The importance of chatbots in the field of business is rising at a rapid pace. A recent TechEmergence study estimated that, over the next few years, bots will emerge as the single largest category of artificial intelligence-based applications. In 2016 alone, well over 30000 new branded chatbots were launched – and by the end of this decade, nearly 86% of all ‘customer conversations with businesses’ will take place without human management (i.e., will be automated). For low-level interactions and transactions in particular, 7 out of every 10 people prefer conversing with a bot instead of humans.
The growing popularity of chatbots has, in turn, made the task of selecting a good bot platform more critical than ever before. A chatbot can only be as good as its platform – and over here, we will provide some important tips and pointers for selecting the best chatbot platform for your business:
A big factor behind the growing adoption rate of AI chatbots is the ‘always on’ nature of these applications. The platform you select should, as a rule of thumb, ensure 24×7 availability of the chatbot for customer interactions. According to experts, a high-quality chatbot framework should abide by the ‘five nine-s rule’ of availability (available 99.999% of the time). Downtimes should be minimal, response speeds should be high, and there should not be any risks of sudden failures/crashes. A chatbot platform has to be customer-oriented and highly reliable.
Neat, uncluttered user-interface
A bot platform should allow users to set up new, smart chatbots quickly. If the UI of the platform is overly complicated, that objective is likely to be defeated – and a fair amount of time will be lost while trying to ‘learn’ how the platform is to be operated. Businesses should always go for chatbot frameworks that have simple, streamlined UIs, user-friendly controls and architecture, and proper tutorials/manuals. Integration with Facebook Messenger is a desired feature for many bot platforms, while analytics information should be easily available. Users who do not have much prior coding experience should also find it easy to launch intelligent bots on the platform easily.
Note: In most cases, it is advisable to go for a chatbot platform that offers cross-platform support. OnSequel is a good example of such a platform.
In sync with the nature of business
It’s easy to not look beyond Facebook Messenger, when it comes to choosing a bot platform. After all, it is by far the biggest framework – and has been estimated to reach the 2 billion users mark by 2018. However, it should be kept in mind that the size of a bot framework is directly proportional to the degree of competition your bot (created on it) has to cope up with (FB Messenger already has close to 35000 bots). For startups and other companies at an early stage in their lifecycles, going for a smaller platform is a better option (something like Telegram fits the bill perfectly). This strategy will allow these ‘new’ businesses to reach out to a wide cross-section of audiences. For larger, more mature businesses, using a biggie like FB Messenger to target an already identified customer-base makes more sense.
Scalability is vital
The volume of interactions with a chatbot does not remain the same at all times. If the bot platform you selected is not properly scalable – the chatbot might end up showing glitches at the time of high demand, while you may have to cough up unnecessary money (as capital expenditure) during low demand periods/idle times. To tackle this issue, look out for a platform that has dynamic scaling properties. The bot created on it should be able to handle fluctuating demand/interaction volumes with ease – and its functionality should never be affected. It is impossible to accurately predict the number of people logging in at any time – and the platform needs to be able to manage this uncertainty.
Consider the type of chatbot required
There are plenty of multi-featured chatbot platforms available at present – and not all of them offer similar bot development solutions. As the business owner, the onus is on you to determine the type of chatbot that your business requires, and select the platform accordingly. If you are looking for a ‘conversational chatbot’ that would simulate conversations and keep users engaged (maybe act as a substitute of the FAQ page of a website), choose a platform that uses Artificial Intelligence Markup Language (or, AIML). On the other hand, you might need a ‘transactional chatbot’, which will help customers to achieve certain specific goals (food ordering, ticket buying, etc.). Find out the precise bot requirement for your business, and then start to look for a suitable platform.
Note: If you wish to launch your chatbot as quickly as possible, go for a ‘no programming platform’. Many existing platforms are supported by the biggest tech companies – with Wit.ai (Facebook) and Api.ai (Google) being classic examples.
Support for multiple languages
Depending on the nature of chatbots to be set up, and also for maintaining higher productivity levels, developers might need to use heterogeneous programming languages. A chatbot platform should, hence, support multiple languages – like Python, C#, Node.js, and other related technologies. Modern-day enterprises do not, generally, use the same language for all their development tasks – and developers typically prefer using the language(s) they are best acquainted with. Platforms that are language-specific are limited in nature, and not of much use.
Note: Search for platforms that will allow your bot to be easily accessible through all the leading social media channels, and messaging/voice platforms. Slack, Facebook and Skype are some channels via which customers often try to connect with chatbots.
Ease of development and testing
The tools and features of a chatbot platform are the biggest indicators of its usability. A snazzy, elegantly designed platform is all very fine – but unless there is a proper integrated environment for creating the chatbot, problems might crop up. A platform should ideally be able to help users during the development, debugging and deployment stages – ensuring optimal performance and high productivity. In particular, testers should be able to perform integration and unit tests with ease, while creating mock objects should not be a problem either. Scaffolding codes, readymade templates and quick start wizards are all useful in boosting the overall pace of chatbot development. The platform you choose should have a built-in emulator as well, for testing.
Profile of target audience
Once again, if you are looking to make a bot that maximizes the social reach of your business, Facebook Messenger should be the go-to platform. However, if you need to target any particular niche category, other alternatives can be considered. For instance, if millennials are to be targeted, Kik would probably be the best bot framework (around 70% of its users fall in the 13-24 age group). The nature of promotional and marketing strategies planned should also influence the choice of bot platform. Make sure that your chosen framework supports smooth integration with third-party applications, for enhanced functionality. You should also take into account whether the bot has to be monetized or not.
Artificial intelligence standards are becoming increasingly refined – and with that, the demands on chatbots are growing fast. To be able to satisfy customers and carry out interactions without a hitch, a bot should be easily integrable with transaction services, analytics data, research tools and other behavioural resources. The natural language processing (NLP) has to be of the highest order, to ensure smooth, contextual chatbot conversations. The interface of the bot platform should support two-way transfer of images, files and other attachments (apart from, of course, text-based communications). The nature of interactions between a user and a chatbot can be diverse, and a well-rounded bot platform has to support everything.
Note: Button clicks, option selection, and even data sorting should be included in the overall list of interactions supported by a chatbot.
10. Security and audit
Unless the authentication standards of a bot platform are robust enough, using it can be downright risky. More and more people are sharing personal, sensitive, confidential data through chatbots – and users have to make sure that there are no chances of unauthorized access/hacks of such information. It would be a good idea to always stick with platforms that support the oAuth authentication protocol. In addition, it should be easy to audit the performance of enterprise chatbots at any point in time. The underlying platform has to let administrators monitor the activities happening on a chatbot, and have the option of ‘rich logging’ (the logs must be available directly from the dashboard). Constant monitoring/auditing is very important for maintaining the quality of chatbots over time, and resolving errors/problems on the fly.
11. Compatible with DevOps standards
It is no longer sufficient for a bot framework to only offer the necessary automation endpoints and basic functionalities. The adoption of DevOps standards is increasing steadily (2016 was named by Gartner as the ‘Year of the DevOps’) across enterprises across the globe. The bot platform you are planning to use should allow continuous, seamless integration and delivery – which, in turn, would ensure smooth automation and easier deployment of the technology. Developers should face no difficulties while trying to integrate the DevOps mechanism in their AI chatbots.
Note: Over 30% SMEs have already implemented DevOps practices across their entire business. Large enterprises are also fast warming up to the mechanism.
12. The cost factor
There are many self-service platforms out there (as an alternative to delegating the task to third-party mobile app companies, or having an in-house team to build a chatbot from scratch). The cost structures vary across platforms – and users need to have a pre-determined budget and allocation level, to prevent expenses from spiralling upwards. Make sure that your platform has a free-to-use basic plan, and the charges are based only on the active machine timings of the bot (instead of static, monthly charges which might include significant idle times). Check the plan limits (i.e., maximum interactions) and the corresponding monthly expenses. Depending on your budget, requirements from the bot, and features of the platforms you have shortlisted – make an informed choice.
Ideally, your chatbot platform should not be reliant on proprietary technology, and should function in accordance with the industry standards (for REST endpoints, JSON is the standard). The bot(s) you create should be able to take the initiative and start conversations with customers, and should be capable of performing tasks both synchronously and asynchronously (this enhances the scalability of the bot application). Embedding a chatbot on a mobile app should also be a breeze. The presence of so many chatbot platforms has, without doubt, made the task of finding the ‘right’ one just a tad trickier – but with due care and proper research, you can zero in on the framework that would be best suited for your purposes.
Facebook launched the Messenger 2.0 platform at this year’s F8 developer conference (April 18-19). A couple of weeks later, Parl.Ai – an advanced AI evaluation and training tool – was launched. Google, meanwhile, released its very own chatbots analytics tool (Chatbase) last month. Chatbot frameworks in particular, and bot technology in general, is evolving rapidly – and your business needs to keep up with it.