Last week at Microsoft’s Build conference, CEO Satya Nadella said that the future of the company was “conversation as platform.” In other words, less Windows and Office, and more Cortana and Tay—conversational interfaces that can understand the natural language of human users.
If Nadella thought he was expressing some unique vision of the future, though, he was fooling himself. The idea of conversational UI has quickly colonized nearly every corner of Silicon Valley over the past year. Now seems like a good time to ask: What is a conversational interface?
A conversational interface is any UI that mimics chatting with a real human. The idea here is that instead of communicating with a computer on its own inhuman terms—by clicking on icons and entering syntax-specific commands—you interact with it on yours, by just telling it what to do.
Right now, there are two basic types of conversational interfaces. There are voice assistants, which you talk to, and there are chatbots, which you type to. I’d also probably distinguish a third “fake” kind of conversational interface: the pseudo-chatbot, which mimics a chatbot in appearance but is really a traditional point-and-click GUI. Microsoft Clippy and Quartz’s weird text-messaging news app are good examples of pseudo-chatbots—they borrow the visuals of a chatbot but don’t actually allow you to converse beyond their canned responses.