Decades ago, the best way to interact with the customer was face-to-face. Fast-forward to the noughties, and the World Wide Web replaced face-to-face with interface-driven interactions. These interfaces provided a simplified way for users to make inputs into complex machine computations to create the desired outputs. From there, the move to mobile ensued, which provided a smaller and lighter version of the Web. And now mobile has evolved into the app world of today.

However, one of the challenges faced by businesses today is that people are downloading fewer apps because the entire customer engagement process has become abstracted and impersonal. The humanised touch of face-to-face has been replaced by interfaces that generalise interactions, and app stores and page rankings have widened the gap between the company and the customer. This suggests the time of apps as the customer engagement platform of choice might already be entering twilight.

The industry is in a scramble at the moment to create the next Web or app store, and new channels are set to emerge, as tech giant and start-up alike jostle to become the next customer engagement platform. Technology companies of all sizes are looking to define the next method of customer interaction, which is increasingly looking like it is set to return to the more fluid conversation style of face-to-face, but enhanced and automated through intelligent tech.

Find a friend

Some of these new methods include digital assistants, with services such as Siri, Cortana, Facebook M, Viv, Hound, Google Assistant and many more coming to the fore. Another form of interaction that has recently become popular is through bots – chatbots, more specifically.

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, said at this year’s Build Conference that bots are the new apps. He also said human language is the new UI (user interface). In future, he added, computers will be infused with intelligence about people and their context, and will transform how users’ digital selves interact with businesses.

This is part of a drive from companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook and Apple to provide businesses with new ways to engage with their customers, using the basics of chat interfaces like Skype, Allo, Facebook Messenger and iMessage.

The time of apps as the customer engagement platform of choice might already be entering twilight.

Moving in this new direction of conversational user interfaces removes all of the navigational structures the Web and apps provide, and replaces it with a ‘freeform input field’. This poses multiple challenges, especially on a technological front, as users are now allowed to navigate through value offerings using natural language.

Talking to walls

Everyone has encountered some type of input-based user interface. This could have been in the form of a search or menu-driven interface, such as unstructured supplementary service data or interactive voice response. The limitation shared by these interfaces is that the interaction is not a fluid conversation. Until now, there have only been unidirectional conversations through these interfaces, with either end of the conversation being a static or crafted response.

Advances in natural language processing, machine learning and artificial intelligence have been the catalysts of the chatbot revolution, with numerous chatbot-based platforms being launched in 2016. Big tech players have also centred their developer conferences on these bots. Without a doubt, there will be more development in this space over the coming months.

At Facebook’s F8 conference earlier this year, for example, the company announced it is opening up the Messenger platform, which boasts 900 million active users, to developers and businesses to create chatbots that interact with their customers. Facebook said a growing number of businesses were already using the Messanger platform to communicate with customers. Chatbots would allow businesses to create conversational experiences for their customers that are personalised and fit in with how they already communicate, the company said.

Although chatbots have made an impact in the developer communities, it has yet to be seen what the mass adoption of these interactions will look like. In addition, conversational user interfaces do not stop with chatbots and messaging interfaces, as digital assistants using voice as the input method have also attracted much attention.

There is an exciting journey ahead, as definitions around user experience and user intent – and the value of these conversations – evolve. The environment is fast moving, and the industry and platforms continue to compete for pre-eminence.

However, it is important for businesses to gear up to adapt to these changes and experiment with ways to leverage these new avenues of reaching customers. The changes may seem far away, and many companies are still getting to grips with some of the current means of communication, but the era of exponential change is truly here. Are you ready?

This was first published in ITWeb on 29 July 2016