A Charge of Bots
I had a sharp moment of clarity in the summer of 2007. After standing in line for four hours at an Apple Store outside of Boston on the day the first iPhone came out, I finally had one in my hand. It felt like a stereotypical Hollywood dream sequence; a long road stretching to the horizon and all of the traffic lights go green at the same time. I imagined I could see a map of how the next five years would unfold. How the whole world would rewrite itself around this new device. We built Evernote by betting on that map.
I hadn’t had a similar sense of certainty since then, but it’s happening again now. This time, it’s around conversational UX’s — bots for short — and the world is going to be rewritten again.
What made the iPhone so immediately impressive in 2007? I’m a giant nerd and had been carrying (and developing for) every type of phone since 2001. The iPhone was incrementally familiar in each detail yet ridiculously better in totality. It instantly humbled its predecessors. What happened in 2007 was that a bunch of pre-existing enabling technologies—mobile CPUs, ubiquitous networking, touch screens, application deployment, social networks, cloud, and mobile payments—simultaneously became “good enough” for a mass audience. When a critical mass of building blocks get to “good enough,” the entire category can sprint to “great.” As a result, adoption of smartphones and apps grew with startling speed. In less than a decade, many deeply entrenched points of friction were written out of existence. Big companies tumbled, new ones were built, the world lurched forward.
It’s happening again. The enabling technologies in 2016 are AI, NLP, ML, ubiquitous messaging, computer vision, speech, and serverless computing. All of these just recently crossed the “good enough” line and the resulting products are about to start improving exponentially.
What are bots? Think of them as interactive services that provide a conversational experience and contrast them with traditional “static” apps. In a static UX, you have to learn how to operate each control; push this tab to go here, then swipe left, then push the little ‘i’ button, and so on. In a conversational UX… you just have a conversation. This doesn’t necessarily mean speech input and output, or texting, although it’ll often include those elements. It means that the product understands what you want to do and responds dynamically. Some of these bots will have their own apps, and others will live inside of Slack and Facebook and other messaging channels. Some will be accessible through voice devices like the Amazon Echo. The best bots, I think, will be hybrids with multiple interaction modalities. You talk to a bot in whichever way is most natural, and it responds in the most efficient way possible. Think less Turing test and more R2D2. Bots don’t have to pretend to be human; they just have to be fast and effortless.
That’s going to require a whole new approach to design.
There’s an interesting leading indicator of when a new industry is about to go mainstream: the limiting factor shifts from technology to design. Developing mobile apps before the iPhone was all about fitting into cramped resources and figuring out clever ways to cheat the limitations. After 2007, it was about the design. That’s not to say that the tech stopped being important or stopped improving—just compare the massive improvements under the hood over the past few years—but the real difference between successful apps and also-rans usually came down to design. I think bots are going to be entering that phase now.
Is everything going to become a bot? I don’t think so. There’ll probably still be static apps for professional and authoring tools; Photoshop and CAD and Excel and Evernote aren’t going away; and video games will still be video games. Most of the squishy stuff in the middle, though, will go conversational. Anything that involves collaboration, communications, consumption, organization, etc. will probably become a bot. I think bots will replace 80 percent of what we use at work and half of what we use at home. That’s a lot of stuff to rewrite!
The new generation of conversational products is going to be much more natural and frictionless than the apps they replace. Ideally, there won’t be a need for onboarding, or training, or support, outside of the product itself. Learning how to use a product won’t be a separate step from just using it. Nothing will feel like filling out a form. Tedium will diminish. Harmful metaphors that persistently refuse to die, like the inbox, have a chance of finally being broken. Conversational products will be made to fit neatly into the ways our brains naturally want to think and work and play and be productive. A million small improvements will add up to something significant.
I’ve been thinking about this for a couple of years and working on it actively at General Catalyst since joining six months ago. I’m glad to see that many other people are working on it now; there is an entire ecosystem to be reinvented. I’m also really lucky to have the opportunity to be in this industry as it happens. And to help shape it a little.
And I’ve started to do that by making my first VC investment!
It’s in two amazing founders named Ryan Block and Brian LeRoux and a startup appropriately called Begin. Begin is a bot that’s going to make it easier for people and teams to do their best work. I hope you’ll be hearing a lot more from Begin in the next few months.
I’m more excited than I’ve been since I left that Apple Store nine years ago. I think the world is about to be rewritten again.
It won’t happen overnight, but five years from now it’ll feel like it did.
[This post also appears on Medium—Eds.]