matched.

There isn’t anything too surprising here, but there’s an important ramification: they’re playing with the mathematics that underlie conversation.  Task-oriented conversation follows some fairly regular patterns, and they’re expressing those patterns.  This likely has implications for people building conversation systems, since it gives you an idea of what to expect and how to optimize for it…

Co-editing and conversation

September 29, 2010

I found out today that Microsoft has finally added live co-editing to Word.  In Word 2010, you can have several people working in the same document simultaneously, seeing each other’s edits live as you go.

On the one hand, this is a useful and interesting feature.  I confess, I’d be more impressed if we hadn’t implemented more or less exactly this functionality at one of my earlier startups (Buzzpad) all the way back in 2002; I’m a little distressed by the fact that it’s taken MS this long to catch on.  But be that as it may, it’s still useful.

That said, I suspect that the process is going to turn out to be a bit weak.  (Caveat: I haven’t played with it yet, so I’m going by what the above post says.)  The reason is that they appear to have failed to think about the conversational nature of the interaction.

The thing is, when three of us are co-editing a document, we’re not doing so in isolation.  The co-editing is, usually, an interactive process, where each of us is reviewing each other’s changes, commenting on and tweaking them, and generally bouncing ideas off each other.  Sure, we can each edit in our own little silos, but that’s nowhere near as interesting and useful as a more interactive experience.

So we need to have a conversation as part of this.  As currently constituted, it looks like we need to do that out-of-band.  Microsoft would probably recommend opening up a Messenger conversation for it, and that works, but it’s not a great solution: it loses the document’s context, and the conversation is not itself preserved with the document, so it’s harder to go back later and reconstruct why you made the decisions you did.  As it stands, I suspect that I’ll wind up horribly abusing Word’s comment features to hold in-line conversations.

Moreover, this doesn’t do enough for the asynchronous side of the conversation.  In practice, we’ll usually be editing this document for a while; when I go away and come back, I want to clearly see the changes.  Moreover, I want to see the conversations that led up to those changes, so I can understand them properly.  You can get a bit of this with some of Word’s other features, but it doesn’t look well-integrated.

My guess is that MS decided to finally implement this capability because Wave scared them, and I have to say that I’m disappointed that they didn’t really learn from Wave: this is a comparatively naive-looking version of co-browsing.  The Wave notion, of a root blip (typically the document you’re co-editing) with deep conversations both embedded inside it and attached as later blips, takes the conversational side of co-editing much more seriously.  And the ability to quickly review all changes — both new conversation and edits to the blips — makes asynchronous conversation work pretty nicely.

So points to MS for trying, but it’s still pretty weak.  I hope they’ll keep evolving it in better directions, but I suspect that’ll only happen if the open-source Wave project continues to give them a good fright.

How about you?  Do you think you’d use Word’s new co-editing capability?  Is there anything that would make it better for you?

Okay, say it with me: Comments *are* Actions

May 21, 2010

So the good news from yesterday is that Google Buzz has opened up a bunch of APIs.  It’s officially a Labs project, so they’re doing it kind of tentatively (having been bitten in the ass by releasing Buzz itself too quickly and broadly), but by and large the new API looks pretty good.

But to my disappointment (although completely *not* surprise), it bakes flat commenting right into the data model.  If I’m reading this right, you can have “activity” objects (like a post), each of which has exactly one Comment Collection associated with it.

Why does this matter?  Because it makes the usual mistake of thinking about an “action” and a “comment” as completely different things.  They’re not, and it’s pretty broken to think about them that way.  In the larger online world, they’re just elements in the larger conversation that we are each having with our friends.

In practical terms, there are lots of implications here.  For example, by structuring things this way, it means that threaded discussions are right out — currently ruled out by the data model, and never likely to work quite right.  On the flip side, it has no concept of the other ways that an Activity can itself be a Comment — for example, a video, or another discussion, or something like that which is spawned off from a previous one.

None of which is new and different, mind.  It’s just a little depressing to see Google (which often does a good job of analyzing problems) making the same mistake that so many other sites have done.  That’s doubly true now, after Wave did a pretty good job on this.  (Although Wave then tried to do *so* much in the UI that it comes out as a little intimidating.  Their mistake was the opposite: trying to expose every conceptual detail to the user too quickly.)

The conclusion is that, while Buzz is decent at light-touch social-grooming sorts of communication (like Facebook), it’s not likely to ever be good at deep conversation (like LiveJournal) unless they wise up and fix this conceptual problem.  That’s a pity: the world needs more social networks that have a clue about how serious conversations really work…

Which comments are relevant?

February 26, 2010

Okay, not to pick on Buzz (which is fine for my purposes and which I’m using a little), but here’s a very basic user interaction bug that Iam seeing.  It shows up on conversation systems from to time, and I bring it up to encourage others to think this through better.

Like most online conversation systems, Buzz notifies you where there is new content in a conversation you’ve already read — that’s generally good.  (Although they really ought to make it a little more obvious how to mute a conversation you’re not interested in.)  Like many, it elides many of the old comments that you’ve already read, so you can skip quickly to the new stuff — also good.

The bug?  It elides all the old comments to the post except the first one.  That’s broken in two respects.  First of all, in an unthreaded conversational system, you virtually never give a damn about the first reply.  (You occasionally do in a threaded system, and I kind of wonder if they are mixing up the models.)  In an unthreaded system, the first reply is old news — neither the root of the conversation nor a recent reply, and more often than not irrelevant.

The second issue is that it doesn’t show you the most recent reply.  In an unthreaded system, that’s usually the one you really do care about, because it provides the context for the new replies.  Unthreaded conversations are by their nature often pretty linear, with replies to replies in order on the stack.  So quite often (I’d guess more often than not), the new reply that just came in makes little or no sense if you don’t have the one or two directly above it in the conversation.

Again, it’s the sort of thing I wouldn’t mind if Buzz was labeled as the beta that it is: this is the sort of thing you’re supposed to fix in beta.  But it’s the sort of basic user-interaction glitch that looks kind of embarrassing in a supposedly released product.

(Am I off-base here?  My perception is that this is just a design bug, but I’d be curious to see if anyone cares to argue that it’s actually appropriate…)

The Vexations of Text

November 28, 2009

Catching the Wave has been on hiatus this week, due to a combination of me being off at a Microsoft seminar all week and not really wanting to post while everybody’s busy with Thanksgiving.  It’ll resume next week.

In the meantime, though, I commend to you this article from siderea on LiveJournal.  She makes an excellent point that, while text is a more powerfully expressive medium for communication than it’s often given credit for, there are some essential conversational subtleties that are difficult or impossible to convey this way.

I’m curious about what people think about this, and particularly whether you think that there is any difference for up-tempo / synchronous modes of communication.  IMO she’s entirely correct for slower modes like LiveJournal, but I wonder if the extra subtleties of timing play into up-tempo.  For example, I’ve found that pauses in an IM conversation can be fraught with meaning; what other details are available there, and how much (if at all) can they help with the limitations she points out?

When does posting become publishing?

July 30, 2009

A news story made it onto the news wires yesterday, that illustrates one of the coming tensions in online communication — a real estate company is suing one of their tenants, who complained about the company on Twitter.

The case illustrates a tension that I expect to become ever-sharper in the next few years, between “conversation” and “publishing”.  Defamation suits are probably where the problem becomes most stark.

Say that I post something defamatory to my blog, which in this happy hypothetical universe has a hundred thousand readers.  As I understand it, it’s becoming fairly clear that the law thinks of that as “publishing”, and I’m just as legally liable as I would be if I published in a local newspaper.

Say that I say the same thing in a locked post on my LJ, visible only to my friends.  This is clearly a private conversation, not “published”.  It’s hard to predict the courts, but I find it unlikely that one would find this a matter worthy of a lawsuit, and I’d argue strongly that it shouldn’t.

Now, take the case at hand.  The post in question was to Twitter.  The woman reportedly only had 20 followers, and probably thought of this as a private conversation.  Indeed, a lot of people are laughing at the realty company, for turning a mountain into a molehill.  But their contention is that this was published to the public, and that’s kind of true: Twitter is a global feed, and lots of people mine it quite randomly.  So at least technically, it kind of was “publishing”.

So how do we draw the lines?  In an age where “conversations” can be visible to the whole web, and posts are just part of the larger conversation, what is publishing?  How can the courts distinguish between libel and simply someone spouting off to their friends?  It’s not a trivial matter — while the difference might be obvious at the gut level to you and me, the law likes clear lines, and I’m not seeing many of them.

I don’t have answers here, but I welcome thoughts on the matter.  It’s a problem that is likely to feed back into the technology and social conventions of online conversation — potential lawsuits are good for chilling free expression, so these lines really matter in practice…

Conversational Feedback

July 29, 2009

I’d like to spin off of a recent conversation over in dsr’s journal.  He pointed out that non-realtime online conversations suffer badly in terms of feedback: when you do something inappropriate, it takes a while to get feedback, and once the feedback does come, it tends to be in the form of a tsunami.  Siderea then pointed out some of the failings of text as a form of feedback in general, compared with face-to-face.

Okay, so let’s explore that a bit.  What could we provide to make feedback more effective?  To put it more specifically, what might CommYou do to provide good tools for social feedback?  It is probably impossible to make online feedback as effective as the face-to-face kind, but can we make it better than it usually is?

Let’s look at a few of the common problems:

  • Text tends to have a different subject than face-to-face indications.  When someone does something inappropriate in person, I indicate *my* discomfort, and leave it to empathy to provide the feedback.  Textually, the point tends to be “You did something wrong”, which is a much sharper and more direct criticism.
  • Text is often too blunt and explicit — it’s hard to say that someone has been inappropriate without stepping on social taboos and being rude yourself.
  • In non-realtime conversations, when someone says something inflammatory, it tends to produce a response of “I Must Respond!” in all the readers.  Even if I know there are a lot of responses, which might already take this person to task, the desire to say something can be overwhelming.  By contrast, in a real face-to-face situation, everyone might start shouting at once, but it usually quickly dies down to one person making the point first and everyone else hearing it; this cuts down somewhat on the dog-pile effect.

So the question is, can we improve on this?  I have a few off-the-cuff ideas, but I don’t know if any of them are reasonable.  For instance:

  • Provide built-in concepts for emotional expression that are subtler than text.  Shadings of color are potentially expressive, but not universal — they’d probably require social convention to have any effect. (Emoticons are essentially an attempt at this, and illustrate how hard the problem can be — they are often badly misused.)
  • Roll up these expressions onto the message being reacted to, possibly as a single cumulative effect, to reduce the verbal onslaught.  (Slashdot kind of does this in its karma system.)
  • Distinguish between “near-real-time” and “later” in conversation; (subtly?) discourage this sort of emotional feedback more as things go along, to avoid the syndrome of people beating the dead horse.

Of course, these are still in tension with the problem of “I” vs “You” — done naively, these still come across as “you did something wrong”, since they adhere to the posted message, whereas the ideal would seem to have a connotation of “I’m uncomfortable” instead.  I’m not sure how to express that notion of discomfort in a way that is as subtle but effective as facial expressions in real conversation. The heart of the problem is that (especially in non-realtime conversation) the rest of the audience doesn’t have a good way to provide the sort of ambient feedback they do face-to-face.

Ideas?  I think this is a terribly interesting problem, and I suspect there are a bunch of experiments worth trying. (Note that dsr has a couple of good ones in the linked conversation — I’m especially intrigued by the general notion of participants being able to add what amounts to typed metadata.)

Autopilot and Social Networking

April 1, 2009

I’m sure that, by now, you’ve all heard about Google’s new Autopilot extension to Gmail, which was announced today.  Obviously, Autopilot represents a major leap forward in conversation technology.  (Yes, yes — CommYou will begin letting users appply Autopilot to conversations, as soon as Google opens up the APIs.)

Let’s talk instead, though, about the potential of this technology for social networking.  Autopilot is doing a good job of easing the burden of conversation, by removing the need to read and reply to your email.  But really, that’s the easy bit.  Nowadays, the really challenging problems are all coming on the social networking side.

So I’m going to propose two products that I think Google should be working on.  (And given how fast the CADIE project is evolving, probably will have finished by tomorrow.)

First up is AutoNetwork.  This would monitor your existing social network, as well as all aspects of your real life, integrating your calendar, your phone calls and your emails to derive a complete picture of who you are and who you know.  (Google already knows all of this anyway, so it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together.)  Then, when you apply AutoNetwork to a given social network, it chooses who you should friend and who not.  It will automatically add friends, decline invitations from people you don’t know *that* well, and unfriend people who you really shouldn’t be talking to.  This will remove the burden of keeping track of your social network, by doing all the heavy lifting for you.  In release 2.0, it will decide which social networks you should be on in the first place.

Second is AutoTweet.  This is simply a logical extension of AutoPilot, aimed at broadcast media.  It will use its advanced heuristics to decide which elements of your life are worth talking about, summarize them, and post them automatically to Twitter.  On the other end, it will keep track of which tweets you’ve responded to in the past (as a measure of what you are interested in), and use that as a basis for filtering which ones from your friends you will see.  After a few days of evolving the heuristics, it will simply provide you with a running commentary of everything interesting that is happening to everyone you know, in realtime, in a convenient 140-character form.

While none of this was announced today, I think it is safe to assume that we’ll be seeing it by — oh, next Monday at the latest.   Given that CADIE already has her own blog and Twitter feed (granted, she needs a couple more days to evolve decent taste), they’re clearly moving in this direction already.

So I figure that, by around next Wednesday, the entire Internet will be taking care of itself, leaving us humans to ignore it and go back to focusing on the real world.  Really, it’s about time…