The killer feature of messaging no one’s talking about

Main illustration: Molly Mendoza

Messaging looks set to disrupt the computing landscape but not for any of the reasons you might expect. Chat’s threaded UI, where all communication and actions are placed in a clear context of who, what and why, is the killer feature that’s been around forever and yet everyone is overlooking.

Mobile is the future of global computing, and according to Mary Meeker and Co., the killer app for mobile continues to be messaging (a.k.a. Conversational UI among pedantic product designers like me.) In 2015, messengers surpassed social networks in both number of users and rate of growth. And even though the mobile-OS-plus-app thing is still strong, research consistently shows that users interact with just 27 unique apps per month, and actually care about far fewer over time.

To find fresh, lightweight ways to reach users, forward-thinking businesses are turning to chat (and of course Intercom helps companies do this!). Chatbots have been anointed by industry leaders like Zuckerberg and Satya as the way to launch and scale this effort, and it’s all really real, according to Gartner (via Techcrunch). They predict by 2018 a full 30 percent of our technology interactions will be mediated through conversations with bots.

New threaded experiences will be enabled, supplanting single-purpose apps, sites, and services – even on the desktop

But chat UI will not blow up just because of bots or other emerging UI bits and pieces. As messengers evolve into full blown computing platforms, new threaded experiences will be enabled, supplanting single-purpose apps, sites, and services—even on the desktop. It’s the threaded organisation of interactions into useful contexts centered around people, businesses and task threads that could change the world.

Chat UI as a platform

On top of the twin forces of app-ennui and bot-ification, there’s a third force at work that’s gaining momentum—and it’s the one that could really transform chat into a general purpose platform. It’s the tighter and tighter integration of third party services, notably payments, into threads. The Chinese chat leader, WeChat, has a general purpose wallet and interpersonal micro-transfer platform that’s huge in the Chinese market. Reuters reported that in 2016, WeChat’s estimated transaction volume on personal transfers alone (excluding wallet transactions like movies, meals and wheels) will be almost double PayPal’s $280bn 2015 volume, and all without the aid of single bot!

While it’s true that uniquely Chinese factors steroid-ed this growth (a distrust for online card payments, a trust of mobile operators, and a giant population) western messengers such as Snapchat and Facebook M also have integrated payments, and rumors abound that Apple Messenger and Telegram will soon follow suit. Messenger payments are definitely coming and where payments go, so goes general commerce.

If you zoom out a bit and look at the broad messenger picture, then, what you see is a class of service that’s:

  1. mobile-first
  2. has device-based user-verification built in
  3. has social recommendations on tap and
  4. supports deeply integrated (inline) third party services.

As a total package, that’s a pretty compelling mix, and much more than browser apps can bring to the table.

Smart threading is the X-Factor

the old way of information in many disconnected apps versus the new way of having it all in a single thread
As more and more services get more deeply embedded into the chat experience, messengers will likely deploy a range of UIs to support them. I may want to ask my bank chatbot to send me a copy of my monthly statement as a text message, but I’ll buy a pizza by selecting a visual menu page, and perhaps hail an Uber using a combination of a bot and a threaded button, Facebook M-style. Despite all of the discussion on chat bots, I’m convinced the chat thread will evolve to encompass a wide range of interactions with a range of UIs to enable them. Chats will be hybrid of human and bot chat, sprinkled with full screen GUIs as well as decomposed, chattable “min-terface” bits like threaded text buttons, graphical UI elements in soft-keyboards, and nicely displayed placards of information.

What will drive all of this is not just the arrival of bots, but the fact that threads are simply a better paradigm for organising your digital life than anything cobbled together from email, web pages, apps and the odd SMS. They’re great at keeping context (simply scroll up if you forget what you’re talking about), so they can help people shift quickly from one stream of communication to another without the soul destroying digging around we are forced to do today. And they’re perfect for organising everything around what’s actually important: the thing you’re trying to do or the person with whom you want to communicate. Let’s look at a couple of examples of how this could work.

Removing friction from regular purchases

It’s lunchtime, I’m hungry, and in my messenger of choice, I search for McDonald’s. In my (future) address book’s location-aware (and smarter) business directory tab, I pick McDonald’s, and start a chat with the restaurant by texting or speaking “Hey,” poking them with my poke button, or ringing a branded minterface McDonald’s hamburger-shaped doorbell. This conversation starter creates implied consent, so I’m happy for McDonald’s to determine which store I’m near, take a good long look at my AI-enriched profile to see how I like to pay, and whether or not I want to get a calorie total of the meal or not before paying (ha, ha).

McDonald’s can easily see my past orders, organised into the McDonald’s thread, and using this information, deliver a custom soft-keyboard picture menu sporting its latest healthy snack and today’s elderflower cordial shake.

Example of how you might order from McDonald's using a soft-keyboard picture menu

As I select items, my order is assembled into a tidy chat bubble that I can review, edit and add new things to, using standard chat interface interactions until I’m happy. Then I just hit “send” to place the order. The order is received, paid for with a minterface payment button that appears inline, and it’s ready for pickup by the time I arrive.

Rich profiling and relevant browsing

Let’s say I want to buy a new jacket, and from past web browsing or brick and mortar shopping experiences, I think UNIQLO’s the brand for me. I search for UNIQLO in my business directory, and text them to say “I want a lightweight jacket for delivery to my home, please.” I’ve given implied consent to share AI-enriched profile information with UNIQLO, so they get information about my size, gender, and my delivery area.

Example of how you might easily be able to buy a new jacket in a messaging interface

In return for all of this helpful information, UNIQLO sends me a hand-crafted (no, not really) message with a URL payload that’s unfurled nicely in my messenger. It looks good, full of exactly what I’m looking for, along with a few surprising extras to entice me. I tap the message and a page appears filled with jackets for my gender, in my size, and available for delivery in my area.

When I’m ready to order that snappy new windbreaker, UNIQLO requests payment from my messenger, which in turn requests payment from my authorised payment provider, adding a payment button to the thread. I tap it (of course I do!) and I get a nice thank you from UNIQLO. The next thing I know, my bank drops in a confirmation message into the same thread, followed by DHL who drops in the related tracking details. Et voila, at least 10 screens, annoying bank security freak-outs and three or four different service hops have been made redundant. But most importantly, it’s all organised in the way I think about things: buying my jacket. The old way would be the store, bank, and delivery services all sending me disconnected, disjointed bits of information that I have to weave back together into something meaningful.

That’s a really important shift. The information isn’t scattered in several different unrelated places that might include SMS, email, or potentially an app or two on your phone—it’s all in context with what the user wants to accomplish. And that’s huge. Going the other direction starting on the web is even simpler. I give the UNIQLO website a phone number or messenger ID, and then finalise my transaction in a similarly nicely organised, sensible thread.

Context, not content, is actually king

The great thing about organising a purchase or any compound interaction this way is that all of the context and information is preserved in the same thread. So if there’s ever a problem or question, the customer service person, account manager, bot or other helper on the other side of the thread will have everything needed to help. No more order numbers or account verification required.

By adding richer context to every interaction the web gets faster and more effective for everyone

Think about how much time and effort you’ve had to waste getting reps up to speed, only to have it to do it again and then again because of a call transfer or an unavoidable interruption. These types of redundant, wasteful interactions appear at every level of business interaction, whether it’s B2C or B2B. By adding richer context to every interaction (and memory) the web gets faster and more effective for everyone.

Messengers are the the future of the web

This is the key about conversational UI: it’s not really about the UI or bots. It’s the fact that messengers uniquely combine rich context, security, and natural language tools organised meaningfully into threads that better represent what we’re doing and trying to accomplish. The messenger doesn’t replace the web browser or apps, instead it can orchestrate a more relevant and pain-free experience. It doesn’t replace the bank, but it could replace random, potentially insecure payment experiences (just like PayPal, Apple Pay, and others are trying to do today). And it doesn’t replace tracking systems, it simply puts the tracking information where it should go, helping you see the full flow of the task you are trying to accomplish.

Unlike browsers or devices, only the messenger is perfectly poised to bring truly new, personal and relevant experiences to life. These next few years will tell us whether this potential can be realised.