I figured that there are still a lot of questions to be answered and discussed on the topic of chatbots. Here the most common questions and answers:
What is a Chatbot?
A chatbot is a (ro)bot which is an interactive program that talks to you and answers requests. Bots are also referred to as “virtual assistants”, “conversational UI” or “conversational commerce”. They answer as naturally as possible to requests so that it feels like a conversation. Their topic depends on the business’ focus and could be a weather forecast bot, an online-shop assistant, or a hotel reservation bot; and in my case it’s a venue recommendation bot.
The idea (and opportunity) behind chatbots is that there is no huge barrier to use it in contrast to apps, which have to be installed separately. You’d need a phone with an app store, also have to remember your password in order to install an app, need to have free space on the device and a good connection to download it etc. only to mention some of the obstacles getting your app delivered to the user. In contrast to that 1 billion people worldwide are already using Facebook Messenger (and 300 million use Skype) and now with a chatbot I can reach all of them easily. You don’t need to install a specific app to use a bot because it is integrated in the chat provider infrastructure such as Messenger, Skype or Telegram. And since Facebook also launched messenger.com as a separate website you can now use the chat in a browser without an app - next to facebook.com.
Bots could support or replace regular services of bigger companies such as service hotlines or FAQs, which could lead to massive cost savings.
Why a chatbot and not an app?
900 million monthly active users of Facebook Messenger and 300 million users of Skype can request coffee shop and restaurant recommendations without having to go to any app store. They can just directly interact with Mica.
One big adoption barrier for apps is that you have to get people to the app store to download your app. If your app is not mission critical this is even more difficult. The whole process of downloading apps is quite complicated and tedious for many people. It often means that they might have to enter a password or figure out how to free up storage by deleting other apps. Because of that some people don’t use any apps apart from what comes pre-installed or what other people helped them to get onto their phone.
By building on top of the Messenger platform a lot of adoption barriers suddenly disappear.
Another key learning for me was that most people are still quite unfamiliar with the idea of a bot within chat platforms (yet). Most people expect that they have to download an app and are very surprised about the fact that they can just directly send messages to Mica. I’m curious how fast bots will become mainstream.
Isn’t it only a hype?
Microsoft announced end of March at their BUILD conference the bot-support on Skype. Two weeks later Facebook announced at their F8 conference that they finally opened their messenger API for bots and the first bots started to be approved by Facebook. Only a few days later Hi Poncho, a Facebook Messenger weather bot, raised 2M of funding.
Further Google presented at their Google I/O (mid May) another innovative chat platform Allo that also should support bots. Further they announced in mid July their Cloud Natural Language API as a Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Machine Learning framework. IBM also released their NLP framework Watson. So all of the big players in the field are pushing the topic.
From my perspective a “hype” is something where a topic is exaggerated in terms of publicity in contrast to its value. When I talk to people it seems, that people underestimate the topic of bots when they call it “just a hype”.
Here are some facts to think about:
- Users worldwide using messenger platforms:
- WhatsApp: 1 billion monthly active users (MAU)
- Facebook Messenger: 950 MAU
- QQ („ICQ“ of China): 877 MAU
- WeChat („WhatsApp“ of China): 762 MAU
- Twitter: 310 MAU
- Skype: 300 MAU
- Line App (Asia) : 220 MAU
- Telegram: 100 MAU
- Kik (USA): 200 million registered users (total)
- Slack: 3 million daily active users
- Ease to use: No app install needed, platform independent and no waiting involved until a new release is approved. People are used to the user interface because they already “learned” these platforms.
Chatbots are not only a hype, they are the future of conversational commerce!
See also this amazing presentation of oratio:
How does Mica work?
Mica, the Hipster Cat is one of the first bots that got approved by Facebook to run on the brand new Facebook Messenger platform that helps you discover hip venues.
Mica, the Hipster Cat is an interactive chatbot, meaning that everyone can text her like a real person on Facebook Messenger or Skype.
To start a conversation you have to scan the code with the Messenger app or message the Facebook page. You can also send a message on Skype. A great feature is, that the bot works worldwide and you can get suggestions for coffee shops and restaurants in every city. If you send your GPS location or the name of a city e.g. “Vienna, 1070” or “San Francisco”, you receive a selection of the best venues close by.
The recommendations are always up-to-date and I retrieve them from different data sources such as TripAdvisor, Foursquare or Yelp. In their APIs I look for certain criteria to present only the best to the users. Mica who lives the Zeitgeist stands for quality!
If Mica does not find a venue in the vicinity she sends you a funny cat picture to entertain. You can also suggest new restaurants with simply typing “I suggest …”. Mica is also polite and responds accordingly to “Hello!”, “thank you” or “bye” and has basic conversation skills.
Why did you write Mica?
I love fancy coffee shops and restaurants! I spend lots of time hanging out in them, meeting friends or working, and I have my own favorite hipster locations in some towns where I know that the coffee and vibe is just perfect. So I thought it would be great fun to have a chatbot that shares my love for good coffee and food that can be asked for recommendations worldwide. This way whenever I want to try a new café or when I travel somewhere, I know, I can ask my trusted companion about her suggestions.
Also I was always eager to try new stuff so I started to develop a chatbot for hipster recommendations using the Facebook Messenger infrastructure — and Mica, The Hipster Cat Bot was born.
How do you pronounce the name?
Mica is based on my own cat at home. I named her after the Czech (Slavic) word for “kitty”. Correctly one would pronounce that “Mitza”, and not “Mika” or like the name “Micah”. But frankly I don’t care as long as the people are happy with my chatbot 🙂
What happened since the launch?
I clearly underestimated the Product Hunt community’s enthusiasm for cats and coffee! Since the launch (6 months ago):
- More than 500.000 messages were received - Almost 200.000 hipster location recommendations were given - Over 100.000 funny cat pics were sent - Approx. 50.000 unique users already chatted with Mica
These are quite exciting times, building one of the first bots feels a bit like building the first mobile applications back in the day when the app stores where still empty. If you haven’t yet I’d encourage you to try some bots and think about what kind of bot you would build.
Barbara Ondrisek, aka “Bot Mother”, is an enthusiastic software developer with 15+ years of experience. As a freelancer she worked on a multitude of web projects (lately George / Erste Bank) or on building apps. With Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot, a chatbot that helps you discover hip places, she created one of the first chatbots worldwide on the Facebook Messenger platform - the very first bot on Messenger and Skype in Austria, which is also listed as testimonial in the official Skype FAQs.