In light of our latest eBook on Chatbots, Conversational UI and the Future of Online Interaction, we had the pleasure to interview Barbara Ondrisek, aka “Bot Mother” 🙂 Read her interview below and find out how to overcome the most challenging aspects when developing chatbots, what platforms are the most important and which tools you should use for creative chatbot development.
1. As the developer of Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot, one of Austria’s best-known bots, can you please tell us what the personality traits of a hipster bot are?
Barbara Ondrisek: Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot is a friendly bot that has a faible for hipster venues. She likes to chat all day long, 24/7, and she never gets tired. So she’s a cat AND a bot that likes cat pictures and dislikes water. You can also ask her “Are you a cat?” and she will answer that herself.
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2. What was the biggest challenge when you started developing your bot? Has it become easier since, and how?
Barbara Ondrisek: The biggest challenge I had when developing my bot was that the APIs of the messenger platforms and the natural language processing (NLP) frameworks are still in development and prone to changes. Another challenge was represented by how critical people are in what concerns bots, but I love to see how the super-easy use of Mica convinces them of the benefits of bots.
“You still have to work on your bot constantly, as I personally believe that when you stop developing software of whatever kind, it instantly dies, because software only lives and grows with further development.”
The second part has become easier since. I get a lot of PR that helps to convince people to just try bots. As for the APIs, they are still in development, but they are improving. Just a couple of weeks ago there was a major improvement from the messenger platform of Skype. Microsoft announced then a major release update of the Bot Framework (version 3.0) that included some major changes that make the user interface (UI) and the user experience (UX) better.
You still have to work on your bot constantly, as I personally believe that when you stop developing software of whatever kind, it instantly dies, because software only lives and grows with further development. Whatever it is – websites or apps – you have to keep it up to date with recent changes, because there are always changes in the back-end, the UX.
3. Which tools and platforms would you recommend for bot development and why?
Barbara Ondrisek: A fantastic thing about bots is that you can choose the programming language to develop the back-end server yourself, so you’re not bond to a specific language or framework. At this point, I don’t recommend any tools or platforms, because they are all very similar. A junior developer could easily start building a bot, as there’s not a lot of programming experience required for developing the back-end service. Of cause, with Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot – as a product of the Chatbots Agency – we are a group of seniors developing this product next to others.
4. Considering the enormous userbase of Facebook Messenger and Skype, there’s no doubt that these are two of the main platforms for bots. Which other platform would you consider as a contender for the top spot?
Barbara Ondrisek: It’s definitely WeChat, one of China’s biggest messaging platforms that was developed as a clone of WhatsApp, as Facebook and WhatsApp are not available in China. WeChat has more than 800 million unique users, which is more than twice as many users as Skype (300 million users), but it’s still behind Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which each have 1 billion users. That definitely makes it one of the biggest platforms, along with Line, which is big in Asia, Telegram and Kik, later is big in the US. These three platforms are also worth a look. The limitation of WeChat is that, as a non-Chinese company, it’s not possible to make business with the Chinese people. I’ve programmed Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot for WeChat, but I cannot release it in China because I’m not a Chinese company. I could release it on WeChat for international customers, but not for the Chinese ones.
Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot is already available on Facebook Messenger, Skype and Telegram, and I’ve already programmed it for WeChat, and Kik will soon follow. Exactly how much time it takes to program and release a bot depends on the documentation of the messenger’s API, because some platforms are well documented, while others aren’t. Usually, it takes one or two weeks to test the bot, but it also depends on the features that the platform offers. For instance, Telegram and WeChat offer a lot more features than Facebook Messenger or Skype, so you have to also implement the specific features of each platform.
After I programmed and released Mica on Facebook Messenger, it took me one or two weeks to release it on Skype. It took longer to develop it for Telegram and WeChat, as those platforms feature different menus and different UX elements such as interactive buttons or components.
5. If someone has an idea for creating a bot, but doesn’t have the technical skills, what are the steps he or she should take?
Barbara Ondrisek: I would say “Just ask me!” because we – my team of four experts – founded together chatbotsagency.com, which is based in Vienna. We have a lot of customers such as Stadt Wien or Falstaff asking us to program chatbots for them.
6. We should definitely ask for advice (esp. from a small development company /one-woman-shop) how to market your bot and get publicity!
Barbara Ondrisek: Mica the Hipster Cat bot was the first bot in Austria for the Messenger platform and for Skype, and I got a lot of PR for that, so I don’t do any PR actively myself, which is awesome. As for marketing, one of the four members of the Chatbots Agency is a genius rockstar marketer that helps me market Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot and the other bots.
When I started Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot, I began writing posts on Medium, and then I also posted about it on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat and so on. On one hand, we’re posting a lot on social media, and on the other hand we use stickers for Guerilla Marketing, write blog posts and I go to conferences, meetups and talk about Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot. There’s really low or no budget at all for marketing. When you go to conferences and meetups or write articles, you can demonstrate that you have some reputation and credibility.
7. How do you generate revenue using a bot? Do you have any specific plans for Mica?
Barbara Ondrisek: Although we’re currently pre-revenue and strongly focusing on the product itself we are already making money with Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot. There are many different business models that are possible for chatbots. Basically, you have the same business models as for websites or apps, but you also have the advantage that you can reach users on a more personal medium – in dialog-based interfaces. What we do for Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot, is use affiliate marketing, as the chatbot references TripAdvisor, Foursquare, Uber, Bookatable and others. On the other hand, we have premium content that we offer. Premium content is specifically tailored to the audience, and ranges from events that can be advertised through the bot or a venue recommendation, or it could be premium content of an airline, for instance. Next steps could be special offers by coffee shops or restaurants or sponsored posts.
“You have the same business models as for websites or apps, but you also have the advantage that you can reach users on a more personal medium.”
How old is Mica?
Barbara Ondrisek: A year ago I started with a friend of mine Like a Hipster as an Android app and later as an iOS app. It all started as a joke, because we stated that our Head of Communications is Mica, my cat. On the website, we stated: “When you want to get in touch with us, you can write Mica, our Head of Communications, and she will get back to you as soon as she finishes her sleeping or eating.” So it started as a gag, and when Facebook Messenger and Skype announced that they would open their messenger platforms for bots, I thought it would be a great idea to make Mica, my own cat at home, not only an ambassador or testimonial of the service but also a character people can write to.
I get positive feedback almost all the time, so it’s really 90% positive feedback. The only thing people are sceptical about is the direction bots are heading because it’s a bit uncertain whether bots are only a hype or the future of interfaces and user experience. I think this is something that will surface anytime soon – how they work and why they’re a great thing. I also love to see how people are amazed when they use Mica for the first time and find out, that they don’t need to install something to use the chatbot.
WeChat, the Chinese platform, is a bit ahead of Facebook Messenger and Skype, as they’ve already implemented instant financial transactions in chatbots themselves. Therefore, in China this is more than a platform, it’s really an ecosystem. This might also happen with Facebook Messenger, Skype, Line, Telegram, Kik and so on. Facebook already released a version of a payment system based on Messenger in the US, and when the payments will be opened to the public worldwide, it will be a great success. So soon you might be able to book a flight or a hotel room, order food, or place an Amazon order directly in the Messenger platform.
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8. How do you see this developing in the future?
Barbara Ondrisek: Many people ask me if chatbots will replace apps. I think that chatbots won’t completely replace apps, but they will definitely replace the bad ones. You might not want to install all of the apps you’d want on your phone, either because you’d get too many notifications, or there’s not enough storage for them. Chatbots enable you to communicate without downloading, installing and registering into accounts you might have forgotten the password of.
“The only thing people are skeptical about is the direction bots are heading, because it’s a bit uncertain whether bots are only a hype or the future of interfaces and user experience.”
In the ‘90s, when the internet went mainstream, companies wondered why they should have a website, if people could reach them in their shops, by fax or telephone. People were sceptical back then. Some companies started with websites and these were the first movers. It’s the same with chatbots nowadays, as people are very sceptical, especially in Austria. However, there are some early adopters that are now riding the first wave of chatbots. It might take a little bit longer for people to understand it, but I like to convince people of the ease of use of the messenger platforms and of the advantages because there are so many.
When apps came, not many people thought that they would replace websites. It’s the same for bots. Chatbots are another channel. They are virtual assistants and offer an intuitive dialogue interface on platforms, users are already familiar with. Bots could lead to a lot of cost savings on customer support or call centres, and they could also bring the point of sale directly on messengers as conversational commerce.
About Barbara Ondrisek
Dr. Barbara Ondrisek, aka “Bot Mother”, is an enthusiastic software developer with 15+ years of experience. She worked mostly as a freelancer at web projects (lately George / Erste Bank) or on building apps. With Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot, a chatbot that helps you discover hip places, she created one of the first chatbots on the Facebook Messenger platform worldwide. Mica was the very first bot on Messenger and Skype in Austria, which led to a listing as testimonial in the official Skype FAQs.
About Chatbots Agency
The Chatbots Agency helps developing your digital communication design! Four specialists found the heart of this Vienna based chatbots agency. We are no robots! 🙂
Eager to find out how chatbots transform the customer support experience across different industries? Read Thomas Schranz’ interview “Chatbots Transform the Customer Support Experience in Every Industry.”