You will have heard about chatbots. There has been a lot of chat about them chatting a lot. The tech titans have been investing heavily in them from Facebook to Google to Microsoft. Brands from Tommy Hilfiger to Pizza Hut have published chatbots. Even Joey from Friends now exists in chatbot format. We are hearing that they are revolutionising the way we interact with the web and that branded apps are finally dead. So what are chatbots? Why would people engage with them? And what could they do for healthcare?
1. So what is a chatbot?
A chatbot is a computer program designed to simulate conversation with human users, especially over the Internet.
OK, sounds a bit techy. What does that look like?
Typically they look like a conversation one might have on a messenger app:
They could also be hooked up to an avatar of some form to give them a ‘human face’:
It’s important to realise there are broadly two types of chatbots: one that functions based on a set of rules, and those that use machine learning. In many ways the chatbots that function on a set of rules can be a great place to start, particularly in a heavily regulated sector like healthcare. They are regulator’s dream as they cannot answer any question other than with the statements programmed into them. So they are not capable of breaking regulations. You can’t say that about human representatives. The workaround to the fact they may not be flexible enough for all questions at the outset, is a rigorous process of analysis and iteration.
2. So why would people want to engage with a computer programme?
Won’t people want to talk with someone rather than use text to carry on conversation? Well, not really. Look at the rise and rise of messenger apps. They are now more popular than social platforms. From Facebook’s Messenger to WhatsApp, message apps are the preferred way for many to communicate. In any minute, 20.8 million messages are sent on WhatsApp.
Yes, there will be cases where people want to talk rather than use text, but chatbots can also use voice functions to hear and communicate using language. Interestingly, they can be programmed to use any language at all, including the use of regional dialects and slang. Of course there are limitations – currently – but a secret of successful chatbots is that they know when to hand over to a human, such as a healthcare professional.
Another change in people’s behaviour is their expectation of receiving quick personalized information. People don’t want to wade through unhelpfully worded FAQs. Good chatbots use the language people use. In fact, one of their strengths is that they can constantly learn the language people use to interact with them. This is also gold for organisations to learn more about their audiences. People also don’t want to wait in a phone queue while being told ‘your call is important to us’ and, worse, be told someone will email them back in 24 hours. People expect information any time, any place, anywhere. If they don’t get it instantly, they move on.
And here’s another strength of chatbots. They don’t require an organisation to wait for people to visit their ‘owned channels’ of call numbers, websites, bricks and motor buildings or branded app. Nor do they require organisations to pay for advertising to get them there. Chatbots can live on the channels that people are already using: WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Slack, Skype etc. They can seamlessly fit within the flow of people’s lives.
Chatbots are discreet. It has been shown that people are more likely to open up to virtual humans, such as chatbots, on sensitive topics that are still rather taboo in society like mental health, sexually transmitted diseases or even zits. People have a strong tendency to want to look good in front of others, including doctors.
But with chatbots, there is none of that human instinct to hide away situations that may be seen as socially unacceptable.
And note that chatbots don’t need to have the feel of a computer programme. As you will see from the above examples, they can take on the look and feel of a human. Having said that, it’s important to note that the magic of an effective chatbot is not in the technology alone. It is also in the language it is programmed to use. The tone of voice is crucial. But that is the case in any communication. Organisations that forget this in their standard communications do so at the peril of being called ‘faceless’.
It is true though that there is a particular challenge for technology in that it must avoid the ‘uncanny valley’ effect of a computer simulation being similar to a human but not quite the same. Don’t leave chatbots purely to techies, make sure there’s a diversity of input that represents your brand and your audience.
3. What could chatbots do in healthcare?
If we look at what is already going on, we’ll see that chatbot and chatbot style services are already being adopted:
4. So what should I do?
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