Conversational Interfaces Are Here.

Natural-language interfaces are quickly moving up the tech adoption curve—are you thinking about how customers talk to your brand?

Aaron Shapiro
August 30, 2016

Machine learning techniques have progressed to the point where a new user interface is on the cusp of mass-market adoption: computer systems that understand enough natural human language to be useful and respond accordingly. Siri, Google Now, Alexa, and Slackbots are a few high-profile examples of voice or message-driven experiences that have gained some level of real-world use. Indeed, these and other AI systems are now open enough, and of high-enough quality, to allow brands to begin interacting with customers and prospects through natural language. The result is the beginning of a new era in customer relationships that promises to be every bit transformative as social media and mobile devices were in the last decade.

In light of this, companies need to ask themselves one question: can your customers talk to your brand?

An Inflection Point for Natural Language.

Technology periodically forces a radical reshuffling of the mechanism in which brands build relationships with consumers. Mass marketing was born in the industrial revolution as supply outstripped demand for the first time, necessitating print advertising. Radio, television, and then cable TV were the next sequential developments, each allowing progressively broader, more targeted, and more impactful communications.

The Internet revolution has brought us a radical change in people-to-brand communications roughly once each decade. First, the very idea of a website was novel, and 1995 saw a shift from call center and direct mail to web. The mid-aughts brought us the mobile and social revolution, where no brand communication strategy was complete without vibrant social media channels, mobile apps, and mobile web presence—indeed, today it is rare that a company is not mobile-first in its communications strategy.

Customer-service solutions have toyed with automated phone and email responses-- to much consumer frustration--for a generation, but the mid-teens mark an inflection point in machine learning as it relates to natural language. Finally, computer systems can translate the unstructured data of human speech and reliably convert it into structured data. This structured data can then be processed like any other data input by a user, allowing the computer to perform actions and generate a natural language response. The result: real-world applications of natural language interfaces are ready for prime time. These natural language—or conversational—interfaces can be by voice or text, accessible by speaking into a microphone or typing into a text box.

Conversational Interfaces

More excitingly, the leading conversational interface platforms are opening up, allowing third-party development of “conversational apps.” Alexa, Siri, Google Now, iMessage, and Slack are a few of the long list of conversational interface platforms that do, or will soon, allow the development of third-party applications. And, artificial intelligence platforms such as api.ai and Microsoft Cognitive Services simplify the development of conversational apps, standardizing natural language processing and simplifying access to conversational platforms.

Beyond technical possibility, consumers have begun to adapt conversational interfaces in day to day life. Amazon has sold an estimated 3 million Echos, all of which are only accessed by voice. In China, WeChat has established itself as a primary way to interact with brands. And Google’s voice interface is already responsible for 20% of all mobile searches. This kind of real-world consumer use creates the expectation that other brands should be accessible in conversational environments.

Individual, Immediate & Authentic Communication.

For companies, conversational interfaces provide several concrete benefits that are not possible with other kinds of human-to-brand interaction:

  • Immediacy: Interacting with brand by voice or through a chatbot offers a degree of speed and immediacy that is not possible with conventional digital interfaces. Quite simply, we have the ability to communicate more quickly by talking or typing than by clicking or swiping through screen interfaces, no matter how simple those interfaces may be. And, brands can provide a response that is similarly rapid, accurate, and tailored to the individual. In today’s world of instant gratification, seconds matter, and conversational interfaces offer unmatched speed.
  • Ubiquity: Conversational interfaces offer the promise of brand ubiquity. Wherever a consumer spends their time and wants to interact—whether it’s via Facebook Messenger or with Amazon’s Echo—the brand can be available by just talking or typing.
  • Authenticity: Natural language interfaces allow a specificity of communications not possible with click or swipe. I can tell a brand exactly what I want (or at least, the conversation can be constructed so the user thinks the brand perfectly understands her needs) with no usability issues or frustration surrounding choice, options, or filling in tedious details. The brand can then communicate back to the user in the most natural way possible, one that lets the brand voice and personality truly come to life. Conversational interfaces bring us as close to real human connection as is possible between brand and person.
  • 1:1 Messaging: As a 1:1 communications channel, conversational interfaces give us the opportunity, for ongoing customers, to implement targeted messages. We can respond to user queries based on an individual’s personal profile, and once we have permission for ongoing engagement, brands can experiment with proactively reaching out to users with targeted communications—effectively, a better form of mobile notifications, and one that begs an immediate response on the part of the consumer.
  • For early adopters, buzz: Like the early days of mobile, those brands that do innovative things with conversational issues build invaluable buzz, creating a story that extends to public relations and social channels to an audience that is far broader than the segment of the population that would actually use the conversational interface. And, it gives the brand a degree of forward-thinking relevance that is critical when attempting to form a connection with younger demographics.

The net effect for marketers is more brand loyalty, higher customer satisfaction, and an increasingly effective way to communicate brand messaging and drive call to action.

Getting Started.

Conversational interfaces require a clear strategy and implementation plan across service, technology, data, experience, and operations:

  • Service: A conversational interface starts with utility. Why is a user interacting with brand by voice or text? What questions or requests will they send to a brand, and what responses do they expect? A clear definition of the service offering and how it translates into a conversation is the critical first step, whether that service is commerce, informational, analytical, or oriented around entertainment. In short: what problem does the brand solve that is so important that a user will add that brand to their phone address book for quick access?
  • Technology: While conversational interfaces require a new technology stack, companies that establish the right technology foundation will find that conversational experiences can be quick to launch and evolve. It starts with having a service layer architecture for core brand functionality, and then selecting the right set of natural language cloud services that sit on top of the company’s APIs. In this manner, conversational interfaces can rapidly launch and evolve as new platforms become popular, without requiring massive change to the organization’s backend systems. 
  • Data: Natural language interfaces are a subset of broader machine learning and artificial intelligence services that are increasingly provided by brands to customers. None of this works without good data. Organizations must think about their data strategy, and how to build a single view of the customer that can learn over time to provide better service.
  • Experience: Companies must think about the conversational experience they want to provide. Conversation flows, personality, tone of voice, use of language, and how the conversations are accessed is increasingly the new UI.
  • Operations: Conversational interfaces require a rethinking of a company’s operational model. For example, in a customer service environment, where do intelligent agents stop and human agents start? Does the company have the right kind of data scientists, designers, and technologists who can make machine learning systems operate effectively and scale? And, how are these new disciplines organized within the enterprise?

As conversational interfaces move up the technology adoption curve—something that is still several years away—brands that don’t engage via voice or text will soon find themselves viewed as backward as dated, much like brands today that aren’t reachable by Twitter for support issues or don’t offer users an app. Creating a conversational interface now is one way for smart brands to future-proof their business.

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