Chat as your next interface?

Brett Thornton
By Brett Thornton under Insights 14 January 2016

The future of apps, continued...

In August last year, our post ‘The App is Dead’ sparked a healthy debate - within the team here at TAB HQ, online, and with our clients.

Central to this discussion were three big statements: apps are being unbundled across devices; within devices; and we spend less time in apps asking questions, and more time with answers proactively pushed to us.

In this post, we dive into just one of the many ways apps are being unbundled, taking a closer look at the idea of chat as a primary user interface. Chat is an excellent example of how apps are breaking free from traditional constraints.

Conversational Commerce

It has been a year since Chris Messina coined the term ‘Conversational Commerce’ to capture a growing sense that chat, messaging and voice are becoming important interfaces for more than just talking to our friends and family. He wrote that ‘...just because everyone has a screen in their pocket doesn’t imply that they should be forced to look at it to interact with your service.’ Today, the very best services on mobile are asking less of their users, and instead focus on finding low involvement methods of interaction.

Now, you might think chat requires a high degree of involvement from a user - typing; constructing sentences. However, the power of chat as an interface is that it feels so familiar - the barrier to entry for a user is very low and it’s actually pretty low effort. Chat requires fewer steps to complete complex tasks because we are much better at writing or verbalising what we need than remembering and navigating a hierarchy of menus to get stuff done.

Think about typing 'send flowers to my mum' to your smart assistant - and compare that to the lengthy process of finding and downloading a flower delivery app, selecting flowers, inputting your details, paying, confirming...

Defining chat services

Chat interfaces appear in two distinct types of apps and services: dedicated assistant apps and voice-led assistants, which are often built into the operating system or device.

A) Dedicated app-as-assistant

There has been an explosion of apps using chat as an interface. Broadly, these can be subdivided into single services and more general ‘butler’ or ‘assistant’ apps, which plug into many services to help you do multiple things. Some of these chat services live within mobile apps, while others are simple SMS services. Those within mobile apps can combine richer content with text, but require users to download ‘yet another’ app. SMS services bypass this requirement, but are limited in the functionality they can offer.

Single service app-as-assistant

Nir Eyal wrote about the ‘assistant-as-app’ last year. Many of these bring a conversational twist to services that have long existed on mobile, while others utilise on the trust and regular detailed interactions of chat to make users’ lives better.

Pana travel app

While these apps are useful, there is only so much space in a user’s life - and on their phone - for chat apps dedicated to individual services. Customers might have one or two chat services that they find especially valuable, but don’t expect to see phones full of single purpose chat-based apps.

General / butler app-as-assistant

Looking beyond these dedicated single services, there are a range of apps adopting chat as their primary interface.

Haptic and Magic

Established players like Facebook and Path are also exploring this space, positioning themselves as the connection between you and businesses. Facebook has taken a step further towards automation within their Messenger product, allowing partner businesses to directly message customers with info about orders, delivery and support.

Facebook and Uber

Facebook is also rumoured to have built a chat SDK that will open up the platform and enable businesses to automate messaging users, with the goal of making Facebook Messenger a hub for quick access to many services on your device - much like Slack’s strategy for the enterprise.

But it’s not really new news

The use of chat as a way of getting everything you need isn’t new. It has been the case in apps, especially in Asia, for years. This great Dan Grover post from 2014 discussed chat as a universal UI in Chinese apps back in 2014.

As Benedict Evans has noted, a WeChat user can ‘...send money, order a cab, book a restaurant or track and manage an ecommerce order, all within one social app.’ In this ecosystem, many smaller organisations are opting to use official accounts - living within WeChat or other platforms - as their primary mobile interface.


B) System-level voice assistants

Aggregator services - like those from Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon - have the advantage of being accessible at the OS or device layer. iPhone owners, for example, can now say ‘Hey Siri’ to talk to the eponymous service,  and Android users can say ‘OK Google’ to start a request.

Siri is restricted to selected partners and has only limited third-party integrations with HomeKit, but Google has gone all-out on wooing developers to integrate with a Google Now API, the 'OK, Google” command, and Voice Actions you can attribute to your app. Microsoft and Amazon both have similar kits for developers to plug apps into their assistants.

What this means is that where Siri and Google Now were originally limited to core iOS and Google services, they can now book you a table through OpenTable, control your lights and heating, or book you a taxi (Android only).

These system-level voice assistants are also extending beyond phones into watches, tablets, TVs and cars.

Though these services have been around for a number of years, they are just now becoming an important battleground. This has happened because:

Each of these services began as voice-controlled assistants, but they are now branching out into new interfaces. Both Google and Apple have been adding more visual elements to their assistants - with Apple adding the Proactive view to iOS, and Google continuing to expand the places where its notifications and suggestions are surfaced across devices.

So when does an assistant become intelligent?

While most of these services are simply automating a gradually growing list of commands using a conversational style, they all long for real intelligence. Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon are all keenly exploring the area, with Google pushing hard to protect its once-safe position as the your first stop for information on the web.

Facebook has been the most public in chasing this goal. It has been testing a service called ‘M’, which lives within the Messenger app but is an assistant comprised of part-human ‘trainers’, and part-AI. See this Buzzfeed article for a great deep dive into how the mysterious M works...

So what does all this actually mean?

We are expecting a very public race between the five consumer tech giants to become the AI of choice. These services need lots of data to mature, so you can anticipate lots of part-finished offerings hitting the market, and those players with access to lots of users scaling more successfully.

There will also continue to be a whole range of app assistant services, both dedicated single services and broader butler offerings.

We believe it’s too early to pick one horse, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be getting ready for the eventuality that your customers will want to interact with you using chat, messaging or voice-based services.

To prepare for this, make sure you’re ready to answer all of these questions:

The good news is, we can help you answer these questions - drop us a line at enquiries@theappbusiness.com to get in touch.