What will your brand sound like?

This was the question posed at Deloitte Australia’s ‘Conversation – Designing the Interface of the Future’ event, hosted in conjunction with ‘Disruptors in Tech’, a Melbourne based MeetUp group.

I have to admit, quite what a brand sounds like isn’t something I’ve ever really thought about before.

TLDR

  • NAB is about to launch a chat bot. It’s an interesting design journey.
  • Conversation is the ‘next big thing’ augmenting user design and experience.
  • Perton’s law was coined.
  • Always disclose that the user is interacting with a bot. (It’s a trust thing.)
  • Bots that aim to emulate humans reach a tipping point where they become flat out creepy… As in, close, but not exact, or (to use the literal right word for this reaction,) uncanny.
  • For those of you wanting to career hack and benefit from a free introduction to both chat bots and voice command (or conversational user interface, a.k.a CUI) Academy Xi has you covered here.

Close your eyes for a moment.

Imagine a world in which every product in the shop is blaring about itself in natural language. Possibly, even holding a conversation with you, calling you by name, fielding your questions and answering them based on preferences it gleaned from the data that you verbally offered up; your smart devices silently told it (your GPS, purchasing and browsing history); your loyalty accounts, biometrics and even the embedded chip in an existing purchased item that you’re currently wearing, that is interfacing via Near Field Communication, informed it about, all serving as context.

It’s not that far-fetched, but it’s hardly everybody’s idea of Utopia.

I instantly assume that every spokesperson, every brand ambassador and every voiceover talent who ever carved out a career is facing becoming automated, and that an audio apocalypse of the kind ‘Minority Report’ foreshadows is on the cards.

On reflection, I fervently hope that the option to switch to classic mode, by which I mean ‘return to mute’ isn’t overlooked, or else that I can default everything to Patrick Stewart or everyone’s favourite meerkat, Alexsandr Orlov.

(I’d be pretty keen for it NOT to sound like Microsoft Catherine.)

Currently, I’m mid way into a two part webinar, learning how to structure and design text based chat bots, with Microsoft Worldwide online, so this long-ago lecture, (which pre-dates the blog, and is one of its three inspirations,) is starting to resonate with me, but in a way that makes the chat bot idea seem a little bit old fashioned.

Ha!

In my humble opinion, text bots take up far too much on-screen real estate. Especially on mobile. And I say that as someone who loves writing and reading, (but not chatting or instant messaging,). Since I’m on a roll, for the love of all that is good and worthwhile, if I’ve just agreed that your site may install a cookie, my dear UX designers, please don’t follow that up a split second later with a request to take a survey about my experience of the site.

Blink.

You know that I literally don’t have any experience with the site yet, don’t you? I mean, you just installed a cookie a second ago, so it invites the question, complete with raised eye brow, “what experience, prithee?”

For the UX and CX designers confusing metrics with success; high pressure tactics with what people want; bells and whistles with colour and interest; and making account closure more than a two-step process, peppered with mildly threatening, condescending “warnings” that imply I don’t know what it is I’m really doing, I do not need yet another reason to switch to a low footprint lifestyle.

Capiche?

Getting back to the subject at hand….

I think it’s self evident what a Rolex watch would sound like (Roger Federer, obvs.) But what does an Australian shiraz sound like? How about the bus stop timetable? And will the bot have a name, or will it be openly robotic? Devoid of personality?

This event is one of my favourites.

It’s so good, that it’s taken a few weeks to process and decide how to best present it.

The NAB Voice Bot story.

This edition of Disruptors In Tech was held at National Australian Bank’s 700 Bourke Street outpost, (not to be confused with its dockside 800 Bourke Street headquarters, or its two or three other Bourke Street properties which, although equally imposing, are also the utterly wrong address for this particular event)* showcases the bank’s thought process and design considerations as it prepares to launch a chat bot.

A bank bot?

Hmm.

I’m unfamiliar with any scenario where I might be so caught up that I have to make an urgent bank transaction and my hands won’t be available, but OK. People do strange things when they’re in transit.

Lessons learned:

1. Designing a conversational user interface (CUI) is more fraught than you think.

Lesson 2: personality is hard to do.

As it happens, creating a bot with a flat personality, or no personality (and no name) is just as complex as its alternative. In having no personality, the bot still has a personality. Just not a very sassy, cool or chatty one.

Compound the problem with an assistant that has to flatly, blandly and consistently cover multiple divisions and myriad product lines of a newly agile, complex business, (with the added bonus that the bank is currently investing its time in realising that being complex is not an excuse for not being a disreputable corporate citizen) and this makes for an interesting case study.

Have they got it right?

Lesson 3: Spoken word is a different animal to text.

Human conversation is less formal, more shorthanded and incomplete than dialogue. As a result, conversation bot chat shouldn’t aim to replicate, or in any way be substantially based on, text.

(The sound of a low flying sunk cost whooshes by, while the trumpet heralding a serious new overhead plays.

Choose your interface wisely.)

I have to say, this is kind of a bummer for enterprise if they jumped on the wrong bandwagon and are being leapfrogged, but it’s a boonoonoonus for those who write and script for a living, because if you installed a chat bot: the kind that pops up in a window, asking “can I help you?” (a bit like Clippy used to do,) under no circumstances should you use it as the basis for your new conversational interface.

If someone is calling about their home loan, you can’t just text-to-voice your website or ‘play to end,’ as that’s not how people converse.

This is because even the punchiest of chat bot text comes across as stuffy and long-winded.

NAB’s bots triage and escalate non-self service problems to actual humans, on the fly, whether the channel is text or voice, ensuring that you don’t have to repeat yourself once you and you’re compound issue are connected.

Lesson 4: Testers will be jesters

The bank found that in testing the feature some customers could not help but test the limits of the bot to answer non-banking related questions such as “how tall is a horse?”

The flat answer this bot provides to such fodder is that it cannot assist with the question, but in principle it could be programmed to answer all questions put to it, one day, once the basics are covered and are up and running beautifully.

End scene.

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