Will Messaging Bots Eat Mobile Apps? We Ask Uber’s Chris Messina

John Koetsier

Messaging bots are huge right now.

Microsoft is all in. Facebook wants developers everywhere to build bots for 900 million people on the Messenger Platform, Quartz’s first news app is built on a bot-like conversational paradigm, and a UX designer just built his personal website as a chat bot.

Why are bots so hot, and will all apps go the messaging route? We asked Uber’s developer experience lead — and the inventor of the social-media hashtag — Chris Messina:

The idea of mobile, Messina says, is that you are connected wherever you go. But mobile app user interfaces, even those designed as mobile-first from the bottom up, still tend to rely on metaphors that we developed for desktop computing 30 years ago.

A big part of that desktop metaphor is an assumption: some degree of immersion over time in a task.

However, mobile is evolving into different, Messina says. Mobile is more about people in continuous partial attention mode. Take a mapping app, for instance. You query it for a location and route instructions, and periodically check it over the next minutes or hours to gauge progress and get the next step. Mapping app publishers know this, and the audible instructions that Google Maps or Apple Maps deliver are essentially a version of a conversational user interface.

Conversational user interfaces could be done in apps, in SMS, in messaging apps, on the web, and more ...

Conversational user interfaces could be done in apps, in SMS, in messaging apps, on the web, and more …

That’s important, says Messina, because conversations are a really good framework for representing relationships. And many apps are the embodiment of a relationship.

The Uber app, for instance, is the visible evidence of a potentially long-term relationship between you and a company that can get you from A to B … via a probably medium-term relationship that Uber has with a particular driver, and a very short-term relationship that you will have with that same driver.

“You need to be able to dip in and dip out,” says Messina.

Conversation is a great model of that dipping in and dipping out: a person may give a bot a task, like switching a ticket to a later flight, and then continue on with whatever task or activity is at hand, secure in the knowledge that the app/bot will process the request, and ping for attention when there’s some news to report.

That’s definitely something to consider in apps for brands, for retailers, for news, for fitness and health, and plenty of other categories. I’m not so sure it will work well for games.

Unless, of course, you’re playing old-fashioned choose-your-adventure games.


John Koetsier

Before acting as a mobile economist for TUNE, John built the VB Insight research team at VentureBeat and managed teams creating software for partners like Intel and Disney. In addition, he led technical teams, built social sites and mobile apps, and consulted on mobile, social, and IoT. In 2014, he was named to Folio's top 100 of the media industry's "most innovative entrepreneurs and market shaker-uppers." John lives in British Columbia, Canada with his family, where he coaches baseball and hockey, though not at the same time.

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