Using conversational UI for mobile apps and why it matters

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“Me: Hi Siri, I'm drunk

Siri: I hope you are not driving anywhere, Alex

Me: Call me a cab, please…”

What is a conversational UI?

Today, people no longer want to communicate with computers on inhuman terms by entering syntax-specific commands. Instead, with personalisation being the go word, user interfaces have been humanised to give rise to chatbots and chat assistants that mimic conversations with a real human.

Conversational interfaces - The next interaction paradigm

In the past few years, there has been a clear shift from websites to touch-based apps that are on the way to be replaced by chat assistants – which present the next interaction paradigm. Remember the time you walked into a store to be greeted by a shop assistant who answered your queries and led you to the products you required, repeating a well-rehearsed script. Chat assistants are poised to achieve the same for brands by creating conversational websites that interact with customers just like the friendly sales assistants at physical stores.

Designed to mimic human interaction, the design principles for creating conversational interfaces are quite different from those used for designing websites and apps. Conversational agents or chatbots are all about engaging people through a highly personalised UX instead of guiding them to take a certain set of actions on screen.

As mentioned before, conversational UIs take two forms – chatbots, where you type and communicate, and voice assistants, that engage in verbal dialogue. Today, most of us are familiar with Facebook’s chatbot, M, and the popular voice assistants – Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Google’s Ok Google and Amazon’s Alexa. Further research is going on in the field to develop more intelligent conversational user interfaces (CUIs) that not only understand spoken words but the intent behind those words as well. The progressive technology is backed by the advancements in machine learning and AI, enabling better speech recognition and improved text-to-voice quality.

Are conversation interfaces going to replace mobile apps anytime soon?

There is no doubt that mobile apps have added oodles of convenience to our lives. However, with a sea of apps flooding the users, it is equally cumbersome to find an app, download it, install it and then maintain it. And then, there are many apps for carrying out the same function, and different apps are required for catering to different requirements – for example, you might have Uber to book a cab, another app to order flowers and another one to order food. However, a CUI could cut the clutter from your mobile – delivering all the information and services you need on a platform you are already comfortable with. Soon, with the advancements in AI, the future CUIs would have better language processing abilities, ensuring you can do most of the things you do on our mobile through chatbots seamlessly.

Key challenges to creating a conversational UI

CUIs are being built to mimic natural conversations between humans. Thus, apart from developing conversational interfaces from a design point of view, we must build into these systems the principles of natural conversation such that the system can listen, understand and respond with the relevant information. But what are the key challenges to achieving this?

The foremost challenge is to build user trust in the system. A natural conversation usually starts with an input from one party that the other party interprets and responds to, based on the nature of the input or query. To be trusted, CUIs must follow a natural path of conversation to continue dialogue with users and help them get the information they seek.  However, often users experience an unnatural end to conversations with chatbots that breaks their trust in the interface. There is no issue, per se, in ending a conversation, but the pattern of conversation should be one recognised by humans and not an unnatural one.

The second challenge is to help users discover what they can really speak to the system. Is it an e-commerce-based application that can only assimilate fashion related stuff or is it a general helper kind of an application where the scope of conversation is quite unlimited? The latter kind of applications need to understand the context of the users’ conversations to engage in a fruitful dialogue. Besides, there would often be unknown enquiries and the system must be flexible enough to accommodate these.

Another challenge that comes up in front of designers is that of initiating conversation, as, in real life, one person does not always start the conversation. Thus, CUIs need to have the intuitive ability to provide some information to users that they haven’t really asked for but could be important to them – for example, the temperature outside before they leave for work.

Conclusion

Conversational assistants are on the rise.

Today, over a billion people are using messaging services, making it the most common way in which they spend their time on mobile. Tech companies are beginning to leverage this trend by integrating chat bots within messaging services to deliver a host of services and information to consumers within the same interface. Starting on a strong note with Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, the future is ripe for more intuitive conversational platforms that would understand the subtle differences between words and expressions to engage in much more meaningful conversations. However, the level of activity chatbots can accomplish currently is limited.

While CUIs are hailed as the future of m-commerce, it is not likely that CUIs are going to replace mobile apps any time soon. But yes, conversational interfaces have a bright future as machine learning and big data combine with logical language frameworks to create CUIs that understand the users better, leading to a future with more natural interactions between man and machines.

As app fatigue increases in users, chatbots are the next step in mobile evolution offering all that you need within your favourite app!

Venkatesh C.R. is the CEO of Dot Com Infoway, a 360° App & Web solutions company
Image source: Shutterstock/Montri Nipitvittaya