A Comprehensive Guide to Conversational Interface (CI)

The terms (though not new) like Artificial Intelligence (AI), Machine Learning, Natural Language Processing have been widely discussed in the recent times like never before – thanks to tech giants like Google, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook who have been widely publicizing the concepts of AI/machine learning and have also been launching, testing and improving their AI technology integrated products like Microsoft’s Cortana, Apple’s Siri, Google Assistant, Facebook M, Google Home, Alice etc.

 

Apple’s Siri

Google’s overall search algorithm Hummingbird also has a component called ‘Rank Brain’ which is a machine learning artificial intelligence system. 

The real shift in our communication with the computer systems has been happening recently in a major way – finally computer systems are learning to understand our language (so far we have been learning and communicating with computer systems in the languages they can understand).  MS-Dos is history and we are now witnessing the emergence of applications that do not have GUI (Graphical User Interface) – namely Virtual Assistants, Invisible Apps, and Chatbots etc.

Arrival of these applications is giving a new life to the very old concept ‘Conversational Interface’. The Term ‘Conversational Interface’ is much broader and apart from these devices and applications that can have human-like conversations, simple websites that allow us to have a conversation with them (e.g. uxchat.me) may also be called conversational interfaces.

     Understanding Conversational Interfaces and Types

Any UI (user interface) that chats with a human like a human does with another is called conversational Interface. It mimics human interaction and has natural, human-like conversations. Currently, conversational Interfaces (CI) can be majorly divided into two types – Chatbots and Virtual Assistants.  The early day CIs were simple programs that used to give canned responses and used to have restricted, regurgitated conversations using pre-made phrases based on a set of rules. Example – AOL Chatbot - SmarterChild 

Though CIs like Rule-based Chatbots and Chatbot websites that work based on a set of rules are still used ( and, in fact, they are used widely by businesses around the world),  advancement in this technology has been possible due to the advancement in voice processing and Artificial Intelligence.   

Many of today’s advanced AI-based CIs are more complex and smart and are reasonably good at machine learning, natural language processing and voice-processing – though they have their own limitations.   You do not communicate with the conversational UI system in the language it understands through GUI by clicking on icons, following and entering instructions/syntax commands but you communicate with conversational UI in your natural language which it understands and responds – you tell the system what to do. 

Virtual assistants are devices/applications like Siri (Apple), Cortana (Microsoft), Google Assistant/Google Home, Alexa/Amazon Echo, Samsung Viv, and Facebook M etc – these are voice-based CIs to which you can speak orally.

 

Google Home

Chatbots are computer programs with which you chat through a chat interface – there are ones functioning based on a set of rules and there are Chatbots powered by Artificial intelligence too.  They are made available to users through any major chat products like Facebook Messenger, Skype, Telegram, Text messaging service, Slack etc. 

 

 

KLM Airlines’ Chatbot

Voice assistants can effortlessly do multiple tasks based on instructions given by you orally. They can play music, search and find information, set a timer, book a taxi (via the travel app), plan your day, call a friend and more. Voice assistants like Google Home and Amazon Echo can even switch off and on lights, read the news, and control TVs and Speakers around the house and more.

Chatbots also, depending on the type of bot, enable you to do multiple useful tasks effortlessly; some of them include ordering lunch, booking a dinner reservation, purchasing products, customer assistance, fixing appointments and more.

       Benefits, Importance and the Reasons behind the Rise of Conversational Interfaces

  • Rapid and Wide Adoption of CI and Devices/Platforms that have them - Businesses follow consumers wherever they go and target platforms which are popular – this is an undeniable fact.  All modern day devices like Smartphones, Smartwatches, desktops and screen-less devices like Google Home, Amazon Echo etc. and platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Whatsapp, Facebook, Skype, Slack etc are used by people across the world – Conversational interfaces are cross-platform and they have been seamlessly integrated into some of these devices and platforms already and rest of the existing devices/platforms may also follow suit soon. Also, there is a high possibility of future devices coming with inbuilt CIs and Chatbot-supported Platforms.

 

Amazon Echo

Thus, the number of consumers using conversational interfaces has been increasing steadily and rapidly and the number will continue to rise. It makes absolutely commercial sense for businesses to leverage the growing popularity of these conversational interfaces in significant way and the trend has already begun.

Here is a glimpse of the growing trend – Amazon Echo has sold more than 5 million devices in the past two years and its sales increased by 400% last year compared to 2015. Amazon has now come up with Alexa Hub (Alexa – voice service that powers Amazon Echo) – a resource that enable brands/businesses that want to establish their presence in the Alexa eco-system. Alexa Hub helps businesses create voice skills.

Recently launched Google Home’s sales have also increased rapidly but we do not have the official figures as of now.  Google Home and Alexa usage saw third party developer growth of over 1500% in the second half of Dec 2016 compared to the first half.

  • Rapidly increasing  popularity of Messenger Apps   

 This point further validates my previous point about the growing popularity and wider adoption of CI-inbuilt devices.  Active users of messaging apps surpassed the number of active users of social networks for the first time ever in 2015.

Many brands across the world have already started leveraging the growing popularity of messenger apps by developing Chatbots and establishing their presence in major chat products such as Facebook Messenger, Skype, Telegram, Slack etc.

Chatbots in Messaging apps have opened up a new and effective channel of communication for businesses and users. 

  • Self-learning AI Powered CIs

Promising AI technology powered CIs get better over time without regular updates and are capable of providing customized assistance to users as they save and use user data effectively and they also have machine-learning capability.  Thus CIs can achieve more with very less or no human assistance.

  • Frictionless Communication

Modern CIs are capable of natural language processing and they are getting better at it – they can understand human conversations (though not perfectly now but they will, in the future), thus they are highly user friendly – which means minimal use of graphical, interactive design elements like menu bar, icons, buttons etc and also minimum requirement to display of information at the front-end. 

One of the biggest advantages of CIs is that, unlike GUIs, they do not let the users figure out how to operate and get them to fulfill the required tasks – they understand the user’s natural language and take responsibility to get the required things done based on the user’s instructions.  CIs are truly changing the way we use and communicate with computer systems.

 

Microsoft Cortana

CIs have truly opened up new possibilities in marketing and customer service.  Though we already see some of the ways businesses have adopted to reach out to their existing and potential customers through CI Devices and CI-supported platforms (Examples – Brand Chatbots in App messengers and Brands partnering with Amazon to promote their products/services via Amazon Echo etc.), advancements in CIs will further open up new and exciting opportunities.

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