December 2017
By Dima Ilieva and Ekaterina Mitova

Image: © BraunS/istockphoto.com

Dima Ilieva has been working as a user assistance developer for SAP for a little over a year. The role perfectly combines her love for languages with her love for new technologies.


dima.ilieva[at]sap.com
www.sap.com


Ekaterina Mitova started working at SAP eleven years ago as an information developer. A few years later, she switched to development, only to realize that user assistance is her true passion. Ekaterina enjoys working on innovative projects.


ekaterina.mitova[at]sap.com
www.sap.com


 


 

Are chatbots the new thing in technical documentation?

Across industries, Chatbots are sprouting from corporate websites like daisies in spring. But are they really helping to engage customers? Or are they merely a source of frustration or even ridicule?

Chatbot development has occupied many industry publications and events. Our documentation team at SAP recently decided to give it a try and develop a chatbot as part of our software documentation. The aim was to test how users would react to a chatbot in our documentation, find out if they would use it at all, and see if it would make sense to create a more complex documentation digital assistant. What would be the value of having a chatbot? Would it be difficult to build and maintain?

Contrary to the common perception, it is not necessary to use Artificial Intelligence (AI) in your chatbot, at least not at the beginning. Building a prototype chatbot requires coding skills in English and a lot of manual work. Most probably, AI will become inevitable further down the road, but this is a long way off, and itís better to start with something simpler and easier to test.

Today, almost anyone can create a chatbot. It can have a single purpose, or it can perform multiple complex tasks. It can include a simple conversational UI, or analyze the interaction with a human using AI. And even though a chatbot most probably wonít have its own hardware body, it will be as smart as we program it to be.

But is it really necessary to have a chatbot on your website? Here are a few thoughts to consider.

Giving users someone to chat to

Letís face it, most people like to chat, whether there are other people around or not. These days, we spend more and more time using messaging applications in order to engage in conversation.

Businesses want to be present at the same places where their customers spend their time. And customers are on the move. They are moving from not-so-intuitive UIs to a more immersive way of searching for a product or information, to simply asking for it verbally. And this is where chatbots come in. Chatbots will ďtalkĒ to users, offer advice, perhaps even make a joke. They will do what you tell them to do, and nothing more.

Chatbots are no spawn of superintelligence. But they can be designed to provide customers with what they need. And chatbots that donít use AI are the perfect means to test precisely that. They are relatively easy to design and modify, and they are perfect tools for getting a feel for what your customers require. You may spend months trying to make your chatbot more human-like only to find out that an overly human appearance irritates your users. If you test with users early, you have a great chance of ending up with a chatbot that will serve your ultimate goal Ė to attract and keep people engaged.

Interesting examples of chatbots already exist in different applications: Viber, Duolingo, and Slack are just a few examples. The fact that chatbots can be used successfully for different business purposes points to their flexibility.

Less is more

At first glance, a chatbot that includes only a conversational UI may seem rather limited. It cannot exceed the boundaries of what it has been programmed to do. But then, it is precisely this trait that makes it so adaptable: The purpose it will be used for is up to you. How much information will it provide? Will it be serious or exceptionally friendly? Will it be inclined to ask questions or will it do the talking? You decide and you design.

As you do, keep in mind that users are often impatient. We switch to another site when we donít find what we are looking for on the first or second page, if we donít see it written in big letters somewhere instantly, or if a page dares to load for longer than a few seconds. We get frustrated easily, and if thereís a useless bot on the website, chances are weíll get frustrated even faster. Thatís the risk. If we create a chatbot just so that we have one, it might have the opposite effect. But if we do it right and test it properly, it may help users find the right product or information faster, leave them with a positive feeling, and perhaps even make them revisit the site.

The good thing is that chatbots can be included in websites, software and messaging applications. In our case, our chatbot lives in a documentation portal. Its purpose is to help users find the most suitable information for their specific case.

Itís easy to design a simple chatbot

Letís say a few more words about our case: A chatbot that was designed to be part of software documentation. We started with a simple prototype. We wanted to test how our users would react and if they would use it at all. We wanted to find out if it would make sense to create a more complex documentation digital assistant sometime in the future. We collected a lot of feedback, drew conclusions, and used them to continuously improve our chatbot. It turned out that having a chatbot in documentation is a very promising idea.

Instead of using AI, we used pure conversational UI techniques to design conversations. We interconnected the possible questions and responses, developing a conversation graph. This included a lot of manual work and imagination, but itís something any author can achieve.

If you want to give your own chatbot a try, here are some tips and tricks for you that were very helpful for us:

1. Offer predefined options

Itís easier to start building the conversation with predefined options that users can choose from. There are at least two reasons for this:

  1. Itís easier to offer options to choose from than to consider all possible user responses. Just think of a simple yes/no question; there are at least ten different ways to reply with yes: "yes", "yup", "y", "you got it", "you bet", "sure", "why not", "yeah", "I would", "Iím in", "count me in", and so on.
  2. People are always tempted to fool around with a chatbot, to find its disadvantages, to test how it would react to slang, vulgar words, and insults. If the chatbot is not designed especially for that purpose, most probably you donít want this to happen.

Limit the options to three or four. The more options you provide, the more difficult it will be for users to make a choice. Provide options like "Go back" and "Start all over" to keep the conversation simpler.

As a start, predefined options are a good choice and make chatbot testing easier. However, in the end, users might want the option of writing. So, consider having some parts of the conversation where users are able to share their thoughts. You donít need a complicated AI for that, just more manual work and more testing.

2. Keep it short and simple

Particularly when it comes to documentation, rather than reading, people skim the text in the search of a keyword. Therefore, the text that the chatbot provides should be kept as short as possible. If the predefined options are too lengthy, users might start clicking here and there and miss the context altogether. Short responses allow users to skim the conversation without losing the meaning and the purpose.

3. Think about your design

You might be tempted to play with the chatbotís look and feel. If you want to add some human characteristics, be aware that, most probably, this will raise user expectations. It was great fun working on the human-like appearance of our chatbot and designing the conversation flow as if users were interacting with a human. However, the tests revealed that many users were more disappointed with the robotic behavior. As a result, we now keep the appearance of our chatbot more robotic-looking, and work on improving the conversation instead.

4. Test and update according to user feedback

And last but not least, be patient. Designing a conversation and creating a chatbot takes a lot of time and it can be very exhausting. Create it bit by bit, and it will work out eventually.

Takeaways

Chatbots are an innovative and intriguing way to add value to your website and interact with your readers and customers. Here are some links to help get you started:

To create a chatbot, you need not only information, but also a tool. There are a lot of tools to choose from, most of them integrated into different messaging platforms. First, identify where you are going to use your chatbot. For example, you can embed it in your website or integrate it into Facebook Messenger. Then, check which tools support your requirements and select the one that is easiest for you to understand and work with. Here is our starter list:

And there are many more:

Itís your turn to choose your tools and start prototyping. Happy chatbotting!