Recently, there has been a growing interest in AI, Machine Learning, and human interaction with computers. As an entrepreneur building a future-ready product, I’ve been intrigued by user experience fashioned after the natural human conversation.
I find myself rooting for Conversational User Interface (CUI) to overshadow Graphical User Interface (GUI) in the near future and here’s my reasoning.
Conversational User Interface: A Little History First!
Back in the 1960’s and 70’s, the most widely followed way to command a computer was by Command Line Interface (CLI). It was the language of computers and you had to be proficient in it to make the computers listen to you. The proficient ones were far and few (most often the so-called geeks) and computers were solely employed for banking or industrial usage.
Things were beginning to change for the better by 1981 when a human-computer interface with some basic UI element was developed at Xerox PARC. Though it was a commercial failure, Xerox did have its fine moments. Enough to go down in history as a remarkable point in interface evolution.
In 1984, Steve Jobs put his spin on the Xerox GUI and launched Macintosh. With the drop-down menus and folders that were here to stay, it was a huge hit.
The true game-changer was, of course, the Microsoft Windows Operating System released in 1990. And with Windows 3 and Windows 95, it became a defacto standard for GUI. Slowly, but surely, CLI was becoming a thing of the past.
Unlike the CLI that only an elite few knew and used, GUI was designed with everyday people in mind. Computers were finally accessible to the normal crowd and GUI was the decisive factor that brought computers (desktops and then laptops) closer to the average man.
GUI was the middle ground where human met computers. Humans interacted and computers understood.
Conversational UI: A Trouble Brewing…
However, the world was taken by a storm when smartphones made their grand entrance. With the introduction of iPhone in January 2007 closely followed by Android in November of the same year, it was truly the dawn of another era.
True, smartphones existed before with Blackberry, Symbian, and Windows mobile, but the end users were a business class minority. It was iPhone and Android that effectively democratized the smartphone.
Of course, GUI had to be adapted quickly to accommodate the rising smartphone population. We scrambled to port most of our GUI based screen to a mobile-friendly platform. It was a great middle ground but there was a catch. It was never designed for a mobile-first experience in the first place and a trouble was brewing.
App Store and the Android marketplace were growing crowded with every other company coming up with their own mobile apps. Nobody wanted to install more than 3 or 4 apps on the phone. A common platform with a mobile-first UI was the need of the hour.
Conversational UI: The Rise of Wearables
Count in the factor of device size going incredibly down to the likes of wearables such as watches and glasses and you’ll come to the conclusion that voice and text-based applications are indeed the future. The rising popularity of chatbots and voice-based commands like Amazon Alexa is a nod to this fact.
“In the beginning, there was CLI – the language of computers. You had to know it to make the computers listen to you. Then came GUI – the middle ground where human interacted and computers understood. Now we have CUI. We speak naturally and the machines are made to understand us.
A convincing evolution, I believe. If it comes to a race between CUI and GUI, I want front-row seats.”
As someone in the business of building the next big thing, I have been intrigued by these developments. So much so that I requested my Design Head to always design in such a way that we will still have a market even if the world stops using laptops and desktops.
I am a firm believer of the conversational UI having a promising future and here’re my reasons.
1. Mobile is Eating the World
There is no getting around that fact. A staggering 61.9% of email is being opened in mobile devices. As it happens, most of our current interactions are designed initially for desktop and then optimized for mobile. But it’s high time we change that approach.
Billions of users love Whatsapp and WeChat because they are designed exclusively for the mobile audience. There are tons of other messaging apps to cater to the mobile world and it goes on to prove how people favor messaging services and mobile-first experiences. Which brings me to the next point:
2. Messaging Apps are Growing Faster Than Anything
Whatsapp and Facebook Messenger together handle close to 60 billion messages a day. And the implication is huge as 6 out of 10 apps are already messaging apps.
Messaging is the closest to actual human conversations, and it makes sense to change into the UI that best fits the scenario.
3. Your Audience has Changed
Stating the obvious here, there has been a remarkable change in the audience. Millennials and Gen Z are spending more time than ever on mobile devices and they are real-time people. They rely heavily on their mobile devices to stay ahead of the curve. Exactly, for this reason, the scene is ripe for a shift towards the conversational user interface.
4. Engagement is Higher in a Conversation
For the past few decades or so, what came to be known as conventional worked like a charm. However, millennials and Gen Z are quick and real-time, and would rather converse than fill a form. Conversational user interfaces offer the most convenient and natural way of communication yet, and this appeals to the lion share of the audience.
5. Less Clutter, More Appeal
A conversational user interface is much more feasible for the users because they are capable of doing everything from a single channel. Moreover, having less stuff is better than the alternative of having a lot of clutter and trying to organize them. The less the clutter, the easier it is to navigate and use. More power to CUI.
It’s not to say that GUI shall perish. Even the good old command line still has its share of defenders even though everyone agrees that the days of CLI are over. And if you are reading the signs right, GUI will go much the same way CLI did.
If Conversational UI is battling GUI to know who comes out to be the ultimate victor, I want front-row seats. Which side are you on?