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Will Bots Really Replace Apps?

“Bots are here and they’re going to take over from apps,” many technology observers have said.

It’s true that we’re seeing a rise in the predominance of bot use; there seem to be a number of developers rushing to reproduce the ideas behind successful apps with a new, chatbot interface.

“Conversational UI” is often talked about as being the next big thing in consumer technology. Even back in 2013, an article in Wired expressed the view that the conversational interface is the way of the future because it can do things that the traditional GUI (graphical user interface) can’t:

“What we need now is to be able to simply talk with our devices. That’s why I believe it’s finally time for the conversational user interface, or “CUI.””

Fast-forward to today and that CUI has become a reality; from Alexa to Siri there have been growing developments made to bring the chatbot into everyday use, not to mention the use of bots within apps, such as Slackbot for answering the questions of Slack users.

Will bots provide a definitive replacement to the traditional app though? Let’s take a look:

The rise of the bot

There have been reports (such as this one from Gartner) to suggest that app fatigue is a real phenomenon among users. App adoption is maturing as users have now had several years of downloading and using apps on their smartphones.

“After eight years of searching for, downloading and using smartphone apps, users are maturing in their usage behaviors,” said Brian Blau, research director at Gartner.” However, we may see those patterns change in the future as users integrate apps more deeply into their daily lives.”

There is a suggestion that, due to this app fatigue and the tendency of consumers to use just a handful of apps regularly, a more unified interface is the solution. This is something that can be achieved with bots by packaging all the pockets of information (app data) into a single messaging app where the bot offers all of the services.

TechCrunch suggests that, just as websites replaced client applications in the mid-nineties, messaging bots could replace apps now:

“Messaging bots can read and write messages just like a human would. Bots can be programmed to carry out automated actions. Bots can both initiate action as well as respond to requests from other users. Bots are of different kinds, too; they automate conversations, transactions or workflows.

E-commerce bots enable buying of goods and services. Food bots order dinner. Content bots share relevant content with you (e.g., news, weather). Watcher bots notify you when specific events happen (e.g., your flight is delayed, this car needs servicing)…”

Users tend to like these messenger apps for their simplicity – if we take Facebook Messenger as an example, the user interface is very simple and intuitive. Type in a message such as “the game starts at 7pm,” and you’ll get an automated bot message pop up asking you if you’d like to “create a plan.” There’s no need to flick between apps to set up scheduling or diarizing.

Chatbots tend to perform faster than mobile apps and take up less space on devices. They also lend themselves to the more “human” experience by being conversational and responding to requests in human language. Enthusiasts who advocate for the idea of bots taking over from apps say that the bots help to “declutter” our mobile experience and bother us with messages only when we need to respond to something (rather than the multitude of red numbers showing next to apps, demanding that you check them).

Does all of this mean that they’re set to take over from apps though?

Will bots replace apps?

A primary thing to remember is why we use any type of app or bot in the first place – to get some kind of job done. Apps and bots exist to solve a problem for their users and those that are the most successful tend to be the ones that do a better job of solving the problem.

Frederick Brooks wrote a widely cited paper in the 1980s entitled No Silver Bullet: Essence and Accidents of Software Engineering. In his work, Brooks talks about the importance of selecting an appropriate tool based on the problem to be solved. In essence, just because bots are something that is trending doesn’t mean that they’ll be suited to every possible scenario for which we currently use an app.

Dan Grover wrote an extensive piece based on his own experiences with WeChat in China, where bot use has really been put through its paces for various applications. The obvious advantages include that the artificial intelligence behind them allows them to communicate in a more “human” way, in the form of conversation, but this doesn’t mean they’re always a practical solution as they are now.

In some applications Grover tested, using the bot took far more inputs than otherwise using an app (or picking up the phone, for that matter). Sometimes, a chatbot just won’t be a good replacement for a visual interface. Grover gives the example of ordering a beer in a restaurant; if the server were to read out every option in some places, it would take them the better part of an hour to do so, whereas you can read over and process a visual menu much more quickly.

Think about other possible things that you do with apps – would those “jobs” easily be taken over by a bot? Off the tops of our heads, tasks like photo editing, viewing your schedule for the week and other things that lend well to a visual interface seem unlikely to be taken by bots. When you’re shopping and looking through your options, do you prefer to scroll through visually, or would you use a bot to dictate? Maybe a combination of both? What if you were writing up a journal entry or some kind of confidential document? Maybe you’d use a bot if you had privacy, but otherwise, you’d probably want to use a visual tool. In many of these cases, it seems either unlikely, or that those who prefer bots will use them, while those who prefer a visual interface will use apps.

Grover further states:

“In the 1990’s, OS makers shook in their boots over the prospect of web browsers disintermediating them, but somehow it’s taken more than another decade for the next challenger to emerge in the peculiar form of messaging apps. And though they’re still quite far from wholly replacing the high-level features OS offer to users and app developers, we can clearly see the beginning of this encroachment.”

At this point, there are still many problems that bots need to overcome. For example, they are touted as a solution to customer service, yet are criticized for cold, impersonal responses or leaving the customer dangling where the bot doesn’t know what to do. (If you’ve ever bellowed down the phone at a call center chat bot, you’ll understand this sentiment!).

As Venturebeat puts it when discussing customer service:

“People yearn for human interaction and relationships. The key to chatbot success is for brands to find a way to equip bots with the ability to seamlessly transition from a chatbot to a human, in the middle of a customer interaction, with the conversational context to avoid customer frustration.”

As for applications outside of customer service, sometimes a visual interface just might be better suited. For some apps, their visual interface is exactly why they became popular. Maybe the answer to whether bots will replace apps lies somewhere in the middle – conversational properties get taken over by bots while those “jobs” that are better suited to a visual interface remain with an app.

Final thoughts

Do you believe that bots will replace apps? From our position, while bots are proving to be a valuable development in technology, they simply don’t satisfactorily solve every problem that an app can.

As time goes by, the artificial intelligence behind bots is learning more, but it’s still not quite the seamless experience that most expect, often criticized for lacking human empathy.

There are some functions that seem much better suited to a visual interface, and indeed, perhaps people prefer them that way. Will bots take over? We think the answer is somewhere down the middle.

Koombea builds top-class apps and bots.

Talk to us about how we can help you today.

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