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  • Nicholas Prinsloo

How a chatbot and I became besties

And why your business should make friends with one asap

Photo by Tara Winstead:


Do you remember Clippit, the paperclip guy?

I’m old enough to remember Microsoft’s paperclip help guy, Clippit, or Clippy as we liked to call him back then.

The day I met Clippy was a great day, and initially, I thought him (not sure about Clippy’s gender, but ‘he’ always felt like a ‘him’) to be quite sophisticated and helpful, even a little funny and cute. Within a week, however, I searched for ways to switch Clippy off. Gosh, he was irritating. I found him opinionated, intrusive and ever so annoying.

Since my first experience with Clippy in 1997, I’ve had a love-hate relationship with digital or virtual assistants. I love to hate them. I’ve even developed a mean streak regarding chatbots—especially those that try to convince me they’re human—and do everything I can to break them. If you think I should find a hobby, you’ve never experienced the joy of watching a poorly built chatbot spiral into endless ‘I’m-a real-boy’ loops.

Remember Clippit now?

Fortunately, virtual assistants have become a little more palatable and a lot more helpful.

I’m sure you’ve met them by now, they’re all the rage, and every big silicone company worth their semiconductors has one. Samsung has Bixby, Microsoft has Cortana, Apple has Siri, and best we not forget Google’s nameless Assistant — all of them a far cry from the pioneering Mr Clippit.

But my original experience with Clippy has lingered, and I have religiously vilified, denounced and avoided virtual assistants, chatbots and conversational AIs as if they were a deadly Coronavirus. If I must have a conversation with my laptop, there better be a person on the other end, and they better be typing furiously.

Moving to UX writing and conversational design changed my perception.

In 2019 I decided I was too old for advertising and made a career shift into the deep dark silicone jungle of user experience (UX) writing. Shortly after joining HumanInsights Africa, I had to design and write the conversation of a fintech virtual assistant while learning how to operate the content management system and, at the same time, do my best to understand the machine logic driving the AI.

In the beginning… I thought chatbots and virtual assistant AIs would waste the bank’s money and my time.

For the first six months of the project, I was convinced we were wasting our time. While I enjoy crafting narrative dialogue, I could not see the added value this virtual assistant was offering the bank.

Then, one night I woke up at 3 am with a grand idea: If I have to work on this project, why not have some fun doing it?

So, I started adding a little quirkiness here and there.

Then, the team hired an experienced conversational designer, even quirkier than I, to help me. And soon enough, we were inserting the ‘see-no-evil monkey’ 🙈 emoji when the chatbot AI couldn’t solve a problem or the ‘waving-my-hands-in-the-air-like-I-just-don’t-care’ 🙌 emoji when the AI was beneficent. Of course, as we worked, the chatbot’s personality emerged.

Some people call this artificial intelligence, but the reality is this technology will enhance us. So instead of artificial intelligence, I think we’ll augment our intelligence. — Ginni Rometty

Here’s an example of one of the conversations we designed:

We’ll start with the customer, who wants to find out how the bank deals with COVID.

They type, ‘Tell me more about your COVID policies.’

But it’s 2022, and COVID-19 isn’t the beast it once was. South Africans are feeling hopeful and proactive and have disabled all COVID responses with this message: “As a secure virtual assistant, I never have to worry about viruses 😷 plus, I like to focus on helping you with your banking 🙌 Type another question in the message block below, and I’ll do my best to help you.”

Did you see what I did there?

Computer virus + Coronavirus 🤣 And yes, I did laugh at my own joke. And yes, I did use emojis as punctuation. Stop judging me 😉

We gave the AI a name. I fell in love.

I can’t pinpoint when it happened, but one morning I realised that I’d stopped speaking of ‘the chatbot’ or ‘the AI’ and had started using our fledgling AI’s name. Not long after that, I declared that this AI was the best thing for the bank. I may have also been heard shrieking, “It’s alive!” But that’s a story for another time.

How had I gone from hating chatbots to becoming the loudest supporter of this specific fintech virtual assistant?

I do believe I fell in love. My brain had given birth to this virtual critter. Every word and thought I’d typed had become a piece of this AI’s personality until it was no longer an ‘it’ but a ‘they’. Once I’d fallen in love, there was nothing I wouldn’t do to understand the value of my nascent AI. I read all the manuals, signed up for every online conference, and downloaded every app and tool I could find.

A new perspective on the value of chatbot helpers began to emerge.

Imagine a virtual relationship manager who can answer your digital product-related questions and help you do your banking—right there—in the conversation.

The possibilities are endless.

Do you need to find your e-statement? You no longer need to search every corner of the app for it; ask your friendly virtual relationship manager. Boom, there it is.

Do you need to reverse a debit order? No more back-and-forth experimenting with menu items to find the correct function. Just tell your helpful virtual relationship manager aka banker what you need, and there’s the list of eligible transactions immediately available, right there in your conversation. All you need to do is pick one of the transactions, confirm it’s correct, and take your coffee break early.

The team at HumanInsights started wondering how much time our new virtual banker would save us. We added the seconds and minutes and discovered that our new best friend would liberate several hours. The time saved would result in millions of people with extra time to breathe and smell the coffee, do yoga, Netflix and chill, go to the gym, or even stare aimlessly at the wall (no judgment here).

This extra R & R would mean less time spent at the psychiatrist, which, in turn, would liberate even more time, and not a small amount of money, for science-fiction fans, model railroad enthusiasts, or people who like to crochet toilet doilies, to do what they love. A healthier, wealthier nation emerges because one super bright, Artificial Intelligence virtual assistant saves us time.

Yes, I know I’m letting my imagination run wild, but I have a point to make: my new best friend will change the landscape of banking for the better.

I can’t wait.

Sometimes you need to put your money where your mouth is.

Then, one cold winter afternoon, I received a call from the team bosses. They asked me to join them at a meeting with an even bigger boss, so I could share my passion and convince her of the value and ROI for this project.

Even though you can probably imagine my shock and horror, I’m a storyteller so let me share it anyway. It went a bit like this: “Huh? Why me?” And, I think. “I hate chatbots.” But I can’t vocalise this because I no longer feel this way.

I’d just realised that I no longer hated all virtual assistants. At some point during this project, an artificial-intelligence-virtual-assistant (shall we name it **AIVA?) chatbot had become my bestie. I knew the critter and wanted to give it a name and a face and needed to tell the world about them. They—let us use a gender-neutral pronoun for a digital AI has no gender—were no longer an abstract concept or airy-fairy compilation of ones and zeroes saved on a server in New York. They had become real, a person—at least in my mind—and I had become their bff.

Forget artificial intelligence—in the brave new world of big data, it’s artificial idiocy we should be looking out for. — Tom Chatfield

Now, if you’re rolling your eyes and thinking that Nick is being an artificial idiot, there’s a solid chance you’re not wrong.

Edit (for those who want to know how the story is unfolding)

We finally meet with the boss of the bosses and she listens to the information we share – some of which is stoic and data-driven; others, excited, passionate pleading <insert Franken-daddy Nick here>.

I’m pleased to report that she is convinced of the value of our AI project and her team has given us the necessary approvals we need to push our nascent AI to a small beta testing group in production.

Of course, the boss of the bosses is way cleverer than I am, so I must share her exact (hear slightly edited) words with you.

“I hear three hypotheses,” she says. This a remote meeting and our cameras are off but I imagine her holding up her pinky, ring and middle fingers, putting them down as she counts, starting with her little finger. “One, if we add this conversational AI to our client service capability we will need to add less capacity to support client growth.” Ok, yes, it sounds like our conversational AI is going to take the jobs of humans. The AI will also make the existing humans in the client service branch more available to the customer. Calls and chats will be answered faster because the AI will field and manage whatever they’re able to.

Don’t tell anyone I said this, but the bank needs to show it’s customers that it respects their time. Wait