What We Learned Designing a Chatbot for Banking

The truth about online banking interfaces is that they are usually terribly complex. Chatbots make it easy.
Chatbot for Banking from K2

For the past year we were working on a concept of conversational interface for an online banking system that we called K2 Bank. Check out the video below with a prototype of it:

Here I want to talk about some things that we have learned along the way while designing it, and I hope it can inspire you and help you working with chatbots. You can find more about our solution in this article and this article.

Conversational UIs Are a Great Way to Simplify the Experience.

The truth about online banking interfaces is that they are usually terribly complex. And banks are often thinking: the more features we have, the better. But from our experience (and we have a lot of experience working on banking systems), 99% of tasks users wants to carry out using the online banking systems are:

  • check my balance,
  • check my recent history of transactions,
  • make a simple money transfer.

We wanted to optimize for these three most frequent scenarios. So you can find your accounts and recent history available from the main screen of K2 Bank, but nothing more. All other features are accessible by asking a bot. For rarely used commands it can be actually easier to put them into words than to find them navigating complex GUIs (for example: “cancel my credit card” — is it under “cards”, “settings”, “contact”, or somewhere else?)

Chatbot K2

Discoverability and Shortcuts Are Very Important to Conversational UIs.

In theory Natural Language Processing engine should understand everything the user is trying to say in their natural language. And this technology is now pretty advanced.

But new users need to understand the scope of what they can ask a BankBot. (This can be accomplished in part through a thoughtful on-boarding process.) On the other hand the power users would want to use shortest commands and shortcuts for the most frequent tasks.

Both discoverability and speed can be improved by:

a) Autocomplete  — at most you need to type two or three letters and the system will present you with a list of options matching your query — past recipients’ names or commands.

Chatbot autocomplete

b) A menu. You can always click on the “burger” icon near the input field to bring a menu with a list of the most important commands and just select one of them. This works similar to typing “/” (slash) in Slack.

Chatbot menu

You Will Need Some UI Device to Present Larger Lists of Information.

Conversational interfaces are great at presenting small chunks of relevant information, but sometimes we need to display larger sets of data, which users want to browse.

Do you remember an ancient game by iD Software called Quake? Of course you do! It was the first FPP shooter with true 3D graphics, and it was groundbreaking. And Quake also had one cool UI device called “Quake Console”. If you pressed the tilde key (“~”) it opened a command line interface sliding down from the top of the screen. Then you could type your commands into the Quake Console, for example: “changelevel

Quake Console
Quake Console

We have adapted this concept into our design, splitting the screen into two halves at certain moments. But for us the command line interface is the main way of interaction, and the “console” is a way to present a long lists of items like history, products or list of applications. It is visible, in example, on the home screen, where the bottom half of it is a command line interface with BankBot welcome message, with the top half being a recent history of transactions. You can expand the “console” and scroll up through your history or ignore it and just talk to your BankBot.

Chatbot console

When we were designing the K2 Bank interface we also asked ourselves a question: do we really need to store the history of all conversations with the BankBot? The answer was: not really, who cares what you have asked a bot a year ago? We need to store history of real transactions, and conversation history could only be confined to a single session.

Processes with Lots of Options Are Hard to Adapt for Conversational UIs.

This part is really important. A good conversational user interface is not a simple adaptation of your forms with a bot asking a question for every possible form field, most of them optional. It will be a nightmare and a waste of time.

With banking, even in a case of a simple money transfer form, there are a lot of options you probably would not want to touch in most cases, but sometimes you have to, like date, currency, address, or even a title. So we have to come up with smart defaults that you can change if you really need to, but usually you don’t need to edit them at all.

A hybrid interface works best: part conversational, part point and click.

We Need to Provide Users with a Sense that They Are in Charge of the System.

We found out that in interaction with bots it is easy to lose the feeling of being in full control of everything. We needed to provide stop gaps for the users to confirm or cancel certain processes, so they would be fully aware that they are in charge. This is especially important when we are dealing with money. So at some moments the input line is replaced with “Accept”/”Cancel” buttons and no other actions are possible.

Chatbot control

Some Personality is Nice, but Don’t Over Do it.

We believe banking is generally lacking humanity and it is perceived as very “stiff” business. You have to ask: why so serious?

Sure, money is a serious issue, but some personality, friendliness and humor can help.

We designed a robot character as a representation of BankBot and living “logo” for K2 Bank: a cute, friendly little helper. We wanted very simple physical shape: a sphere or some kind of a cylinder with a big face (not a screen), made from plastic material like a toy. Not very human-like, because that will take us into the “uncanny valley” territory. It needed to work in large and small sizes (e.g. on mobile). Three dimensional rendering is a nice contrast against otherwise very simple and flat UI.

BankBot uses anti-gravity propulsion to move around!
BankBot uses anti-gravity propulsion to move around!

After you sign in to your account the robot becomes a part of the logo, and is at the periphery of yours awareness. In the main stream of communication BankBot is represented by a flat vector icon. We don’t want to be Mr. Clippy!

We also found out that the response times are very important for how the bot is perceived. If it is answering too quickly it ruins an illusion of talking to a human-like being. If it is too slow the bot is perceived as not too smart.

Some early sketches of BankBot in a form of a sphere
Some early sketches of BankBot in a form of a sphere

The Real Power of Conversational Interfaces Is the Bots Acting Proactive.

You can talk to chatbots in natural language, and that’s awesome, but they can also talk to you on their own when they have something important to tell you.

Proactive behavior is what makes a bot an intelligent assistant.

Your personal banking robo-assistant can:

  • remind you about important payments,
  • periodically inform you about the state of your budget,
  • suggest how to save money,
  • inform you about financial products that are best fitted for you,
  • provide an investment portfolio update,
  • deliver important, time sensitive notifications.
Chatbot watch

We shouldn’t message users too often — only when we know that the update is important to them, we need their decision or action, or it is at their best interest. Treat the users with respect and try to be helpful, and it can be a beginning of a great human-robot friendship. :)

This article was originally published at Chatbots Magazine. Author: Maciej Lipiec.

Creating products. 01.02.2017.
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