What do we mean when we say bots solve the discovery problem?

Much of the early excitement around bots has been predicated not just upon the idea that developers and businesses have a problem reaching new customers via apps, but also that the end user has the problem of finding new apps to download. So enter the dream of bots: a frictionless way to message a service inside an app you’re already using where you can easily install software without really having to do much. Installing new apps becomes trivial and the status-quo preserving gatekeepers of the App Store / Play store are bypassed. Discovery problem solved. Bango.

There’s a pretty obvious problem here: outside of the tech early adopter community (and honestly, even within it), users don’t have the “problem” of not being able to find new apps and easily install themThey might have the problem of finding accurate weather info in a new city and search the app store, but that presupposes a high level of intent and awareness. It requires that the user has some idea that there’s a solution to this problem in an app store.

Launching a new social app, marketplace or even niche productivity tool is hard not simply because the person has to download an app, install it and enter their iTunes password. It’s hard because you need to get people to care about problems for which they don’t know there is a solution, or even problems that they may not know they have. You need to find a way to get to them, whether it’s through word of mouth, paid search or social. The app store is simply not enough because categories that the user knows to search for on the app store have already been well served by existing players.

We’ve all heard it, and sometimes it can sting for people in the startup world to be reminded of this but: users simply don’t need another app. The “problem” here for users is basically nonexistent, and the problem for developers is less app discovery than it is awareness and creating a relationship with the customer that doesn’t start with the Top 150 list on the App Store.

So bots are screwed, right? Most of the bots out there are pretty dumb and unpolished, and their stumbles have been roundly ridiculed in screenshots on social media. All this hype from techies, VCs and Facebook is predictably misplaced shiny object chasing, and it’s another example of Silicon Valley trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist with cool technology. The doubters may very well turn out to be right, and I do think that bots are decently overhyped (which is not a very original view, and I don’t pat myself on the back for holding it 🐸☕️). But there are the seeds of new, novel and powerful use cases in the ashes of this narrative, and I actually think the biggest impact of chatbots in consumer will stem from bringing services and intelligent agents into users’ conversations with their friends. This looks to be missing from Facebook’s current Messenger Platform iteration, but I have no doubt that we will someday soon see gain the ability to add a bot to a Messenger chat of any size and interact with it together.

If the bot store migrated into the share sheet, users could explicitly share services for their friends to interact with on a demo basis and potentially add to their own Facebook contact book. Most successful new apps (and especially ones that need to build a graph and achieve network-effect critical mass) are very much spread at the beginning by a core evangelist in each group of friends who loves the product (or the idea of the product), and who persuades their friends to join them in using it. The potential to remove those barriers for that kind of user, by arming them with a proposition to their friends to try something without having to download or sign up for anything, shouldn’t be overlooked.

Services delivered via bots could actually indirectly solve for “discovery” in this sense. Supercharging word of mouth and helping power users convert their friends might prove to be very powerful advantages for services delivered via bots. But an even more exciting implication of mixed chats between friends and bots is the potential for truly multiplayer experiences inside of Messenger et al. You could imagine a digital bartender bot could take a group’s order for the night and fulfill it with a delivery service. Or maybe a group gift shopping tool that let users view a carousel of potential outfits to discuss, vote on and ultimately purchase. Perhaps none of these “going out” apps haven’t taken off because they actually just belonged inside of a rich conversation between friends and a robot ticket agent.

Much of our economic lives are social, and our social lives have a huge economic component to it. We constantly make group decisions on what to do, where to go, what to buy. Don’t be surprised if conversational commerce turns out to be as much about commerce weaved into our existing conversations as it is about texting a computer.

Originally published on Medium

Internet of Pings: When Notifications Were Poised to Rule the World

We find ourselves at a peculiar non-equilibrium in apps. Drama in the mobile space has recently been underwritten by the perennial “unbundling” debate, and giants like Facebook (Slingshot, Paper), Dropbox (Carousel), Foursquare (Swarm), and Twitter (Vine) have all faced their share of soul searching in attempts to best position themselves along this continuum. Meanwhile, these new unbundles of joy simply add to the growing stack of notifications we’re forced to either deal with or waste time disabling. Compounded with what I call general “app sprawl” as the mobile ecosystem comes into its own, this march towards “peak notifications” is putting an increasing strain on the useful attention of the consumer. Strangely enough, these shifts may only give push notifications a more important role in making sense of the chaos.

Where should you chat with Facebook friends on mobile, and where should you share your pictures? How many apps can we really keep track of and be engaged with, and what happens as apps get replaced by other apps? These kinds of questions are fundamental, and we can only speculate as to where the chips will ultimately fall. But in addition to determining the winner(s) of the platform wars, this quagmire is also about what the atomic unit of the smartphone interface should be. When your phone is constantly buzzing with notifications – from iMessage to Twitter, to Lyft and Wunderlist – the only real method to the madness is the order in which those notifications appeared on your lockscreen. I have too many apps on my phone to count, and there are a decent number of ones that I check fairly regularly but which are scattered in the corners of my homescreen/folders. Notifications allow me to engage with my apps as relevant stuff happens to me — no hunting around for an icon (especially if I’m sneaking a peek at work). Apps without any notifications may simply waste away in a folder if pings continue to dominate the experience, but there could also be more purging of poorly behaved push notifiers as their intrusions become more and more unwelcome. We can debate all day as to whether Twitter’s or Facebook’s “app constellation” will shine brightest, but what good will the answer be in a mobile world where notifications shuffle deck once more?

One very real possibility is that the continued ascendancy of push notifications portends the future of smartphone UI. The initial logic of push notifications on mobile was to provide a little context along with the alert and allow the user to consume the tidbit of value without having to open the app. Things have certainly evolved. We see that actionable pings have become a powerful way to draw users into the apps themselves rather than taking the long route through the homescreen/general OS layer. Android has robust interactive notifications already, and iOS 8 is about to introduce them. This is why the WSJ called push notifications “ the most valuable property in the entire media universe,” in its write up on Yo. They appear to be the holy grail of user engagement and stickiness, with one recent study finding that adding push notifications increased user response rates by 300% across 6 verticals. A fascinating qualitative study on mobile user interactions found broad user support for a model of mobile interaction that is modular, notification-centric and ambient or MNA. This kind of “system initiated communication” as it is referred to demands less mental effort of the user while still allowing them to exercise control over the context that underpins the notification regime. People are tinkering furiously in this space for good reason. Personally, I would like to see some more experimentation in terms of what is actually in your notifications. I could imagine something cool like a “notification of notifications” summary notification strategy, or perhaps a one-bit mode where all pings from an app trigger a Yo instead of a distracting, readable message on your lock screen.

I don’t think compulsive refreshing of our favorite apps is going anywhere fast, but I think this kind of “push” oriented world as opposed to constantly having to “pull” when we want things is a running theme in mobile tech today (especially as the wearables revolution allegedly approaches). Apps with the strongest and most user-friendly notification strategy will certainly have the upper hand. Stanislas Cavalie pretty much nails it in his blog when he says, “Using push noti­fi­ca­tions is like knock­ing on people’s door. It’s bet­ter to have some­thing valu­able and per­son­al­ized to say, and it’s even bet­ter if you have been invited to enter!”

Notifications are, of course, the bread and butter of messaging, so I don’t think it is purely coincidence that the two have taken center stage around the same time 😉

Originally published on Medium

Pinterest, Layer and the Commoditization of Messaging

Most folks by now have had time to digest Facebook’s $19 billion acquisition of WhatsApp. Such an attention-grabbing headline brought with it a wave of meta-analysis about the future of communication. I’ll leave my take on the messaging app wars themselves to another post, but there is more going on beneath the surface with messaging more broadly as a category of mobile activity.

Let’s take a look at the rollout of Snapchat’s creatively named “Chats” feature that launched not so long ago. Had it not been for Snapchat’s success with “Stories,” the press might have poo-poo’d “Chats” more vociferously, but even still coverage has centered mostly around its “lukewarm” reception with users (citing various engagement sources) and its clever UI. Fresh off of the WhatsApp acquisition, tech-watchers were highly skeptical that another icon dedicated to messaging would make the coveted leap to “homescreen status.” Simply put, how many messaging apps do you really need? Don’t we have WhatsApp, Facebook’s Messenger, and Viber for regular text/picture messaging? That’s the theory, anyhow.

The jury is still out on Chats adoption and stickiness at Snapchat. I haven’t seen any real numbers, but anecdotally some people seem to like it — especially for 3–5 responses to a Snap that then might transition to iMessage. General messaging functionality helps round out the Snapchat experience and enhances their core use cases while allowing Snapchat to dip its toes into adjacent areas. We also saw this earlier in the week with Pinterest rolling out messaging functionality. Pinners can now chat with each other within the framework of shared content. It is easy to see how adding this discussion element to Pinterest could drive more engagement and eyeball time.

This is the commoditization of messaging — and it is not limited to social media. A few weeks ago, I booked my first Airbnb when I visited some college friends in New York. Once I had made the reservation, I was pleasantly surprised to see the seamless flow into a chat with the renter where we ironed out logistics. An ODE (On-Demand Economy) player like Airbnb benefits greatly from rounding out its customer experience with this communication layer. The goal here is different than the social networks: to make the process as easy and seamless as possible so that the customer uses Airbnb for all of their future accomodations. The same means — messaging — being used for a different end.

That brings us to one of the sickest companies out there right now: Layer (@Layer). Layer is the self-described “open communications layer for the internet,” and it provides a set of tools for any developer to integrate messaging (text/pics/video) into their mobile app. They are all-in on the commoditization of messaging, and recently hosted a HackLayer hackathon where developers took their yet to be released SDK for a test drive. Check out a blog post from the company that talks about some of the winning projects and their view on the future of in-app communications. Layer is continuing this trend of the maturation of the ‘startup stack’ in a similar way to Stripe in the in-app mobile payments arena.

A gigantic chunk of what we do with apps involves other people. Talking to other people is a key activity that can be incorporated into a myriad of things. Two taps lets you switch apps, and today’s mobile app power user is so far only minimally annoyed by checking and using 4–5 messaging apps and 5–6 apps with messaging capabilities. I think that this decoupling and recoupling of features x, y and z with messaging is going to yield some really interesting results. In some sense, messaging has gone from being the ‘killer app’ of mobile to being a best practice or ‘killer feature.’

Originally published on Medium