Technology, by virtue, perpetuates a constantly evolving cycle of improvement. A look around any desk or office will showcase many examples – from your phone, to the laptop you’re working on, or the smartwatch on your wrist. But there have also been some forgotten elements on this fast road to the future. Technology functions that have been neglected, overlooked and unimproved. 

Step forward, chatbots. As consumers, we’ve all been on the end of an unsatisfactory experience that has left us feeling anywhere from a little annoyed to totally exasperated. But, they’ve been around for a while now and are still not improving, developing or delivering on their undoubted promise. 

Failures to connect with users can lead to catastrophic effects. It’s vital to get human to machine conversations right. Here are some characteristics that can help to build the best-in-class, humane virtual assistants:

#1 Good design 

A conversation, whether between humans or with a virtual assistant, must have a purpose and clear conclusion. While this is the primary purpose of communication, it also needs the ability to sway and fluctuate, much like we do as humans.  

If a virtual assistant isn’t designed to do this from the start, it’s near impossible to get it right. These assistants represent the brand as a digital ambassador. Therefore, how it speaks – the language and tone of voice – should be reflective of the brand to deliver the same experience that a human would. 

#2 Understanding context  

As humans, rarely do we have one linear chain of communication. We shift through different contexts in a conversation and expect the other person to recall and react accordingly. Natural human frustration comes when we are forced to repeat ourselves or start over again. 

It’s the same for virtual assistants. Using conversational AI, they should have access to past knowledge to leverage relevant information at the right time. This will create dynamic, efficient conversations to take the most appropriate action.  

#3 Good error handling 

With the complexities of human language, no solution is ever going to be 100% accurate. The virtual assistant needs to be designed to handle errors in dialog flows during a chat.  

One of the main frustrations with virtual assistants today is that they’re difficult to reverse if a customer needs to correct a question or seek further clarification on a previous point. Neither should an error automatically mean the user is bumped to a help centre or simply given a number to call. It rapidly undermines the point of the virtual assistant – which is to deflect conversations away from expensive human resources and provide an enhanced customer experience. 

#4 Room for growth 

Virtual assistants, by nature, are not a flash-in-the-pan quick-fix, but a strategic platform to automate conversations and complex processes across the enterprise. In this sense, they must be viewed as such. Chatbots have historically been built in a rigid fashion, often requiring short-term patches and fixes to address changes in circumstance. This has inevitably led to many resembling a kind of digital Frankenstein that, over time, becomes a shadow of what it was intended.  

Business must have the autonomy to implement change easily and without the need of deep technical skills and/or hours of ML training. This means the ownership of a conversational application should sit within the business – not a third-party agency or designer. It should require as little coding and developer expertise as possible.  

Similarly, any virtual assistant needs to integrate with external or legacy services quickly. Meanwhile, if it can’t do this, it’s a project that is almost certain to fail. If a business is investing in a platform for one part of the operation, then there’s no reason why this shouldn’t be replicated in others. Virtual assistants will quickly turn from a help to a hindrance if they can’t scale on-demand and where required.

Realising a bold vision 

Many virtual assistants built on yesterday’s technologies have failed to deliver on the significant potential. This has often led to abandoned projects and orphaned deployments. But the correct platform is a significant asset, and one that can and will realise a bold vision. Virtual assistants done correctly could change forever the way humans interact with machines.  

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