Conquering chatbots: How an artist gets people to love using them

Presented by GameOn

We have a fraught relationship with chatbots. Designed to help resolve many of our customer support issues, most tend to complicate matters more, frustrate us and leave us in the precarious position of wanting to speak to a representative. Though companies are pouring significant sums of money into artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, and more emerging technologies promising to make speaking to a bot pleasurable, the fact remains that most consumers still don’t like them.

Arash Rod, lead artist for San Francisco startup GameOn, doesn’t think it needs to be that way. His company has developed successful chatbots for major sports brands and gaming companies, allowing them to engage more dynamically with their fans and vice versa. One secret to their success: making them more human.

In this interview, the Iran-born Rod discusses his background, the challenges he faces developing chatbots in a world still skeptical of them, and how he injects a human touch into his artwork that resonates emotionally with bot users.

Q: What’s your background and how did you end up in this role creating animations for the chatbots of some of the biggest brands in the world?

A: Growing up in Iran I was obsessed with American pop culture: movies, cartoons, TV shows, even radio — anything I could get my hands on I would watch and study. When I got the opportunity to come to the U.S. to study animation, it was a dream come true. And now, working at GameOn and being able to do caricatures and animations of some of the people I grew up in awe of (from Snoop Dogg to Joe Montana), it’s really amazing.

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Q: For many people, the term “chatbot” evokes a negative reaction. Why? Where are companies going wrong when developing them?

A: Chatbots are still in their early stages and you’re seeing more and more companies use them for customer service or lead generation. The average consumer is already leery of customer service, and now big companies are replacing humans with robots that are even less helpful. We’re approaching chatbots from a different angle — focusing on the fan experience and helping people find the content they want. So, we’re not replacing a human interaction with an inferior automated interaction, we’re developing a new category altogether. Yet we’re still well aware that talking to a robot can feel impersonal so we try to bring warmth into the experience. This is what my art is trying to accomplish.

Q: How do you use art to inject a more human touch into these chatbots?

A: We put a lot of focus into the emotional response people have when interacting with a brand they have an affinity towards. When someone says something like, “let’s go” or “woohoo!” in our Arsenal bot, instead of getting a text response back, they get a celebratory gif to make the experience more fun and increase engagement. Or, when a fan first starts a conversation with a bot, we’ll use an animated character to welcome them rather than text. These are simple things, but we’ve found they make a tremendous difference with retention and overall user experience. As Lead Artist, I guide this strategy and work closely with our product team to make sure it’s part of everything we ship. 

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Q: What has been the reaction from users to the art in your chatbots?

A: Overall really positive. People are drawn to seeing their favorite character or celebrity personified. Messages that were sent with a gif or image saw positive responses increase by approximately 8x as opposed to when there was a text response. Something that seems trivial but I find really telling is the amount of users we get who will say “thanks” to a chatbot. When you think about the classic customer service chatbot on a website, the idea that you would ever say thank you to one of those is absurd. But we’ve infused enough personality into our experiences that we regularly see it, and that’s an encouraging sign to me.

Q: You’ve designed art for a number of chatbots for sports brands. What about this industry makes it an ideal market for chatbots with a more human element?

A: Sports is a passionate industry where people really care about the brands. With bots like the NHL, you have enthusiasts who have been following their favorite teams for generations. In sports, you’re not just dealing with a customer, you’re supporting the fan experience. And imagery like this is already something that sports fans expect as part of their experience — from team mascots to touchdown dances to Super Bowl commercials. There is great passion and seriousness in sports, but there’s also this lightness, this sort of childlike exuberance. And so, being able to give fans some of that in the context of an informative, content-rich environment really rounds out the experience nicely. 

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Q: How do you think chatbots will be used in five years? How will they replace other forms of engagement?

A: I think chatbots today are just scratching the surface. I expect them to become even more immersive, and to replace a lot of the other apps on our phones. More commerce will be conducted in chat, and more content consumed. As far as fan engagement, I think chatbots will become the main way people connect with their favorite brands. I’m really excited to help shape the future of the industry!

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