My name is Dr. Barbara Ondrisek. Today I’m going to give a talk about personalities of chatbots.
I’ve been working as a freelancer and consultant for more than 15 years for different mostly big companies. I have a strong Backend dev background and in the last couple of years I’ve been working as a Senior Backend developer with a disposedness to full stack and mobile.
I also love to play around with other technologies and as Facebook announced on their F8 conference mid of April to open up their Messenger platform to bots I was eager to try their API!
So I created one of the very first chatbots on Facebook – and definitely Austria’s first Facebook Messenger and Skype chat bot: Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot.
Over the past few months a lot of useful chatbots and virtual assistants were released . Their functionality and complexity gets better and better day by day. Now you can book a flight, order food via chatbot or get advice by virtual shopping assistants – just to mention a few!
Concentrating on the dialog, especially the text you send to the customer, could be an advantage since you don’t distract people with a fancy user interface. On the other hand you are not able to seduce and hook people with a colorful or decent UI.
The whole functionality of a service is built in a conversational matter, that naturally reveals itself during a dialog, going over the steps through a decision tree. This way most of the features are “hidden” inside of the chatbot. Some platforms offer buttons, menus or other UI elements that enhance the interaction, but within a conversation normally it’s hard to get an overview of all the features a chatbot can offer. Some chatbots remind of the old text based adventure games like Zork: You have to talk to the chatbot to get to know it and a possible path it can lead to.
Historically speaking the very first chatbot was developed at the MIT AI Lab by the computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum in the mid–1960s. This bot, ELIZA, did not really had a sparkling personality, but was able to simulate a Rogerian psychiatrist. With this project Weizenbaum wanted to find out, how natural language can be used in human-computer-interfaces. ELIZA was programmed to analyze the input of keywords and to respond with a number of canned phrases containing therapeutical language. So, when someone said “Oh, last night I had a dream about my father”, ELIZA responded with “Tell me more about your father!” since she scanned the text input for keywords and rephrased typically a new question to keep the person talking.
Another early example for chatbots is Parry, a bot mimicking a person with paranoid schizophrenia, in the early 1970s. Later in 1972, ELIZA and Parry were thrown together for a bot-to-bot conversation, which Parry quickly steered down a rabbit hole of corrupt horse racing gambling.
One of my most favorite chatbot characters is Poncho, the weather cat. He is a cute and funny cartoon cat cute, that loves pizza. The purpose of this character is to inform and entertain the users. You can even play games with him!
The personality of a chatbot is the key to the commonness using the service. It really is the secret sauce! Otherwise you could use another interface of a service like a website, an app, a hotline or a widget. But why do people use Poncho? Because they can actually talk to him and be entertained.
Our usage statistics of Mica show clearly that from the total 550k incoming requests only 120k resulted in the number one use case (discover venues); that’s approximately 20% of all the requests. What do the other 80% want? They want to talk and chitchat! Depending on the messenger platform (we launched on Facebook, Skype, Telegram, Kik, Beta on WeChat, Line, and Viber) they want to small talk, ask whether she’s a cat or a bot, request help, amuse themselves with cat pictures or exchange meows with the cat. The most used phrases are greetings with “Hi” as the top used word.
Decide on what sort of tone and approach you want to use to communicate with your customers. Mica for instance is based on my cat, my real cat, at home. Mica is friendly, always hungry, sometimes a bit intrusive. She also likes hip and trendy coffee shops, she likes to share funny cat pictures and doesn&apos;t like water. Although the hipster mustache implies a male character, Mica is a female cat.
However. at the beginning Mica was chosen (as a joke) as the official “Head of Communication” to be addressed for PR requests with another project of mine: LIKE A HIPSTER. When Facebook announced to open their messenger platform to bot, I wanted to “translate” the LIKE A HIPSTER service to a chatbot version. I also decided to use a cat as the character for a dialog, because I think every single cat owner would love to actually talk to their cat! Also, people tend to be disturbed when they cannot distinguish whether they are chatting with a person or a computer program. Thus, I chose Mica as the perfect dialog partner.
With Mica I learned a lot about user experience-design. Most people just try out which combinations or commands a chatbot understands and where its capabilities end. For instance, there is still no common standard established for chatbots, although most understand “hi”, “start” and “help”.
People, especially teenagers or seniors, tend to text with bots more. Studies show that seniors tend to chat with Siri when they are lonely; the same happens with bots that are capable of conversation.
Another interesting aspect is that people react emotionally to bots. They love them and tell the bot this, or they hate them and start using foul language. Based on this data, you could create personality profiles of bot users. For instance depending on the type of language, grade of used slang or number of grammar and spelling mistakes one could assume the age of a user.
Microsoft just recently released Zo, a teenager girl bot on Kik, that uses machine learning… and it seams they kind of did not learn from Tay, their former twitter chatbot, which turned out to become a holocaust denier.
Users try out what’s possible and tend to text with bots like no one is listening. This was also shown very early, because when Weizenbaum was building ELIZA, he realized that one tester felt ashamed when he entered the room, saying, “Sorry, but I’m currently talking to ELIZA! Could you please leave!”
Some people start to swear just for fun or send unrelated questions such as “Where is Barbara?”. Since Mica also has quite a narrow aim (to find hip venues worldwide), people are usually quickly satisfied when trying a chat.
People also get upset easily when a bot does not meet their expectation. In order not to frustrate the users, Mica sends a funny cat picture to entertain if she doesn’t find venues in the vicinity or does not understand the request. Mica is polite and responds accordingly with basic conversation skills.
My key learnings running and maintaining Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot are:
- Be positive, be funny, be unique!
Create a unique personality people want to have a chat with. “Conversation can also bring connection and joy, and laughter is one of the most fundamental mechanisms for making people feel comfortable and creating positive associations and memories.”
- Respond to all types of input!
Users tend so send emoji, stickers, sometimes images and audio files (wtf) – Mica also uses all kind of types from gifs to audio file of a purring cat.
- Learn and adapt continuously according to the users’ input and reaction!
Chatbots are new and users try to find the limits and boundaries of chatbots
- Use analysis tools!
We use – in addition to the tracking tools of the platforms – Google Analytics and a self-build tool
- Respond to rude behavior!
With Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot we use a bad word dictionary. Users try and you have to respond accordingly. Poncho for instance stops to respond to you until you apologize.
- No common standards! (yet)
Respond at least to generic requests like “hi”, “how are you?”, “help”
- Add Easter Eggs!
Users love it when they find Easter Eggs. – additional entertaining.
- NEVER pretend to be a human
People get irritated easily when they don’t know who they are talking to or how the conversation partner is listening. Same also concerns a human takeover strategy.
- Define a clear aim
When you’re Google, Amazon or Apple you can release a chatbot that does everything. Otherwise stick to a clear use case and character.
- Be very careful how often, when and how to notify users!
Retention (and discovery) is a problem with chatbots (as for websites and apps), so be careful not to spam your precious users
I founded the Chatbots Agency, the first agency for chatbots with (paying!) international customers.