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What do the Recent Facebook Updates Mean for ChatBot Developers

04.03.2017

By Anatoly Khorozov @Talania

Facebook announced some significant updates to its Messenger — not only to the app itself but also to APIs, which chatbot developers use to connect their “creatures” to the Messenger. Facebook presents those recent changes as “more ways for users to discover, share and engage with the meaningful experiences that our community is building.”

Facebook Messenger

The most important additions include:

  • Completely redesigned persistent menu a.k.a. “hamburger”
  • Several new features making it easier for users to share the bot
  • Improved customer matching
  • Better analytics
  • New features to implement ecommerce solutions I

The changes in the persistent menu have attracted most of the debate in the bot developer community, and specifically the feature that allows a developer to disable free input by typing and restrict all interactions between the user and the bot to menus and buttons.

With regard to this, TechCrunch pretty straightforward outlined the problems chatbot developers and users had experienced in the past:

One of the problems with Facebook’s bots is that it’s often unclear how to get started. The directory of bots in Messenger wasn’t initially available and now only reveals itself when you start a search in the app. And it hasn’t always been obvious how to get a bot talking, once added, or how to navigate back and forth through a bot’s many sections.

The new features, in conjunction with the Get Started button, now allow developers to address this issue and create a simple Messenger experience without conversational capabilities.

Which brings up a very good question:

Is it still a chatbot if you can’t text it?

The same  question was raised by TechCrunch reporter in response to the Convos feature rolled out yesterday by Octane AI. And the major reason behind it is the fact that marketers who’ve tried to sell products or build brands targeting a “chatting generation” of Millennials, despite all the great efforts to “fill” ChatBots with more advanced artificial intelligence so they can keep up chatting with users, have backed away from the “chat-only” idea but they still see the Messenger as their primary alley to reach customers.

However, there is no single opinion on that among the ChatBot developers yet. And so their reaction to the Facebook announcement was a kind of ping-pong between “this is cool” and “this ruins the whole concept.”

To me, it very much depends on what kind of ChatBot you’re developing. If you are building something of a transactional nature that should support easy fast navigation and serve customers in a bullet-proof manner, then those set of menus are really helpful and disabling text input may contribute to a great user experience. However, if your bot is dealing with complex information that is difficult to fit into the constraints of a rule-based approach, then a combination of traditional chat (supported with intelligently implemented Natural Language Understanding) and buttons or menus may well be your preference.

The quote from Omar Siddiqui, a creator of the Sequel ChatBot platform, just confirms it:

Over the past year, bot developers have been busy primarily figuring out the interaction model that will work for consumers in this new medium. While the initial expectations had been that we would go to a full natural language only experience in interacting with bots, it has actually been a combination of native messaging app user interface elements, ranging from vertical and horizontal carousels, and graphics-rich buttons combined with conversational text that has emerged as the most effective paradigm.

At the end of the day, a key goal is to provide a billion plus users of Facebook Messenger with solutions that they actuall love using, and a well designed chatbot is still a chatbot even if you can’t text it.

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