I have a severe case of "App Fatigue." While I enjoy discovering new mobile apps, the new app inevitably joins dozens of others languishing in trailing screens or folders. My seldom-used apps take up space on my phone and keep my wireless company happy by consuming bandwidth quota during countless app upgrades.
Mary Meeker’s Internet Trends 2016 report suggests I am not alone. According to this report, the average number of apps installed per mobile device is 37, and the average number of apps used daily is 12. Initially, I thought that was high but on reflection, I discovered that I have around 9 go-to apps I regularly use (phone, email, calendar, messages, web browser, navigation, music, camera & facebook). I felt better after reading Mary Meeker’s research that on average, only 3 apps – Facebook, Chrome and YouTube – account for 80% of all app usage.
I find my mobile usage is inherently multi-tasking in nature and immediacy is key. While I regularly use purpose built apps, I am more likely to use search to rapidly access the services I need, especially when I am on the go.
Typing and talking remain my predominant interaction patterns and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. However, I believe that enhanced search capabilities coupled with artificial intelligence, are triggering a change in our interaction patterns. While apps will remain useful, I belive that we will experience a movement away from discrete apps to an interaction patterns based on conversations. But first, let’s touch on a foundational evolutionary step that is laying the foundation for this shift.
When your mobile phone notifications become the interface.
If you use platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google Now, you are interact with content via a series of personalized micro-experiences wrapped in a generic container. Each micro-experience (card) can surface text, images/video, but is also actionable. We tend to scroll through and passively absorb these discrete items until we are sufficiently moved to engage and take action on them. It’s an efficient way to stay informed, and the system allows us pause on occasion to like, share, or otherwise act on content as it appears to us.
I find this design approach useful because it allows me to consume content from a variety of sources without being forced to leave my current context. For a consumer, that means less juggling of multiple apps to access content. For a brand, it provides a scalable and secure way to syndicate discrete, relevant and contextual experiences across a variety of different platforms and screen sizes.
From a designer’s perspective, serving content this way means you are less concerned with creating a single destination, and more with designing systems of inter-related, actionable objects. This approach actually involves more precise design and engineering, and requires a laser focus on particular (and personalized) use cases, which are fed from finely-tuned micro-services that assemble these “cards" on the fly.
Handheld OS’s have adopted a similar paradigm that lays the groundwork for personal assistant/concierge type services. Rather than just bringing content to you, they are becoming more predictive in surfacing contextual and actionable content. By deep linking into mobile apps they not only become more usable, they also begin to break the apps into services. This atomizaton of destinations into discrete services, is the bridge to a smarter and conversational interaction model.
When screens become conversations.
Mobile has already expanded beyond the pure search and app model, with messaging leading the way. Messaging's adoption rate has been astounding, considering that as of 2015, we are now spending more time in messaging apps than on social media, which is a huge turning point.
Once relegated to connecting you with friends and family, messaging apps are morphing into a new kind of content delivery platform that encompasses a diverse range: commerce, customer service, payments, calling a cab, ordering food, internet voice and video calling etc. Enhanced messaging apps are embracing the versatility of chatbots, which have steadily increased their capabilities to provide a richer conversational experience between businesses and the customer. As chatbots mature into personal assistants, we will experience a longer term paradigm shift in human-computer interaction.
What makes these chatbots newly relevant? After all, they have been around since in the early 60’s. Simply put, convenience. They can bring the search experience to you in a conversational model within your current context. The more you can do in a chat session, the less reason you have to launch other apps or use traditional search engines to find or do things on the web. For example, instead of going to 1-800-Flowers website, you can have a conversation with a 1-800-Flowers bot that emulates the sales experience you would have in a retail store.
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Or, you can engage with personal shopping assistant bots like Mezi to “automatically check in to flights, cancel and reschedule flights, make sure you get a vegetarian meal on the plane, or buy off-menu items like cruises and car rentals.”
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As chatbots migrate into useful personal assistants, one can imagine the internet on a path to “reorganizing itself”. One such believer is David Marcus (former CEO of PayPal and current Facebook Messenger Product Manager) who believes that chatbots will declutter the mobile experience and drive a post-app world. They will reach out to you when you need to know something, or respond to questions that you may ask.
With the right configuration and setup, paying your internet bill would be as simple as typing “Pay my internet bill from checking account” or by responding “Pay my Bill” to an internet provider’s chatbot alert. Contrast the ease of that interaction with the many steps it would take to navigate to your bank’s website, log in and wait for authentication, select bill pay, enter payee information and amount, designate payer account, submit request, confirm the order, and receive confirmation!
While the conversational model is still evolving, the demand for great mobile apps will continue with an increased focus on deep linking into specific services. However, the growing interest in concierge type services has already led to Facebook Messenger having over 11,000 available chatbots.They have recently added an opt-in feature that allows you to share your profile with a brand chatbot, which in turn rewards you with more personalized suggestions. Additionally, they are focused on beefing up security in these sessions to protect your financial and personal information. A personal and predictive assistant, that understands and clarifies my requests and confirms that I have the best deal, beats a search engine hands down.
When screens disappear.
When Siri was launched as a voice assistant, users were intrigued by the possibilities of real conversations with computers. We found that simple questions and answers can be amazingly convenient, yet we were often left disappointed and wishing for more from the experience. Siri struggled to understand foreign accents or imperfectly phrased questions, and users who had to repeat requests became frustrated.
However, as with all new technologies, the capabilities and experience are steadily improving. Natural-language artificial intelligence (AI) is growing by leaps and bounds, and is being utilized to help digital assistants learn the principles of conversation.
Amazon Echo, with its Amazon Services integration, home automation features, kitchen assistant and an SDK that allows third-party extension development, has generated over 3 million unit sales. With over 1,000 engineers working on the platform, we can expect some remarkable advancement in capabilities.
Digital assistants will soon be smart enough to ask for clarification only on what they do not understand. They are also increasingly able to process more complex statements. Siri recently unveiled a new artificial intelligence personal assistant platform called Viv, who showed the ability to process more complex statements like “buy flowers for my mom on her birthday.” Aimed at being the intelligent interface to everything, Viv promises to be personalized, available on any device and "powered by every service.”
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And then there is the Google juggernaut, who have been working on upgrading Google Now into a platform called Google Assistant, which will be embedded in 2 new products: Google Home and Allo (Smart chat app). Google Home is similar to Amazon’s Echo, featuring a voice-activated personal assistant in every room, as well as a Wi-Fi speaker. Google’s track record in handling billions of search queries coupled with the comprehensive user profiles it has gathered from your search data, should ensure a compelling experience. Allo will provide a much smarter approach to messaging, again removing the need to constantly leave the app to find information. You'll be able to search from within Allo, and also perform actions, such as making reservations using services like OpenTable.
Amazon Echo and Google Home devices (above)
Apple has acknowledged the increased interest in this area in its new SDK for Siri, which allows developers to use the voice-controlled software in their own apps. Reports indicate that offerings will include a dedicated Wi-Fi speaker for Siri similar to core features in Amazon Echo and Google Home.
Fad or Emerging Trend?
Consumers are already accustomed to online chat, so it’s not a huge stretch for them to willingly engage via text with a personal assistant, especially if it's more convenient and useful. Then there is voice technology, that when coupled with artificial intelligence, and large well-organized knowledge databases, becomes a more convenient and natural form of human-computer interaction (in the right setting of course).
Higher processing capabilities is already device sizes, challenging existing interaction models to the point that screens disappear or have limited functionality. Our demand to access content in every area of life has already triggered the exploration of wearable devices, augmented reality, virtual reality and gestural interfaces. As content interaction patterns evolve, it’s hard to imagine a future where conversations (in whatever form they take), are not a primary interaction model. If the future we can expect that automated chatbots are monitored and guided by humans who intervene when necessary to correct or supplement conversations. Ideally, that model continues in a controlled manner with less and less human intervention and guidance.
What does that mean for existing mobile apps? There are reportedly over 3 million apps across all app stores, which makes discovery a challenge unless you have a strong brand and/or are willing to spend a lot to promote your app. If you are able to get users to download your app, 62% of those apps get opened less than 11 times during their lifespan. Contrast that with Messengers allure of over 900 million users with their robust profiles and social graphs. It is likely that Messengers’ core personal assistant features will mature and tap into an ever-growing ecosystem of exposed services that are seamlessly woven together to make our lives easier.
As digital marketing professionals, it’s time to pay closer attention to these rapidly emerging technologies. They will have a profound impact on the end-to-end customer journeys we design. While they are not yet ready for complex scenarios involving hundreds of options, chatbots and personal assistants already gracefully handle single or predictable tasks. The technology and underlying intelligence they utilize are rapidly gaining in capability and complexity.
What does the future look like? As we embrace these conversational interfaces, we will provide content-seeking users with more than a list of websites to sift through. When you ask a question, sentences will be translated and parsed into words, context will be derived, clarifications will be requested as needed, and customer profiles will be accessed and analyzed. Ultimately, purposeful multi-media content (Text, Images, Videos, Voice) will be dynamically assembled on the fly and contextually delivered as your “answer.” While still front-ended by a fundamentally search-initiated approach (in the form of a question), engines that combine backend natural language processing and AI will create increasingly personalized micro-experiences (Answers) that make our lives even easier.
The implication for technologists and experience designers is that intent-driven design has never been more important. It will drive greater focus on understanding and designing for customer's needs. Effective deployment of new technologies will require a more granular understanding of the key use cases we need to support, as well as identification of which actionable micro-experiences must be sequenced in conversational human-centered models.
The move to a conversational model requires a shift in perspective. Fundamentally, destinations become less important than the conversational systems we create. As a means of reference, it will require breaking down the various aspects of a website into smaller atomic units (and their related actions), that can be accessed via any input method and delivered via even larger channels of choice. It will also require close developer involvement to create more discrete API’s (micro-services) that power these micro-experiences. As these micro-services become increasingly more available and accessible (internally and externally), integrations will allow even more robust offerings that fuel business plans, product strategy and design. Not only will that enhance the customer experience, but it will also forge new revenue streams for innovative service providers.