Building Useful Chatbots

0x07 Building Useful Chatbots

Yeah, yeah yeah... I'm really late with this email. I know. April saw me organize a hackathon for diversity, and speak at two difference conferences, while May saw me give three talks at two different conferences, and I had demos to build. Meanwhile, Bill (absent from this email too) has been plugging away at his keyboard on work-related things. We're still getting into a groove.

I have another speaking engagement on Thursday in South Carolina, and I'm really excited for it because I feel like I've honed my message. I have a Bot Framework master slide deck of about 80+ slides that I change around depending on the audience and event, so each talk feels and sounds unique, but pulls together a lot of similar elements. I've also grown more comfortable with the material... which brings us to the theme of this email.

I lead all of my talks with a simple sentence: "It's easy to build a bot; It's hard to build a useful bot." I then give a walk-through of the UPS bot on Skype, which is highly effectively, but not all that useful (Sorry guys, I still love you). The basic premise is that if it takes you more steps to do something in a chatbot than it does in another medium, then your bot is probably useless--no matter how effective it is.

Microsoft and Facebook started championing bots because they saw how much people were using communication applications on phones. They wanted to created ways to serve user needs without taking them out of the conversation they were in. Despite this noble idea, chatbots haven't taken off like I (or many of my colleagues) expected. I had a conversation with James Mann about this very subject during the MVP Summit in March.

One major reason is that there hasn't been a killer app for conversations just yet--something to push the boundaries, and leave users in awe. There's also the split between textual chatbots and the auditory avenues of voice UIs like Cortana and Alexa. Skills can very much be bot dialogs in themselves, but we often don't think of it that way.

Another issue is generational. I'm 39. I don't live in chats as much as younger generations do, so it could be that my generation is simply not accustomed to calling in bots for help, preferring to use Internet searches, web pages, and even mobiles apps, just because that's what they're used to.

There are certainly successes. Many developers experience tremendous success with bots designed to help with continuous integration and tooling, and commerce bots where you can "buy now" can be quite useful depending on the platform and the product. Again, the key is to do something well, but do it better than a web application or mobile application (or at least with less steps). I've found a few avenues like this in my current job, and we'll be attempting to put together a chatbot to help medical students navigate their often hectic daily lives within the next six months.

I'm interested in knowing what you feel is the most useful bot you've ever come across. Reply to this email, if you think you have a good one. --Michael Szul

Just Put it On the Blockchain

There is a joke that I use in my bot presentations about a bot being a parasitic larvae, but it's sometimes important to understand that the term "bot" is not always used in a glowing context (just look at the problems with bots on social media given the U.S. political climate). There's a trust issue. In fact, last week I was having a coffee meeting in which it was brought up that some people fear letting a chatbot handle a conversation with a patient (in a health setting). Trust, as it stands, is likely a fundamental piece of creating usefulness in a chatbot. Not only is it likely necessary to weed out bad actors, but it shows a detail about security that end users can respect.

Another joke that I often say in meetings is about putting everything on the Blockchain since that seems to be every other article online. There is a pretty good Medium post though about how the Blockchain could be used to help establish trust for bots and various bot personas. --MSwe're reading more and more about how brain interfaces are allowing people to control robotic limbs. Thomas Reardon of CTRL-Labs recently demonstrated some newer techniques in detecting electrical impulses from muscles--looking for a non-invasive way to allow those with physical needs to control external limbs without brain surgery. --MS

Commerce Bots

Commerce bots in Facebook are one of the areas that I think actually might provide usefulness. I often tell people a story about how I used Facebook Messenger while out dining to communicate with a beer store that was next door in order to check on the availability of a beer. Had that been a bot, I could have searched an inventory automatically, purchased it, and maybe 5 years from now had it drone delivered to my table (just kidding). Ticketek (in Australia) has partnered with Facebook to launch a ticket purchasing bot for Facebook Messenger. If I give Facebook credit for one thing, it's a good place to discover local events, so in-bot purchasing just makes sens. --MS

Codepunk 033: Microsoft Bot Framework SDK v4

Microsoft Build is over, which means we get to talk about all of the cool stuff coming in SDK v4. Bill and I did a podcast episode recently on it. --MS

Pale Fire Brewing Co. Salad Days

Pale Fire Brewing Co. Salad Days

A good saison can go a long way. This one from Pale Fire Brewing in Harrisonburg, VA is a favorite among Shenandoah Valley residents. It doesn't have as much funk as the farmhouse ales with the Brett yeast, but foams nicely, and tastes smooth on hot Spring/Summer days. As a bonus, it doesn't seem to be too hangover inducing. Saisons can be touch-and-go, and vary widely, depending on the brewery. You can get some with too much peppery aftertaste, and others that feel too hoppy. When you get the right balance though, it's a great beer.

I've actually been on a pretty big sour and gose kick lately, and I've found that a good saison here and there helps break up some of the added fruity sweetness that many sours and tarts bring.--MS