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Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Might "chat" become the universal User Interface?

Google’s home page has a single box: “what are you looking for?”. We type our questions, and receive answers.

In contrast, most other home pages are cluttered with images, adverts, complex menus and general clutter. We have to hunt for what we’re looking for amongst the trivia, the distractions and the irrelevant. Often times our answer is buried several pages into a site - so we have the added distraction of working out how to navigate to what we want.

The web was a brilliant invention for publication, but it’s a frustrating one when we just want an answer or to get something done.

Google originally became popular not because its search was especially better than others, but because its clean and simple home page loaded quickly, in an era when many of us were still using dial-up modems.

Fast, clean and simple, the “search box as universal home page” launched a $430bn company.

If search as a UI works for Google, why should it not be extended for a bank, an insurance company or a retailer? Of course our needs with those organisations are frequently more complex than simple search. So the simple search box needs to be extended to allow a dialogue. We ask questions, we get answers without distractions.

Your retailer might ask “What are you looking for?” and we might type “I’m looking for men’s casual shirts”. And Boom!, there you are, straight to the men’s casual shirt page.

Or your insurance company might ask “How can I help you?” and we might reply with “I’d like a car insurance quote”. The chat would then enter a natural language dialogue where we are asked a series of further questions to gather the required information. All of this can be done through a single chat dialogue - just in the way that we message our friends and relatives in iMessage, Facebook or WhatsApp.

Rather than searching in vein for the “how to change your password” and navigating several pages of a website, we would just type “how do I change my password” and get straight to the information we need.

Of course chat needs to be more than simple text. A chat dialogue can have embedded pictures, videos, maps, links and can cause an app to do things like display a popup. It’s not that there’s only chat, but that chat might be the centre of the user experience.

The dominance of social media apps in the modern age means that a “chat interface” is now our most frequently used interface with a computer. All of us, from teenager to grandparent, have a common and universal understanding of how chat works.

Indeed evidence from China is that chat interfaces for brands of all sizes are now expected and commonplace. The Chinese appear comfortable adopting this style of interaction not just with friends, but also businesses.

Of course there is one drawback to using “chat as the universal UI” – and that’s that it needs a human on the other end. It’s all very well us chatting to our bank or our local builder’s merchant, but that needs an army of trained people to respond…

That is where cognitive technologies like IBM Watson come in. Because Watson understands natural language and is able to hold a conversation, it can automate these chat-based interfaces. Instead of chatting with a human operator at a business, that business trains Watson to handle the chat on its behalf.

We’re already seeing these automated “virtual assistants” in our phones. Siri, Google Now and Cortana prove that no smartphone worth its salt can now come to the market without one. Some may sniff at the idea of chatting to a computer in our phones, but more than half of US teens now use “voice search” daily.

Riding on the popular familiarity of assistants like Siri, we’re beginning to see a new wave of “conversational” apps where the primary interface is a chat one.

  • Native is a travel concierge app, with a chat interface
  • Vida is life and health coach app, with a chat interface
  • is a personal assistant who schedules meetings for you, through a chat interface
  • Luka is an app that finds and books places to eat, through a chat interface

One of the most popular calendar apps on iOS is Fantastical. A big reason for its popularity is because you can use natural language to interact with it. Type “I want a meeting with Fred at 10pm tomorrow” and it creates an appropriate calendar entry for you.

Simplicity sells and chat is the simplest UI imaginable – instantly recognisable to all and more efficient than complex menus and mice. I think we’re seeing the start of a big trend with chat interfaces because of that simplicity.

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