Those of us keeping our eyes on the mobile landscape are hearing more and more about ‘chatbots’. But what are they? And how might they fit into the way mobile supports mobile business.

The answer to the first questions is simple enough – a chatbot is a text-based service, usually located within a messaging app (think Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp), that allows a user to interact with an organization or business via a set of standard commands. The promise of that approach is that it supports transactions (like ordering a taxi or booking a table) within an environment that the modern consumer spends an awful lot of time in.,But what about the reality?. Let’s look at 2 examples of Chatbots in action;

Before we do that though, , let’s think about a typical customer service call that you’d have over the phone (which we all thoroughly dislike) vs. the quicker experience a consumer could get using a chatbot inside a messaging app.

On the phone, it would go a little something like this;

You’d search for the company’s website and track down their customer support number; then, after calling the number from your phone, you’d follow the step by step directions of an automated voice, often times (from personal mishaps), choosing the wrong option and being redirected right back to step 1; next step is waiting on hold until a human becomes available; then you answer several security questions to prove that you are, in face, you; then you maybe get your answer, but it’s also likely that you’ll be redirected through more onerous steps.

Here’s how it works with the chatbot experience;

1) Open Facebook Messenger and search for the business name

2) Start the conversation by making a request

3) Receive rich media feedback (text + images + hyperlinks + voice) that answers your question.

Of course the chat experience is better, because there are no phone numbers to find, no phone tree to navigate, you don’t wait on hold, you are pre-authenticated, there’s a computer replying, which is infinitely scalable vs. a pool of customer support agents. In short- the customer service you’ll receive from a chatbot is superior to that of a typical customer service call.

The Downside

So far so good, but let’s look at an example recently highlighted by the product manager of WeChat. From the homepage of Microsoft’s recently-launched Bot Framework, we can see how they imagine us ordering a pizza in the future…

According to the analysis, it will take over 73 taps of typing out responses to place an order with the pizza bot – feeling hangry yet?

The same task, carried out on a pizza delivery app, takes a mere 16 steps to order the pizza (and even that is pushing it). Today we’re used to getting what we want in a ‘native mobile’ fashion – by the touch of a button. And we as consumers don’t want to type on mobile if there’s an easier alternative.

Even assuming the chatbot knows that your favourite pizza is a medium pepperoni, the actual experience of typing responses takes much more effort than clicking through a user-friendly app. When you’re logged in, payment method is known, favourites are tagged, and the normal conversational conventions are dispensed with (e.g. you can click a picture of a pepperoni pizza vs typing ‘pepperoni, please!”) – things are a lot simpler.

Chatbots are certainly an interesting development, and are certainly set to deliver some useful interactions – against leveraging the idea that multiple bots are available from a single messenger app. However, as per the pizza example they ultimately cannot easily leverage much of the ‘shorthand’ that we’ve developed through standard UI conventions over the years with good app design.

That’s why they’re unlikely to grab more than a small piece of the mobile pie, and that the future of the native mobile app – still the best way to deliver great experiences on mobile – remains assured.