Let's kill all of the automated assistants

by David Spark on August 29, 2008

UGGH! I absolutely despise automated assistants. Nothing makes me hate a company more than to engage in a “conversation” with an automated assistant.

When you post an “assistant” on your front page, you’re not fooling anyone. Why do you think you could? With the year after year challenge of the Turing test we’ve yet to be able to truly and consistently fool anyone from being able to tell the difference between a conversation with a human than that of a machine. And even if you could, is that the brand you want to build with your customers? Come to our store where we’ll make you look and feel like an ass.

Chatbot at Hanover

This is a chatbot for Hanover

Today I read David M. Scott’s tale of trying to find out if the bed at IKEA came with a mattress. That’s all he wanted to know, yet he got trapped in this endless and pointless discussion with a being that wasn’t even there. The staff at IKEA doesn’t want to devote additional human resources to answer a question that will lead DIRECTLY TO A SALE. Why do that when you can have a machine waste your customers’ time, frustrate them, and think less of your brand?

That’s why I’m asking all readers and everyone else to truly KILL all of the automated assistants. How could we do it? I’m looking for some suggestions.

Why is it we always ask automated assistants if they’re retarded?

What cracked me up is that moment when Scott got frustrated with the automated assistant and simply asked, “Are you retarded?” Interestingly, the IKEA-bot shot back with a humorous response: “My on-board systems report that all my systems are working perfectly. What would you like to know about IKEA?”

That means the IKEA-bot was PROGRAMMED for the “Are you retarded?” question. The reason is every single time I’ve been trapped in a conversation with an automated assistant, annoyance takes over and I just blurt it out: “Are you retarded?” Obviously the company that makes IKEA’s automated response tool has heard this question a lot and they needed to write a response to calm down people’s obvious irritation.

The reason we ask the “Are you retarded?” question is we’re eager to hear the response. Traditionally it’s usually something that completely ignores the question. Something to the affect of “I’m sorry I couldn’t help you out. You can find more information on our FAQ page.” And that brings me to this point:

You don’t need an automated assistant if your site has good UI

The point of an automated assistant is to help people that are having a hard time finding the information they need on your site. Well, you wouldn’t think you NEED an automated assistant if you could just figure out how to design the user interface and had a search tool of your site better. It is for that reason we need to simply KILL all automated assistants. We have no need for them. We only need better UI and search.

There are solutions to help people who are confused that DON’T involve an automated assistant

I’m a big fan of real humans. I talk to them every day, online, on the phone, and in the real world. Using a tool like Meebo, allows you to put a chatbox on your homepage and put a real human behind it. What a wild and crazy UNSCALABLE concept. I actually had a fantastic discussion with the support person at Libsyn using their chat tool and it was because of that conversation I became a customer! I’ve never become a customer after having a conversation with a chatbot.

Additionally, putting staff in discussion groups or creating one of your own using a service like Get Satisfaction is hugely advantageous.

But back to my original question, how should we kill all the automated assistants?

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