A trip to the uncanny valley: “I’m here to help.”

Alex Moore
By Alex Moore | 1 August 2023
Alex Moore.

Should brand support bots be fake humans? Or just speak to you as the brand? Alex Moore takes a trip to the uncanny valley.

Brand chatbots. We’ve all used them. We’ve all been frustrated by them. And, as they get smarter, we’ve all tried to break their computer-generated brains. But as the tech gets more sophisticated, and applied to more customer interactions, the role of chatbots is changing. No longer simply a clunky triage utility, they’re growing to become the true helpful voice — and in some cases, face — of the brand they represent.

Which poses a few questions. Have customer expectations of chatbots changed too? What do they want or need from the experience? And have we collectively moved on from the idea that chatbots need a human name and a quirky personality? Or do we still like the idea of getting support from a fake person called Barry who’s sorry to hear that, and likes cats and footy?

Of course, there’s a scale here. Not every brand goes full Barry. And there are benefits to giving your chatbot a human name, or at least a human-ish persona and character that captures what your brand’s about.

For one, it’s a ubiquitous format that we’ve all become used to over time. Take Apple’s Siri or Olive from Woolworths Mobile for example. We ‘chat’ to Siri or Olive but know full well it’s just a piece of tech. We don’t think for a second there’s a human there and the experience, for the most part, feels natural and seamless. For most people, getting clear and helpful advice without having to actually talk to someone is a big plus.

They also ‘fit’ their respective brands. Woolies can call its chatbot Olive (and create a cute little Olive cartoon character) because it’s a family-friendly retailer, offering a warm and ‘fresh’ experience. Even for their mobile business. And Siri, somehow, is both super smart and super accessible. Which sums up Apple pretty well.

Adding human warmth to an online chatbot encounter doesn’t hurt, right? Even if it’s all a ruse, it’s just a little harmless fun. And a great way to flex a brand’s personality. But what about the more serious, professional services brands? Banks, governments, utilities, super funds?

Even the most challenging of challenger brands in these sectors need to maintain an element of serious sincerity. Especially as most people turn to these chatbots for help, or for sharing a complaint. Does a fake human work in these moments? Can it be truly empathetic? Or does it come off as inauthentic and contrived?

A few years ago, ANZ NZ deployed (or is that employed?) a ‘digital person’. Jamie, as she was known, had hobbies and interests. Along with an animated face, so customers could chat with her ‘face to face’. It was all designed to make the avatar feel more human. Going by their website, it looks like she doesn’t work there anymore.

Jamie probably veered too close to the depths of the Uncanny Valley — the feeling of unease in response to a robot or piece of tech being too human-like.

So, how can brands navigate the valley, while still bringing a human element to a virtual conversation? ChatGPT might have the answer.

As a piece of generative AI software, it’s shown us that chatbots can speak in a human way, without a human backstory or name. And they don’t even need to speak in the first person to do it. Most brands these days already communicate in a conversational, third-person tone. Apply that existing tone to the tech, and you’ve got a consistent brand experience that already has its moniker — your brand name.

Let’s apply that thinking using the ANZ NZ example. It would mean instead of talking to Jamie, your ANZ assistant, you’d just be talking with your bank, ANZ. There’s no new character or name. It’s just the brand’s existing personality, in conversation with you — taking it from ‘I’m here to help’ to ‘We’re here to help’. A nuanced difference, but one with important implications.

Consider this. What happens when the tech gets so advanced, the chatbot is the primary customer touchpoint for your brand? Instead of just a little messenger widget in the bottom right-hand corner of your website, it becomes your website. And app. And is there for every online customer interaction. Like the home page of Google, but just for your products and services.

In that not-too-distant future, do you want your customers to reach out and engage with a character like Barry or Jamie?

Or, would you prefer they engage with your brand directly?

When authenticity is more important than ever. Ask yourself. What’s more real?

Alex Moore is a Senior Writer at XXVI.

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