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July 13, 2016, 10:24 a.m.
Mobile & Apps

Remember Facebook Messenger bots? The Washington Post just launched one (with a few bugs)

The Post wants to be on “every bottable platform.” It plans to launch this fall on SMS and then Slack.

Remember when bots were all the rage? Waaaaaaaaay back in April, Facebook announced that it would begin supporting bots within its Messenger chat app, and CNN, The Wall Street Journal, and other publishers — along with lots of retailers and other #brands — launched bots on the platform.

Though CNN said users were spending an average of two minutes with its bot, it seems that the response to the bots has been tepid as users complained of glitches, slow response times, and excessive notifications.

And as spring turned to summer, it felt like publishers’ focus was turning toward Facebook Live and other trendier platforms.

WaPoMessengerStill, that hasn’t stopped companies from continuing to work on Messenger bots. Facebook says there are now more than 11,000 on Messenger, and on Tuesday The Washington Post released its own. The paper also said it has plans to expand the bot to other platforms, including SMS, Slack, and Amazon’s Alexa. The Post eventually plans to be on “every bottable platform,” said Joey Marburger, the Post’s head of product, and its goal is to make the bot experience similar across all platforms.

While other outlets rushed to get bots onto Messenger right out of the gate, the Post decided to hold off and study how users were reacting to the bots that publishers and non-publishers were putting out. One finding: Users, and Post staffers themselves, don’t like the spammy and unresponsive notifications most bots offer. As a result, the paper decided to make the first version of its bot totally responsive to users, meaning that the bot won’t send you anything unless you ask for it first.

“We’ve been thinking about it for a while,” Marburger said. “We know that we can build them — we know that we have the feeds and the APIs to power them. But what should the real experience be like? What’s a longer tail approach that we can take to learn how readers interact with a bot in a messaging space.”

“Bots aren’t new, but using them to get news and information and buy things, that’s obviously new,” he continued. “You have to get the experience right. Let’s not screw this up out of the gate, spam them with headlines. Let’s view all of these conversational experiences as a first stop. Let’s grow over time.”

Users can ask the Post bot for top stories or coverage of specific topics, and if users enter their zip code the bot will also send them national and local election results tailored to their location. Next month, the bot will include the Post’s coverage of the Summer Olympics.

The Post plans to eventually add notifications, but only if users ask for them, Marburger said. So, for example, users would be able to ask the bot to send them the top news stories every morning at the set time they wake up. It also plans to add more information such as basic weather information, sports scores and stats, and a news quiz. (The Post experimented with a news quiz bot on Kik last year.)

And as it continues to build out the bots on various platforms, the Post wants to make sure that the experience is conversational and not run on “rigid, robotic-feeling commands.” But Marburger said that in order for users to actually use the bot in a conversational way it has to be frictionless. Ideally, the bot will be as easy to use as Google, and users, he said, shouldn’t have to think about the proper way to solicit stories or information.

The Post also wanted the bot to be conversational, because that will make it easier to use on Alexa-enabled devices, such as the Amazon Echo, which are voice controlled. (Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos also owns the Post, of course.)

“Over time, if you lean people toward asking more open-ended questions, you’re starting to tip-toe into a conversation,” he said. “Once you do that, people may react to things, they may ask more complicated questions, and we want to really build toward that so it doesn’t feel like you have to remember some laundry list of commands.”

WaPoMessenger2The current iteration of the Post bot isn’t at that level yet though.

For instance, I asked it for coverage about Pokémon Go — but it gave me stories on Evan Bayh’s Indiana Senate bid, an op-ed from a mom about why she doesn’t limit her kids’ screen time, a piece from April listing online April Fools hoaxes, a story about a D.C. kidnapping, and a review of the X-Factor TV show.

Marburger acknowledged the issue, and said those language processing issues are the main thing the Post is trying to work out now as it rolls the bot out to users.

“That’s the biggest bug in it right now, the open-ended search cache that it’ll do,” Marburger said. “That’s the hard part about building these — that natural language processing and being able to pick out identifiable words that then respond back to the right results. Right now, we’re getting some random results coming back, but we’re working on improving that right now. That was a stretch feature out of the gate that we weren’t 100 percent with, but we can make that better as people start using it, so we wanted to get it out there and see what we could learn from it.”

While many outlets had their bots built by outside companies, the Post’s was developed in-house. Marburger said there were two engineers working on separate bots — one a headline bot, the other an election results bot — who ultimately came together to combine their work into a single bot. The process took about two weeks, but the launch was delayed due to vacations and the July 4 holiday.

The Post plans to launch its next bot on SMS, and it’s slated for a release this fall. Marburger said an SMS release takes longer because “there’s lots of legal aspects that are interesting that you don’t have to worry about on chat apps.” After SMS, Slack is next on the paper’s bot schedule.

Marburger said the Post decided to focus on these three platforms initially because each has its own quirks and peculiarities that will be useful to master before moving onto other services.

“We’re trying to do some clear differentiators. Messenger is very different from SMS, which is very different from Slack,” he said. “Those are three different experience points. We think we can get a lot of learnings from all three areas before we fill in the middle gaps with other messaging platforms.”

Photo by Karlis Dambrans used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     July 13, 2016, 10:24 a.m.
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