Facebook chat bots might be the future, but right now they feel like the past

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1-800-flowers will let you order flowers, if you stick to the script

No small part of the promise of bots, at least for brands, is the idea that people will buy things by talking to them. Facebook made 1-800-Flowers a prominent part of its bot pitch, but how does this service work?

Well, it’s not exactly bot-like. When you start your conversation, the bot will ask you where you’d like to deliver your flowers to. After that, you’ll see a curated selection of flower categories.

flow-categories

You need to stick to these categories, because there is no conversational ability built into this bot at all. Seriously. Searching for the most mundane thing imaginable will not work.

flowers-no-answers

Artificial intelligence, this is not. It’s a series of options you can browse with your thumb, that just so happens to come in the form of a chat bot. Unless you want one of the first things offered, expect to tap “more options” more than a few times. Browsing flowers this way can get exhausting.

Once you’ve made a selection, the bot will ask you for a lot of contact information, and even offer to save it for you. Payment is handled outside the bot, on a web page, but basically every other part of the process is handled entirely within Messenger.

Overall, buying flowers with this bot feels slow. Pick a category and you get ten options to scroll through; tap “more options” and you get 10 more. And if you know exactly what you want, there is no easy way to search for it.

This is the most complex thing we tried, and the bot blew it. We’d use the website over this every time, on mobile or otherwise.

Return of the command prompt

Machines struggle to understand human language, which is why, for a long time, learning to use a computer meant learning how to speak the machine’s language. If you wanted to use DOS, you had to know commands like “cd” and “dir.” You also got used to seeing “bad command or file name” several times a day, when you inevitably mis-typed something.

Maybe bots are the future. Right now, however, bots feel like a return to the days of DOS. It’s less “conversational UI” and more “command prompt 2.0.”

Whether you’re checking the weather, ordering some flowers, or booking a flight, these simple scripts can respond to a set number of commands. Stray from the short list of capabilities, however, and you’re out of luck.

It’s the 2016 equivalent of “bad command or file name,” and if you try to use a bot you’ll run into it time and time again. The only way to use these bots reliably is to teach yourself exactly what commands they do and don’t respond to.

Which isn’t to say that bots don’t have potential. But humans shouldn’t have to learn to speak with bots. Bots should learn to speak with humans. Until that happens, apps and websites don’t have a lot to worry about.

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