Your Chatbot Is Unlikable

I logged into my trading platform on Sunday night and was greeted with a promotional prompt for a new product. These are frequent and useful, usually involving a new way to visualize options strategies or route orders more fluidly. But this one was a bit different - an introduction to the platform's new "AI" - a chatbot to help me perform different basic functions, named "Ibbie".

We can save the discussion of whether chatbots in general deserve to fall under the AI designation. 1 But as these chatbots start to become not only more abundant, but in many ways nearly completely commoditized, there's another subject that bears discussion: what will make your AI different than the next guy's?

Let's start with a basic assumption about the future. I believe that the ability to process human language, either via text-driven or voice-driven interfaces, will become ubiquitous, commoditized, and available as a service to any app developer, in a handful of years (somewhere between 5-10). Anyone building any kind of web-based service will have essentially a level playing field in this arena - any competitive advantage to be gained by having an AI that understands or processes input better than the rest will approach zero.2

So, what will differentiate the truly successful bots/AIs from the pack?

One obvious answer is the output - what service they actually provide, the quality and reliability of that service, the size of the need for that service, etc. This is exactly the way it works today with web and mobile apps.

But the piece that's more interesting to me is the softer, more ambiguous stuff that makes us fall in love with products or services - what we might call the brand. So how do we create a brand for AI? I think you have to create a whole new personality.

Even though we as humans use (mostly) the same words to communicate, there are vast differences in what kind of personality those words convey. And since bots are designed to replicate human relationships and communication norms, I think they need to replicate human traits with their "brands" as well.

Tactically, this means bots/AI-based products should:

  • Have a human-sounding name
  • Have a gender
  • Have an opinionated manner of speaking, modeled on a well-developed persona
  • Equate the brand/company directly with the bot (e.g. the name of the bot is the name of the product)
  • To the extent possible, address customers by name
  • To the extent possible, have some 'smalltalk' functionality built in, even if it's not core to the application at hand.

It seems rather obvious that we should try to our bots/AI products more human. But I think outsized success calls for something more difficult - making your bot truly likable. Think about it - there are lots of humans out there, but very few we bring into our homes and form long-lasting relationships with. The same will go for bots/AI - so if you're building one of these products, remember that your brand and your bot's personality are one and the same.

  1. In my opionion, most are just really shitty CLIs and actually represent a step backwards in the evolution of HCI.

  2. This probably depends on Apple, Amazon or Google deciding to make this available as a service. My current money is on Amazon.