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Want to improve user experience with your Bots? Consider not making questions.

It may actually be about not expecting answers...

Users are getting more and more used to interacting with Bots that automate processes and services. And chances are they are the experience is not living up to the expectations we have collectively created.

As bot-makers, we are looking for ways of making conversations natural and fluid, tweeking every part of the experience, from the conversation design to the underlying technology.

I’m going to put my two cents to this joint learning experience, starting with a HUGE disclaimer: I’m not sure this is the way to go, neither how each of us can implement or develop this concept. It’s something we are just working on, but it’s showing quite promising results.

Conversational processes usualy revolve around a sequence of questions. If you want to book a plane ticket, for instance, you are going to be asked about departure airport, destination, date, time, number of passengers, if you need a one-way or a round-trip, price restrictions, desired number of stops, and so many other points.

A number of decisions must be made in the conversation design phase of such a Bot in order to optimize the conversation flow, both on the inputs and the outputs side. Decisions like, “do we really want to ask for the number of desired stops?” Or, “should we tell the user we have 80 options, or should we just choose the one or two that we find best suited for our user?”.

The question we made ourselves when trying to make this conversations flexible was “how can we let each client interact with us in his or her own terms?”. The answer we came up with was: “what if we treat each user utterance as a statement, instead of an answer to the previous question we made?”.

Bear with me. We obviously can go through the set of questions in whatever order the conversation designer has decided, and we can also link them together in any sort of NLU or ”slot filling” that may allow the client to provide a number of answers in one single turn (i.e. “from Boston to NYC tomorrow evening”), but this strategy provides a less-than-great user experience.

As industry thought leaders, we are spreading the idea that Bots should make “closed questions” to guide clients, not because clients can’t hold more sophisticated conversations, but because WE can’t. This falls short (IMHO), so let’s try to go a step beyond it.

Let’s presume you are in the plane booking process, and you ask your client “at what time to you want to be there?”. A Bot will probably expect a time or time-span, and won’t let the user walk away of this question without a valid answer. Some smarter Bots will understand something like “I don’t really care”, and move into the next question, but what if the user says “how much is the non-stop flight with American Airlines?” or “I’m looking for a non-stop under $300”.

This utterances are not easy to deal with, but may not be as tought to process either. But you’ll never have a chance to properly deal with them if you assume they are the answer to the previous question.

So next time you develop a Bot, try following a different strategy: make closed questions to try to steer the conversation, but process each user utterance as a statement instead of an answer. It may ask for some related information that the user needs in order to answer the question itself. It may provide additional pieces of information you need to move through your process. And it might even answer your previous question! Just don’t take it for granted.

It’s not about “not making questions”; it’s about “not assuming our client responses are answers to the questions we made”.

It’s a very different way of approaching a conversation, and it might require you to adjust the way your technology handles interaction. But you definitely get a different (not necesarely better) user experience.

Time will tell how far this goes. As I said, it’s just my two cents. Hope it helps thinking through this process.

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