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The Bot Chronicles S01E04: Bot development for the masses?!

While you're reading this we're working on our bot development R&D traject. But in the run-up for this project, I decided to have some discovery on my own in my spare time. And so I started toying with Chatfuel. A point and click bot creation tool.

This article is part of a series. Be sure to check out all episodes here:

S01E01  S01E02  S01E03  S01E04  S01E05  S01E06  S01E07  

Already read these? Super. Let's dive right in then.

If Lego Technics is for the big boys, Chatfuel would be best described as the Lego DUPLO series. Which is good, since I don't know how to write code. A tool that brings (basic) bot creation to the masses. So I went ahead and created a companion bot to this Bot Chronicles Series!

Meet Ref-it, our very own Chatbot:

our very own chatbot

Go ahead and give it a test-run. Read on if you're interested in how the bot was created.
Note: you'll get the best experience by clicking this link on a mobile device that has the Facebook Messenger client installed.

Why prototype out in the open?

Why toy around with this bot? And why put it out there at all? Because we have to. Theory is nice, but no better way to understand a new medium then to dive right into it. Play with it, expose it and get valuable feedback by real people. And so I did.
Just to be clear here. This is not a demonstration of our technical ability to create bots. Nor is this our true R&D Proof of Concept.
This is my preparation and discovery before our real preparation and discovery. How very meta.

What does it do?

I started the bot with three main goals in mind.

  1.  Act as a companion bot to the Bot Chronicles Series. A bit like a sidekick to which I can link to in this series and the other way around.
  2. Tell the visitor a bit more about The Reference and what we do.
  3. Allow for getting in touch with The Reference, preferably by plugging directly into our CRM system.
The end result

I'm pretty happy with the way the bot turned out. The approach for creating the bot was very hands on, and Chatfuel allows people without mad coding skills to get something up and running quickly.

Introduction

Like any bot I decided to have the bot introduce itself. I kept it quite basic and immediately provided the visitor with three important choices. Learn more about what the bot can do, go to the bot chronicles section or get help.

introduction ref-it

Help

A quickly learned a "Help" section is not something to overlook. My wife (my favorite test subject for these things) kept tapping the images in the galleries instead of the buttons below. This has nothing to do with my wife not being tech savvy, she is (hi hon). Turns out, most people hit the images instead of the links below. Learned something there.
So I set out to extend the help section and make it into an onboarding experience where the visitor is guided in an interactive fashion through a couple of functions.

•working with links
•explaining "galleries"
•getting to the menu
•...

working with linksexplaining 'galleries'getting to the menu

Chatfuel also allows you to implement a very simple but very valuable little animation "faking" the impression that the bot is typing (the three bullets that appear throughout the conversations). It helps to make the conversation more natural.

In the end, the help section became a little bot of itself.

And that too was a valuable lesson. Turns out you set out a rough path for the bot, but you quickly got lost in one of the many side tracks (like the help section) and you just have to finish it properly before you're able to return to the main path again.

Almost every side track I took also meant having to change one of the other tracks as well. If I enable getting to the Main menu by simply typing "main menu" I'd have to go back to the help section and explain it there for instance. If I added a way to "subscribe" to articles I'd have to explain this in the help section. If I enable the bot to request and "remember" some of your contact info so I don't have to ask it again.

This is not a demonstration of our technical ability to create bots. Nor is this our true R&D Proof of Concept.

Main menu

The main menu in the end was the easiest to accomplish. Every time you create a new functionality, I returned to the main menu and added a card for it in the gallery.

I ended up with these functionalities:

  • News and articles: news and articles from the Reference site, pulled into the bot.
  • Get in touch: contact section with Selligent CRM integration
  • About myself: the bot talking about... itself
  • Help section
  • About The Reference: some info on The Reference and our services
  • Jobs

    Besides these main functionalities the bot also has these more hidden features
  • Uh-Oh section: handles anything the bot doesn't understand.
  • Smalltalk: the bot uses Natural Language Processing (NLP) and AI to detect stuff like greetings, weird questions, requests for pie recipe's,...

    Let's go over some of these.

News (or rather, content)

news or rather, content

Chatfuel comes with a set of interesting modules. One of which is Subscriptions. It's quite easy. You define an RSS feed and the bot goes and gets the articles and shows them to the visitor. One can read the articles in the bot, or "subscribe" to the articles. Subscriptions can be managed by the visitor, and the fun part is you get notified in messenger when a new article is published.

subscriptionsRSS feed

Try it out!

Get in touch

get in touch

This particular functionality was fun. I started out with a very basic concept. Ask questions, and send them along via mail. Chatfuel allows to "save" values during a chat session. So I set out and defined a workflow where Ref-it would ask a number of questions, and give the option to save contact info for future use.

This way, you won't get asked for the same dataset over and over again. Ref-it asks it once, and stores it for future use, allowing the bot to immediately ask the important questions.

Try it out.

This led to some privacy concerns, so Ref-it allows you to check out what info it saved, and if you want you can remove it.

privacy concerns

See here (best tested after you've entered some contact info.)
The contact forms on our site are linked up with Selligent. So why not have Ref-it do the same. I decided to bypass mailing the contact requests and the bot passes along all info to a Selligent end-point.

About the bot

Basic setup with some info about the bot and links to the Bot Chronicles series.

About The Reference 

Not all of these sections are created in depth.
This section is quite limited. In the future I could go and get more content from the site and pull it in here, based on the preference of the visitor, but for now I just link to the site. Hey, It's my spare time, remember?!

Jobs

The Jobs section is also quite limited, but there are plenty of opportunities to expand here in the future. Ref-it could go and ask the visitor what type of job they're looking for and connect to our Application Tracking System (ATS) and provide them the job positions. On top of that it could allow them to post their candidacy right from within the bot. Just sayin.

Uh-oh section

uh-oh sections

The Uh-oh section handles all input the bot doesn't understand. Chatfuel has some AI rules to define the intent of a visitor and act accordingly.
This AI isn't the smartest, and it's hard to cover every response. So when Ref-it gets an answer it doesn't understand, it does a Google Site search of our site with the keyword the visitor entered as search word.
Enter "Sitecore" and you'll get articles related to "Sitecore".
Limited, but handy.

Conclusion

The Good

Creating this bot was a valuable learning experience. It teaches to formulate workflows as a conversational UI.
The bot has real (often unexpected) interactions with real people, and so I can keep tuning it to react better to the circumstances. Using Facebook's "Pages" app allows me to monitor behaviors and interact real-time with visitors. I can "budge in" and ask some questions about their experience. Beware though. This can be unsettling for some people, since they often aren't prepared for a real human intervening in a Chatbot session.

Chatfuel also enables me to try out very basic concepts whilst still being able to do some fancy integrations. In and of itself it could act as a prototype tool to mimic a more advanced bot.

Getting analytics from your bot is very important too. Here Chatfuel provides a basic insight into the use of your bot (popular phrases, popular buttons, visitors count etc...

The Bad

As mentioned earlier, Chatfuel is quite basic when it comes to AI, but the tools available do make up for it if you're looking to a more "Action" based bot.

The Fun

The most important part? You can try it yourselves! So this really is a tool for the masses. Keep in mind though, I'm using this bot as a proof of concept and prototyping tool. The current bot is too limited to create tangible value in its current form. You might want to dig in a bit deeper if you want your bot to actually be useful and rise above the slew of other bots out there.
Interested in our Chatbot services? Be sure to let us know!
This article is part of the Bot Chronicles series, a series documenting the Bot R&D of The Reference.
Check out the previous episode here

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