Facebook’s Messenger bots may not be having the impact the social network desired. Just yesterday, online retailer Everlane, one of the launch partners for the bot platform, announced it was ditching Messenger for customer notifications and returning to email. Following this, Facebook today announced an upgraded Messenger Platform, which introduces a new way for users to interact with bots: via simple persistent menus, including those without the option to chat with the bot at all.
One of the problems with Facebook’s bots is that it’s often unclear how to get started. The directory of bots in Messenger wasn’t initially available and now only reveals itself when you start a search in the app. And it hasn’t always been obvious how to get a bot talking, once added, or how to navigate back and forth through a bot’s many sections.
The Messenger platform update today tackles this latter problem, by offering an alternative to the more limited – and sometimes confusing – systems that were previously available.
Instead of forcing users to talk with a bot, developers can choose to create a persistent menu that allows for multiple, nested items as a better way of displaying all the bots’ capabilities in a simple interface.
The new persistent menus are limited to three items at the top-level, and its sub-menus are now limited to five. Before, if users wanted to engage with a menu like this, they often had to engage in conversations with the bot to discover the various sections and items.
Now, Facebook suggests to developers that they “consider stripping such exchanges down and cutting to the chase by putting the most important features in your menu.”
For example, a retailer’s bot might offer menu options that let you “go shopping,” “ask questions,” or “send messages.” If you clicked into the shopping section, the menu could update with a list of items to drill down into, like tops, bottoms, shoes and accessories.
Along with webviews – like, the product page for the shirt you want to buy, for example – the new experience feels more like navigating a mobile website within Messenger, instead of using a bot.
Also new is that developers can now choose to hide the composer screen, and forgo allowing customers to have a conversational experience in the bot entirely.
The question this leads to, of course, is whether or not any of this is necessary. If Facebook’s bots become more like mobile sites, what’s the point of using them in Messenger at all?
It feels like Facebook is going the wrong direction here. Messenger seems poised to be the company’s breakout platform for voice-based computing and voice-powered virtual assistants, but the company hasn’t put much focus on those emerging technologies.
While it acquired voice and natural language startup Wit.ai in 2015, it hasn’t done much publicly with voice computing, beyond testing having Facebook turn voice clips into text during chat sessions.
Today, you can’t connect the dots between Messenger and its many bots just by speaking. That is, it seems like you should be able to say to Messenger, “what’s the latest from CNN?” or “will it rain today?,” then have the appropriate bot respond. But this is not the case.
Meanwhile, Facebook also toyed around with “M,” a virtual assistant inside Messenger, but this has yet to launch to more than a handful of testers.
None of today’s other Messenger platform updates focus on these technologies, either.
Instead, the larger update to version 1.4 includes things like expanded sharing capabilities that could help bots gain more exposure; tools to better match businesses’ customer lists to Messenger’s user base; a handful of new APIs; improved analytics; and other tweaks and features catering to specific developers’ needs.
Facebook, meanwhile, is quickly becoming one of the largest tech companies without a clear path to the voice computing-powered future, where others like Apple, Google, Amazon, and Samsung are today intensely competing. But with over a billion active Messenger users, Facebook has the luxury of taking the time to figure things out.