Computers and human beings don’t speak the same language. So, to make interaction possible, we rely on graphical user interfaces (GUIs). But GUIs come with a natural barrier: People have to learn to use them.

They have to learn that a hamburger button hides a menu, that a button triggers an action. But with technology evolving and language recognition and processing improving, we are on a path that could make interaction with digital services more intuitive, more accessible and more efficient — through conversational interfaces.

Virtual assistants that live inside messaging apps could help us arrange a trip, shop online, order a ride or even do banking — all powered by chat. Already today, the number of applications that rely on friendly conversation to nurture relationships with customers is growing. In this article, we will look at the current state of conversational interfaces, the challenges they bring and where things are heading.

Conversational interfaces are still a rather rare sight. But slowly, more and more applications are leaving behind the trusty GUI in favor of personal chat. Some of the conversations are already driven by artificial intelligence (AI) — think of the infamous Slackbot — whereas others have humans facilitating the conversation behind the scenes.

The magic is based on a simple Facebook Messenger plugin that is seamlessly built into the booking flow and that triggers the connection to Messenger. When someone books a ticket or checks in via KLM.com, Facebook displays the plugin if the person has logged into Facebook or Messenger on that device in the past 90 days. It’s enabled by default but can be unchecked if the user doesn’t wish to receive any information or updates on their flight. An interesting approach.

If you want to tinker with the Messenger platform yourself, check out Facebook’s guide on how to use its tools to build your own bot.
Virtual travel agent Pana uses a conversational UI with real humans behind the curtain. Communication is handled entirely over chat. To get started, a user is connected to one of Pana’s employees, who gets to know their travel preferences. Whenever the user needs to book a flight, find a hotel or hire a car, they send a message to Pana, and an assistant takes care of it. Pana will provide options and will book in coordination with the user.

The assistant also takes care of checking in, provides all necessary documentation, informs about delays and arranges booking changes in case a flight gets canceled. The promise is that when a user reaches out to Pana, someone from the team will answer the request in 60 seconds. This is an interesting blend of personal service and the latest technology, coming in at $19 a month or $199 a year.

Chris Messina, developer experience lead at Uber, claimed that 2016 would be the year of conversational commerce. One of the services that seek to change the way we shop online is built completely on a conversational interface: Operator. Using it is as simple as writing a text message. Install the Operator app (essentially, a messaging app), send a text saying what you’re looking for (flowers for your spouse, a new messenger bag, concert tickets, anything), and Operator will connect you to one of its experts, who will recommend something suitable for you. If you like their suggestion, you can purchase and pay without having to leave the chat. Backed by a network of merchants from around the world, Operator aims to deliver everything from everyday essentials to exotic goods.

What will the future look like? Viv, an AI platform still in the making, seeks to fundamentally change the way we interact with devices and services through an intelligent, conversational interface. It aims to become an assistant in our pockets that makes tasks like booking a hotel, sending money or ordering a ride more efficient. And it could change the way we develop for the web, too. What makes Viv promising is that the system is constantly learning. Dynamic program generation is the magical part: Developers don’t have to teach the program every line. Instead, Viv is trained to understand the intent of the user, and the program that handles the request is dynamically created based on that. Dag Kittlaus, creator of Viv (and also of Siri), describes the approach as “software that writes itself.” A first demo of Viv was presented to the public in May this year. Viv is expected to open to select partners at the end of this year and then gradually to developers. Exciting times ahead!

Conversational interfaces are still in their infancy. There are still hurdles to jump, and we need to explore what works and what doesn’t. However, this means that there are no beaten paths, yet. It’s a time for experimentation, a time to tinker with the concept and try out something new.

Sergey Demidov, CPO

CPO

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