There was a quite well-shared piece from designer Chris Messina (who originated the Twitter hashtag but is now at Uber) about how 2016 is the year of conversational commerce. Like Chris, this is something that I’ve been talking about (in the trends webinars I do for Econsultancy) for a while and, like Chris, something I think will become pretty meaningful in the not too distant future. Chris defines conversational commerce as:
“…utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context.”
In other words it’s about commerce through messaging apps and via conversational interaction, helped by AI. Tom makes a good point in his comment on the post about how this will add nicely to many channels but is unlikely to blow things up. The real game changer, says Tom, is IM for customer service. And I agree, but I also think that more conversational interfaces are already impacting how we search for stuff, and will play a larger part in helping us get to what we want. If, for example, I search for a new jacket but my search results don’t quite get me the type of jacket I’m after, it might be useful to build on those search results (’show me something in the same colour but more formal’) rather than starting the search again from scratch.
Given the huge growth in messaging apps, the increasingly prevalent role that conversational AI has in search and discovery particularly on mobile (Google Now, Siri, Cortana et al), and given Facebook’s clear intent in this space (not least through the integration of services into Messenger, WhatsApp’s recently announced strategy toward enabling B2C communication, and AI services like M) there’s good reason to believe that conversational interfaces will play a larger role in commerce. Done well, there could be lots of opportunity to add value.
But there’s the rub. Chris raises some interesting questions about how relevant services might be selected in context, and says that he’s less interested in whether a conversational service is provided by a human, bot or a combination thereof:
“…over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot in roughly the same interaction paradigm.”
I’m sure that’s true, but I can’t help but feel that before we arrive at that new interaction paradigm we’ll see all kinds of clunky executions of this idea. There’s always a great temptation for businesses to see automation purely in terms of efficiency gain. Witness (my personal bete noir) the ubiquitous automated menus in phone-based customer service which (despite being with us for long enough now) are still frustrating to interact with and are like a big customer-service slap in the face.
Conversation with an AI interface which isn’t quite good enough, or doesn’t quite know me well enough, or is a substitute in a situation where I just want to talk to a human, or one where retailers intrude into personal spaces pushing irrelevant products to me at unwanted times - this may well be the early stage reality of conversational commerce. These kinds of interactions raise all kinds of design challenges to understand and design the logic of that conversation flow. We have a chance to make it great, or we can make it annoying. The choice is ours.