It sometimes seems like the future of traditional mobile apps is being challenged by bots. There are so many mobile apps that it has become common to hear technologists say that bots are going to take over apps.
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It is true that we are seeing a rise in the predominance of bot use. Proof of this is the number of developers rushing to reproduce the ideas behind successful apps with new, chatbot interfaces. However, this needs to be seen with caution.
Because chatbot development is gaining relevance, in this post we discuss whether mobile apps are being challenged by bots.
Bots and the Conversational UI
“Conversational UI” (CUI) is often talked about as being the next big thing in consumer technology. Even back in 2013, an article in Wired magazine 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. Ideally, the article stated, users should be able to talk with their devices.
Will bots completely replace apps? Let’s take a look at the bots vs apps debate.
Bots vs Apps: The Rise of the Bot
Some reports suggest that app fatigue is a real phenomenon among users. There are so many apps that most of them sometimes fail to attract users. App adoption is maturing as users have now had several years of downloading and using multiple apps on their smartphones.
As the report states, users of mobile and web apps are now reaching maturity in their behaviors. However, different trends may arise depending on how apps evolve. This will depend on features like virtual assistants, and ultimately, on the difficulty of integrating chatbots.
There is a suggestion that due to the fatigue phenomenon and the tendency of consumers to use only a few apps on a regular basis, a more unified interface for mobile applications 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.
The dynamic in which bots replace apps, if it ever happens, will probably resemble the way in which a typical desktop computer program was replaced by multiple apps. At the time, an app was a better way of doing the same task.
TechCrunch has suggested that, just as websites replaced client applications in the mid-nineties, messaging bots could replace apps now.
Users tend to like 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 7 pm,” and you’ll get an automated Facebook 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 responding to requests in human-like language even if it ain’t the real thing.
Enthusiasts who advocate for the idea of bots taking over from apps say that bots help to “declutter” our mobile experience and bother us with messages only when we need to respond to something instead of the multitude of red notification numbers showing next to apps, demanding that you check them.
Will Bots Replace Apps?
A primary thing to remember is why we use any software program like an app or a bot in the first place. Usually, it is to get some kind of job done. Like traditional computer programs, apps and bots exist to solve specific problems for users. Those that are the most successful in terms of business growth 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 or virtual assistants, but this doesn’t mean they’re always a practical solution as they are now.
Grover tested various applications. In some, using the bot took far more inputs than otherwise using an app; it sometimes took even more actions than picking up the phone.
The Inconvenience of Chatbots
On certain occasions, integrating chatbots just won’t be a good solution to replace 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” be easily taken over by a bot? Off the top 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 with sensible user data? 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 unlikely that even those who prefer bots will use them.
The Challenges of Bots
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 reduced customer engagement, impersonal responses, or leaving the customer dangling without a correct solution.
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.
Also, consider that it is unclear whether bots will work properly without an internet connection. Additionally, it is hard to imagine how they will be able to deliver marketing campaigns, and ultimately, and probably most importantly, whether they will be able to deliver insightful and dynamic thinking that resembles a human connection.
Maybe the answer to whether bots will replace apps lies somewhere in the middle. Most likely, conversational properties will be taken over by bots while the “jobs” that are better suited to a visual interface will remain within the traditional app interface.
Final Thoughts: Bots vs Apps
Do you believe that bots will replace apps? From our position, bots are proving to be a valuable development in technology, but 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 of a chat interface. It is often criticized for lacking human empathy.