Enough with the small talk. 

Contrary to their name, Facebook’s hordes of third-party Messenger chatbots have never been the strongest conversationalists.

Try to get one to, say, order a pizza and too often you’ll find yourself stumbling through a drawn-out back-and-forth that’ll make you pull your hair out. 

That’s only after you’ve gone through the confusing hassle of finding the bot and, in some cases, awkwardly making the first move.  

Facebook, it seems, gets that. It knows you don’t always relish these intimate encounters of the bot kind.  

At least that’s the message the social network is sending with a new update to its bot-maker toolkit.

The company is encouraging developers to make their Messenger bots less chatty with a new format option that strips them down to the nuts and bolts: interactive menus of clickable options in place of a keyboard. 

“You may have been tempted to use the conversational flow to present your bot’s main features and flows,” a Facebook spokesperson writes in a blog post announcing the change. “Consider stripping such exchanges down and cutting to the chase by putting the most important features in your menu.”

This stripped-down format has been available to bot-makers for the better half of a year, but users could previously only access it through an easily overlooked icon. Facebook admits that because many users had no idea the button was there, many developers ignored it.

The move may signal a sweeping change in Facebook’s attitude towards bots after a buzzy push that’s generally failed to live up to the company’s lofty promises. The Information reported last week that Facebook is rethinking its development efforts on all automation fronts after research showed bots failed to adequately address 70 percent of customer questions and requests.

When Facebook first unveiled its grand ambitions nearly a year ago, it hyped them as more than simple command line interfaces — bots would eventually be able to carry on dialogue about anything from customer service to the news. 

“We think that the combination of [user interface] and conversation is what is going to make this work,” David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products, said on stage at the launch during Facebook’s annual developer conference. 

Many of the underwhelming initial batch of bots, however, were pretty weak on both of those counts. Most only responded to a few specific textual commands. Yet because they were billed as personable robot friends, they offered little instruction on how to find said commands and liberally returned “aw, shucks” error messages to any off-script query.

The initial version of the CNN bot last April was not the most versatile.

The result was that trying to get certain bots to do anything beyond the most basic of functions felt like groping for a light switch in a dark room.

Many of the features Facebook has since added have seemed to be about walking back the pretense of a free-ranging, colloquial AI to a more structured and practical utility.

Over time, there seems to have been a little mission creep. While Facebook’s initial pitch to businesses stressed the customer-service capabilities of bots, a glance at a couple dozen or so featured in the Messenger app revealed very few used for retail purposes.

Instead, judging from that admittedly small sample, bots seem to be most useful for regularly scheduled and customized doses of information from media companies or lifestyle brands, quizzes, and novelty gags.

A recent Forrester survey found that only four percent of digital business professionals use any sort of chatbot. The research firm concluded in its most recent report on the state of the practice that its hype as a “world-changing technology” has led to a “peak of inflated expectations” that have gone largely unmet.

Of more than 20 companies that rolled out Facebook bots or announced intentions to do so in the first week of their launch — many of which had partnered with the social network for the unveiling — nearly half of their bots are now either ostensibly still in the works, mothballed or otherwise unaccounted for.

The general scale-back doesn’t mean that the bots aren’t getting at least marginally smarter, though. This week’s update also yielded ways for developers to make the prefab menu trees more flexible and adaptive to the context of a given discussion, among other tweaks.

Just don’t expect them to banter about the weather anytime soon.

     



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