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Bots won't replace apps. Better apps will replace apps. by Dan Grover

Connie Chan would like this analysis. It takes 16 taps to order pizza through chatbot.

Dan Grover Bots won t replace apps Better apps will replace apps


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As a user, I want my apps — whether they’re native or web-based pseudo-apps — to have some consistent concept of identity, payments, offline storage, and data sharing. I want to be able to quickly add someone in person or from their website to my contacts. The next time I do a startup, I want to spend my time specializing in solving a specific problem for my users, not getting them over the above general hurdles.

I don’t actually care how it happens. Maybe the OS makers will up their game. Maybe Facebook, Telegram, or Snapchat can solve these problems for me by bolting solutions onto their messaging products. Hell, maybe Chrome or UC Browser will do it. Or maybe it’ll be delivered in some magic, blockchain-distributed, GNU-licensed, neckbeard-encrusted solution that the masses, in a sudden epiphany, repent to. As they say at Pizza Hut, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

But more than anything, rather than screwing around with bots, I want the tech industry to focus on solving these major annoyances and handling some of the common use cases I described that my phone ought to do better with by now.

A little less conversation, a little more action. 

Lately, everyone’s talking about “conversational UI.” It’s the next big thing. But the more articles I read on the topic, the more annoyed I get. It’s taken me so long to figure out why!

Conversations, writes WIRED, can do things traditional GUIs can’t. Matt Hartman equates the surge in text-driven apps as a kind of “hidden homescreen”. TechCrunch says “forget apps, now bots take over”. The creator of Fin thinks it’s a new paradigm all apps will move to. Dharmesh Shah wonders whether the rise of conversational UI will be the downfall of designers. Design, says Emmet Connolly at Intercom is a conversation.

Benedict Evans prophecized that the new lay of the land is “all messaging expands until it includes software.”

“People don’t want apps for every single business that you interact with,” says David Marcus, head of Facebook Messenger, “…just have a message within a nicely designed bubble … [that’s a] much nicer experience than an app.” Under his charge, Facebook Messenger has tested this approach, building integrations with high profile partners as well as opening up a bot API.

We’ve even seen avant-garde attempts at taking this idea to its extreme, like Quartz’s latest app, which presents the news as a conversation, or the game Lifeline. Apps like Mailtime even promise to save us from our emails by turning them into chats.


I guess I might be partially to blame for this, with a few pieces citing a section in a 2014 piece of mine that I literally titled “Chats as Universal UI.”

This recent “bot-mania” is at the confluence of two separate trends. One is agent AIs steadily getting better, as evidenced by Siri and Alexa being things people actually use rather than gimmicks. The other is that the the US somehow still hasn’t got a dominant messaging app and Silicon Valley is trying to learn from the success of Asian messenger apps. This involves a peculiar fixation on how these apps, particularly WeChat, incorporate all sorts of functionality seemingly unrelated to messaging. They come away surprised by just how many differently-shaped pegs fit into this seemingly oddly-shaped hole. The thesis, then, is that users will engage more frequently, deeply, and efficiently with third-party services if they’re presented in a conversational UI instead of a separate native app.

It’s that part which, having spent the past two years in my current job eating and breathing messaging, seems a major misattribution of what makes chat apps work and what problems they’re best at solving.

As I’ll explain, messenger apps’ apparent success in fulfilling such a surprising array of tasks does not owe to the triumph of “conversational UI.” What they’ve achieved can be much more instructively framed as an adept exploitation of Silicon Valley phone OS makers’ growing failure to fully serve users’ needs, particularly in other parts of the world. Chat apps have responded by evolving into “meta-platforms.” Many of the platform-like aspects they’ve taken on to plaster over gaps in the OS actually have little to do with the core chat functionality. Not only is “conversational UI” a red herring, but as we look more closely, we’ll even see places where conversational UI has breached its limits and broken down.

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