Morning coffee, with hummingbirds, Monteverde

If you’re interested (even just professionally) in ecommerce, and you’ve been paying attention, than you’ve been thinking about chat based UIs and commerce for a while. For a quick refresher, you could read the blog post Chinese Mobile App UI Trends.

It all got a little frothy this week (I don’t blame Chris, he’s part of the gestalt), enough that someone asked me my thoughts on it, so I wrote them down.

  1. One of the key promises that seems to be exciting people about chat based UIs and conversational commerce is the ability to route functionality over widely installed communication tools (e.g. Messenger or WeChat) and thereby avoid the hassle associated with building an app, and dealing with Apple/Google gatekeepers. Outside of WeChat however there is no indication that gatekeepers of the communication tools will be any more flexible or less extractive than the gatekeepers for apps. Slack is a bit of darling to hack on at the moment because the API and integration is comparatively generous. (reprising one of the most successful strategies at Flickr)
  2. Pushing a button is always going to be easier than using a conversational interface. Therefore conversational interfaces are going hit their sweet spot when the range of possible actions is large. If I’m doing something simple, transactional and repetitive (like summoning a car), a button is the right UI. (I’ll acknowledge this point is debatable in the context of both home and driving, which while important are arguably growing less so)
  3. Following on the idea of a button being a more straightforward UI, if a given task (or purchase) is something I do frequently enough to be an expert, even if the tasks is complicated, purpose built tools are going to be more powerful, e.g. ordering weekly grocery delivery.
  4. Language is lossy, and trust in new mediums develops over time. I expect that conversational commerce, especially bot mediated, will be dominated by lower price point (sub-$30) purchases in the near future.
  5. On a side note transactions delivered via chat/communication tools will also probably quickly evolve to be much more structured, this isn’t a returning ascendancy of NLP meets command lines.

So what’s the sweet spot in the near future?

We’re looking for casual transactions, at a moderate price point, that aren’t repetitive, and where we aren’t an expert. And we need to be offering this service in a channel which independent of our offering is used frequently enough to be habit forming.

If I was trying to launch something in this area I’d ask myself, “What are the transactions I make, sub-$30, where I still immediately ask someone working at the business for help?”

For more interesting thoughts on building them conversational UIs, this survey by Matt Webb is quite good, especially the Jack Principles from 90s game “You Don’t Know Jack”. (PDF warning)

Finally Daniel’s ideas on “search as a conversation” has affected much of my thinking on search, commerce and communication for years.