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BotCon Africa 2017: 8 tips for crafting a good chatbot

Angelique Kamara, BotCon 2017

The second BotCon event took place in Cape Town this week, tackling all things chatbot, of course. The event saw talks from the likes of Facebook, Botpress and many other players in the bot/natural language/AI sectors.

It’s still a burgeoning field though, so best practices and other tips are relatively few and far between. However, attendees had plenty of advice nonetheless.

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Does your business actually need a bot though?

Retro Rabbit’s Riana Smit and Francois Scheffer said you should ask yourself what you want to achieve by building a bot. Do you want an additional channel of communications? Are you trying to reduce costs?

The company also says you should treat it a bot as a strategy and not as a once-off endeavour, measuring the impact of your bot in various ways.

Reasoning is at the centre of chatbot effectiveness

Facebook AI researcher Martin Raison was the first speaker at the event, and one of the key factors he noted was a bot’s ability to reason.

“Reasoning is key to chat bots… making the most out of the available data,” he said during the talk.

The researcher said that the technology’s reasoning ability has evolved drastically over the last few years. In fact, he said that reasoning ability has progressed from grasping synthetic tasks, to reasoning in children’s books. Now, bots are effectively learning to reason content such as Wikipedia articles.

Raison explained that in March 2015, Facebook’s AI efforts had a 50% success rate when it came to reasoning (using 1000 samples). Fast-forward to today, and its AI efforts are able to solve 19/20 samples (with 10 000 samples used).

Test your dialogue models

The Facebook representative also stressed the importance of dialogue model testing. This is especially important when dealing with typos and other errors made by a user.

The ideal chatbot is able to ask additional questions to gain context, Raison says, while an unpolished chatbot merely throws out an answer, without bothering to gain a better understanding of the question.

Which framework to use?

We’ve seen quite a few bot development platforms/frameworks popping up recently, such as the popular Chatfuel and motion.ai. But one speaker, who naturally founded a framework of his own, says they’re solid, but do have a drawback.

Justin Watson of Botpress, described as a “WordPress for bots”, says that many popular bot frameworks aren’t open-source and lack customisation options. So if you intend to build out your bot’s functionality (be it via plugins or natively), you need to keep this in mind.

Don’t go for a pure text approach

Watson also advised users on delivering a user interface for chat bots, saying that a pure text approach isn’t ideal.

Using text only can make for a more difficult user experience, especially when it comes to changing settings or similar tasks. Instead, the Botpress founder recommends that developers use buttons, graphical elements and a richer interface in general.

Messenger best practices to keep in mind

Facebook Messenger’s Angelique Kamara was another speaker dishing out tips, focusing on the social network’s bots platform.

For one, she advised that developers use a “get started” option to ease users into the bot’s functions. She also called on bot developers to implement a persistent menu, featuring a “start over” function and the main bot features. Kamara adds that error messages should also be implemented to guide users back onto the path.

To add a personality or not…

Should you build a bot with a personality or keep it straight-laced? Well, we got some mixed advice.

Facebook’s Kamara encourages developers to make a bot with a fun personality/great copywriting, while the Retro Rabbit team says otherwise.

“Having a cool hipster bot for a stoic insurance firm isn’t a good idea,” Retro Rabbit’s Scheffer says, adding that your bot should fit your brand’s identity.

Meanwhile, Feersum Engine’s Belinda Lewis thinks that bots should have a personality too, even providing a handy sheet of factors you should take into account (gender, name, personality traits).

Building a customer service bot? Add a human element

Life insurance bots are a thing in SA now, thanks to Simply (powered by Chatfuel), with the company’s Sam Fleming also delivering advice for developers.

Fleming says that quite a few of their customers “don’t know they’re talking to a bot”. Consequently, they added an option to talk to a real customer service representative, by simply (heh) typing “live”. And they make this command known when you get started with the bot.

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