Should you use a chatbot?

Conversational interfaces are a hot trend right now… But do they actually offer a worthwhile experience?

There’s an awful lot of excitement around conversational UI right now.

Organisations flock to chatbots as an exciting new way to engage customers. It’s easy to see the appeal. Having machines respond in a human way to written or spoken prompts sounds awesome. It’s a prospect that was once relegated to science fiction.

There’s a lot of potential profit here, too.

Moving away from graphical user interfaces (GUIs) can allow for faster, more personal, and more convenient interactions. In theory, this means more conversions… And more revenue.

This has created a kind of ‘gold rush’ effect in the industry. For every possible interaction, a business is racing to make a chatbot for it. From ordering a pizza to finding love, we’re seeing it all.

But are chatbots actually a good idea?

Should you use a chatbot over a graphical user interface?

Here’s the short answer

Chatbots shouldn’t be used for everything, and they can’t solve the world’s problems on their own.

They can be fantastic for some interactions, but the lack of a graphical user interface (GUI) is also a limiting factor.

Lengthy back-and-forth dialogues can cause unwanted cognitive load (That’s UX-jargon for excessive thought and memory work). Not to mention they can be a bit tedious, if the conversation is too lengthy.

But I don’t hate chatbots. In fact, I think they’re great. But they need to be used wisely.

Chatbots can provide tremendous value in the right circumstances. It’s all about using them at the right times, potentially as part of a larger experience.

So when should we use chatbots over a GUI? To know this, we need to understand what they’re good at, and what they’re not-so-good at. Let’s dive into the long answer.

When chatbots are better than GUI

For allowing users to quickly articulate a need.

When designing a website or app, we usually plan an information architecture for it’s content. This basically means a the structure; the menu or navigation system.

For larger services with lots of content, this structure can get really complicated.

On a particularly information-heavy website, users might need to move through several layers of navigation to find something specific. Especially if that something is a bit niche.

The information our user is looking for might just be a few sentences. Actually finding that information can be the hard part.

In these cases, a chatbot works brilliantly. If the user can quickly express that need as a question, the bot can provide the answer immediately. No digging around a complex navigation structure.

Chatbots can make finding information easier than with traditional navigation UI.

For scenarios where a screen-based UI is inconvenient.

Whether through a text or voice, it’s much easier to initiate the interaction with a chatbot.

The user doesn’t need to wait for the website to load, or find the right section of an app. They can just start the conversation straight away.

The nature of voice-based chatbots also means they’re hands free. This offers huge advantages in situations where screen-based UI isn’t appropriate.

Users can make a bank transfer whilst driving, or get recipe details whilst cooking with messy hands. It’s in these kinds of scenarios when the benefits of chatbots are immediately clear.

The hands-free nature of voice chatbots provides exciting new opportunities.

For more personal, human-like interaction.

This can be incredibly powerful when we want to create a sense of empathy or understanding. Many charities and healthcare services are experimenting with Chatbots as a way of providing sensitive information in a comforting way.

This isn’t an easy thing to do. The uncanny valley effect is always a risk. But if done right, the personal touch can help build trust with users.

If you need an example of just how effective this can be, take a look at the Persona Synthetics chatbot that Channel 4 made to promote the TV show ‘humans’. It’s just a bit of fun, but it shows just how effective chatbots can be at feeling personal.

When chatbots are worse than GUI

There’s a high risk of error.

I’m a big fan of error-proof interfaces. You’ll often catch me saying that errors are a symptom of a poorly planned interactions.

When creating graphical interfaces, it’s actually possible to design them in a way that protects users from errors. I’ve talked about this ‘error-proof’ attitude to UX design in previous posts.

Take form design as an example. In a graphical user interface we can structure and style our input fields to ensure the correct entry of information.

Unfortunately, this isn’t so easy with conversational UI. The user can effectively say anything they want at any time. Given the infinite number of possible instructions they could give the bot, the propensity for error is really high.

No matter how good machine learning is, we can never guarantee the user won’t ask something we don’t understand.

We may also misinterpret something based on a lack of context, or clear instruction. Slang and colloquialisms confound this even further. And let’s not get started on accents or local dialects.

Complex interactions can be a headache.

Some interactions aren’t so simple, and require a lot of input from the user.

Something that initially seems simple can actually be deceptively complicated, requiring an lot of clarification between the user and the system.

Let’s take the example of betting on a sporting event. I’m sure the gambling industry must be working on this right now, because the core idea is too lucrative not to attempt.

At a moment’s notice, a user could tell the bot to “put a bet on the game”, and have it placed without any fuss.

But just with this one user need, there’s so much clarification needed.

  • What event are they betting on?
  • Which team / player are they betting on?
  • How much money would they like to bet?
  • What kind of bet is it? (To win, or a specific score?).
  • How will they pay for the bet?
  • Are they aware of the terms & conditions?

…And so on.

Suddenly this simple statement has turned into a very complex interaction. Doing this all via a back-and-forth conversation places a lot of cognitive load the user, and could be really tedious, too.

A graphical interface suddenly seems like a much better choice.

They lack true understanding of context, or empathy.

Chatbots can feel human. But all they’re really doing are extracting keywords and phrases from the user’s input - and serving a response.

Whether that response is predetermined by the bot or learned through AI, it’s still limited by the nature of their programming.

A bot can never truly empathise with a user.

A graphical user interface can’t do this either - but the user doesn’t expect it to. A chatbot can result in greater disappointment if it fails to deliver on the user’s instruction.

Limitations in understanding and empathy can often result in disappointment.

Get the best of both worlds

So. Should you use a chatbot? Well, like anything else in our field, the answer is that frustrating old standby : ‘it depends’.

If I have one recommendation to make here, it’s this. Sometimes a combination of natural language and graphical elements in a single interface can work wonders.

For example, a chatbot could be a mini-app embedded on your website to helps people get to the right section. The task itself is then completed with a graphical interface, but the chatbot is there to help.

Conversely, embedding forms or a graphical elements into a chatbot experience is no bad thing. Sometimes natural language just isn’t suitable, and we shouldn’t feel like we’re cheating if we switch to a more traditional graphical interface.

In summary. Use conversation when it’s appropriate, but fall back to graphical elements when it isn’t. 

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Chris Myhill, an incredibly handsome UX designer with over 8 years of experience

Chris Myhill

Chris heads up Just UX Design with over eight years of experience.

He’s worked on loads of different projects, using UX wizardry to help businesses make better products.

Learn more about Chris

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