Chris Messina, Developer Experience Lead at Uber, writes on Medium about what he calls conversational commerce, a rising way of interactions based on text and/or speech going hand in hand with the rise of messaging apps:
“Starting this year, we will test tools that allow you to use WhatsApp to communicate with businesses and organizations that you want to hear from. That could mean communicating with your bank about whether a recent transaction was fraudulent, or with an airline about a delayed flight. We all get these messages elsewhere today — through text messages and phone calls — so we want to test new tools to make this easier to do on WhatsApp, while still giving you an experience without third-party ads and spam.” (…)
I want to clarify that conversational commerce (as I see it) largely pertains to utilizing chat, messaging, or other natural language interfaces (i.e. voice) to interact with people, brands, or services and bots that heretofore have had no real place in the bidirectional, asynchronous messaging context. The net result is that you and I will be talking to brands and companies over Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, Telegram, Slack, and elsewhere before year’s end, and will find it normal. Indeed, there are several examples of this phenomenon already, but those examples are few and far between, and fit in a Product Hunt collection rather than demand an entire App Store (wait for it).
In some respect a few online retailers, outside of China and WeChat, are already utilizing or at least experimenting with this interface model. Berlin based Outfittery “curates” fashion for men. The online retailer uses telephone and WhatsApp for conversations between customers and stylists.
Zalando experiments with WhatsApp (German) for its curation/styling service Zalon.
Additionally, I’m less interested in whether a conversational service is provided by a human, bot, or some combination thereof. If I use these terms interchangeably, it’s not unintentional. It’s just that over an increasing period of time, computer-driven bots will become more human-feeling, to the point where the user can’t detect the difference, and will interact with either human agent or computer bot with roughly the same interaction paradigm.
It will be bots and/or humans. It will be text and/or speech. The interface model doesn’t change: conversational. In fact, I suspect the biggest gains for this model will come from seamless transitions between text and speech for example. Because this way this interface will be able to fit into anybody’s every day life. Text for while one is on the train and speech for while one is preparing dinner for example. (Like water, this interface model finds its place.)
Long-time readers might guess what comes next: Amazon is very well positioned for this with its (compared to other parties at this stage) strong Ech/Alexa voice platform.
Messina on discoverability:
One of the biggest challenges of this paradigm is the discovery of new conversational services.
Should messaging incumbents each provide their own conventional app store, where users can browse recommended partners, a la Snapchat Discover or Slack’s App Directory? And should these conversational services rely exclusively on distribution from popular messaging apps? (…)
…or should these services be accessed in-context through data detectors or through a dedicated expansion interface, as in Facebook Messenger?
This interface paradigm will certainly change the discover mechanisms for those services that will work well within such an environment. But it is rather unclear how exactly this will play out in the long run.
No longer do you need to convince users to “download and install” an app — they can just invite a bot to a conversation and interact with it [eventually] like they would a person. Zero barriers to adoption, with minimal risk to the user (i.e. malware, etc). (..)
There is one aspect to this that can easily be overseen: By removing the need to “download and install” an app, the services behind those apps can easier and faster spread as simple chat services than how they could have as full-blown mobile apps. Now combine that with the immense reach of mobile messaging apps and one can easily get to the conclusion that this might spread very, very fast.
(WhatsApp is at 990 million users, Facebook Messenger at 800 million users. Both will be pushed hard by Facebook in the coming months into this direction because in a sense they are what Echo/Alexa is to Amazon: A way to get out of the mobile mess there both companies are dependent on what Apple and Google allow and do not allow. Facebook wants to become a platform provider as much as Amazon wants to.)
For one thing, the Uber integration in Messenger was made possible because mobile payment mechanisms are now commonplace in chat apps. Since you can send money directly within Facebook Messenger, that payment vehicle can in turn be used to pay bots for products.
Also, don’t underestimate the costs that are far cheaper for this interface model:
Lessin points out that building conversational bots costs less and happens faster than building and maintaining cross-platform apps. This is critical.
In a sense, those bots might become in some respect crucial parts for a platform agnostic cost-efficient strategy to reach customers. (Think of it like those messaging interfaces taking on parts of the jobs websites do in a word of apps.)
One last word on the context of this. Of course, not everything will move to the conversational interface. It is ‘merely’ enrichening the existing toolset for online retailers and others.
Will everything move to the conversational paradigm?
No, but there are a lot of apps that shouldn’t exist as stand-alone apps, and that are wallowing in obscurity or disuse. By reducing the cost and friction of trying out new services, the conversational commerce paradigm promotes an entirely new era of lightweight experimentation. Over time, service builders can focus more on the apparent value that they can deliver through the familiar conversational channel, and can finally dispense with requiring users to learn their app’s needlessly bespoke interface.
Sounds like a lot of potential.