The Why and How of Humanising Digital Conversations – The Why

As we accelerate towards a more automated future, chatbots are getting smarter. They’re taking on more challenging use cases, and playing an increasingly profound role in how organisations private or public, can be more in tune with the communities and customers they serve. The competition for your attention is heating up, with retention, session length, and organic growth of the user base, some of the key battleground metrics. For example, user retention is a key metric  because it “more users are coming back to your bot for more” and that’s a good thing. One reason could be sees things the way you do, understands your concerns, and makes you tell the next person you see…


“Hey, you know this bot thing really gets me.” 

behold the humanised chatbot

Until recently, nobody in the chatbot world even considered a digital assistant’s personality and whether it was important that a chatbot be “more like us.” But as chatbots improve and use cases widen, adding clear personality traits to your machine conversation could be seen as a key component of a successful bot. Humanisation is just beginning to appear “in the wild”  and so far, it seems to be delivering the goods.  But more work needs to be done in more use cases to drive the point home that every bot project needs to consider humanisation.

evolutionary technology

There are a number of key pillars to the theory that a humanised chatbot will connect better to users, all rooted in evolutionary psychology. Essentially, we’re mining our our evolutionary code improve the code we’re building to automate some forms of human conversation. The evolutionary tendencies listed below all feed into how humanisation offers bots the potential  for better engagement and audience retention.


Empathy is more than just a human personality trait. It’s a foundational “Super Trait”. Empathy signals travelling around the brain even have their own dedicated factory in deep inside the brain, in a not so familiar place called the Anterior Lateral Cortex. When we’re distressed and somebody shows us empathy, stranger or not, we have a tendency to be more open with that person and share more with them. That’s the core of an empathic connection. And we can feel that connection to a bot that understands our concerns (‘cognitive empathy’) and shows that it cares (‘affective empathy’).


The empathic connection is reinforced by the general predisposition of our species to actively seek social connections beyond our ‘own kin’, i.e family, hunting group. if a bot seems warm and friendly, the evolutionary part of us might downplay it’s botness, and reach out to say hi, as if to another human because we’ve been programmed that way.


We see human characteristics in animals or inanimate objects, like car headlights, or a chicken.  Anyone who’s made their crust in animation really likes this tendency. . 


For all but a microscopic sliver of human history, humans have had a monopoly on conversation. So with the right triggers in place, a user might see a little more human and a little less chatbot when a humanised bot engages the user. 


Finally, recent user research on chatbots at Stanford supported the view that people gravitate to “warm” engaging, chatbots, when given a series of applications. Warmth and Empathy are pretty close cousins. But the Comp Sci department went one better, as they usually do, with their finding that users…

…are more likely to adopt and cooperate with agents that project low competence.”

(Pranav Khadpe, Ranjay Krishna, Li Fei-Fei, Jeffrey T. Hancock, and Michael S. Bernstein. 2020. Conceptual Metaphors Impact Perceptions of Human-AI Collaboration. Proc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact. 4, CSCW2, Article 163 (October 2020), 26 pages.

To ERR iS TO BE human, or a PROPERLY humanised chatbot

In other words, part of making a bot “seem more like us”, is to make sure it makes mistakes just like us, which we, the users want to forgive because “to err is to be human ()or a humanised chatbot)”. Yup, humanisation could even turn the occassional fallback into a good thing.  


The recent astronomical growth of a string of therapy and self-care chatbots, which show what humanising can do.  Profound personality traits like empathy, compassion, and patience are central to the success of Woebot, Youper, and Inner Hour among many others., earning them millions of users (many of them premium), all over the world. Anonymous emails from users often described a profound bond between bot and user. 


Whether your chatbot is helping you relax, choose a pair of shoes, or pay your taxes, greater user engagement per session is always a good idea. The more on-target the humanisation, the more likely you’ll get longer-term retention (or user-loyalty) and word-of-mouth audience growth which will keep you ahead of other similar chatbots snapping at your digital heels. 


Humanisation can help to teach, inform, and save millions of person hours for various teams, so they can unchain themselves from the phone, and make actual progress on the stuff they have to do.


Humanised content has other potential benefits too. It can help bridge the zero-real-data gap, when a chatbot application first goes live, by engaging real users earlier. And once the bot has earned itself enough regular users, the better the bond between user and humanised bot, the more likely the user is to reciprocate the bot’s “friendship” with better conversational data, which can mean faster improvements to your AI.


Let’s turn to the key ingredients you’ll need to humanise your next chatbot project, whatever its scale. 


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