Technology

Bots are the new black

Suddenly, we are free from our desktop computers and able to engage with the content "on the go."
  • If you have ever used an app, a website, an ATM machine, or called into a phone decision tree, you have had a user experience.
  • Consumers are less and less patient with bad user experiences.
  • If bots are the new apps, where is the MLS bot?

Not everyone knows what UX stands for, but you have all experienced it (pun intended). UX is short for “user experience,” and it is a design discipline most commonly associated with technology.

If you have ever used an app, a website, an ATM machine, or called into a phone decision tree, you have had a user experience. Whether it was a good user experience or a bad one is often determined long before you arrived on the scene.

This is the power of UX design, and why folks who are great at the job are in tremendous demand.

User experience is a big deal. A great user experience helps some companies, tools and services become massively successful. A poor user experience dooms others to the wastebin.

And if you haven’t noticed, consumers are less and less patient with bad user experiences. We are impatient as a rule these days, and even smart designers are figuring this out the hard way.

In our industry of professional real estate, bad user experiences have too often opened the door for third parties to enter “our” business space and disrupt the ecosystem.

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For almost two decades now, the MLS UX has been fairly homogenous. We got away from the cumbersome MLS books, and the MLS went online.

At first, you used a command line to type commands to search against the database. While a power user could actually produce results very rapidly, it was a frustrating user experience for many.

Next up were graphical user interfaces (GUIs). You log in to a website to begin your user experience, click on a canned report or click into some fields, and type something or perhaps employ a drop-down menu to arrive at the piece of information you were looking for. They were vastly improved, at least from some perspectives, but still limited by the users ability and familiarity with the system and the constraints of the system/design itself.

If you are looking for data that the system has, but wasn’t designed to output, you will come away empty-handed.

The consumer experience has in turn — until recently, at least — largely been predicated on this; professionals sourcing or curating criteria and/or properties of interest and passing them to a system to deliver these to the consumer. Alternately, they set up a website to feature their listings, and to allow the consumer to poke at an interface to search a sanitized version of MLS content to find their own.

Apps and mobile web solutions have certainly helped the overall UX a bit. Suddenly, we are free from our desktop computers and able to engage with the content “on the go.” But we are still severely limited by the design parameters of the interface.

All of this is about to change. And we have bots to thank for that.

Danger, danger!

Enter conversational bots. We are not talking about B-9, the robot from lost in space which was constantly heralding “Danger, Danger, Will Robinson.” We are rather talking about “intelligent,” semi-autonomous learning capable programs that you can interact with using natural language commands.

We are all familiar with apps. Search for this, interact with that, all from a streamlined interface designed just for your needs. They became an extension of the web (download our mobile app for a better experience), and at one point seemed poised to replace it, until the mobile web revolution to tell apps “no thanks, we are here to stay” by providing developers with a way to have their cake (slick, mobile friendly output) and eat it, too (rapid prototyping, development and deployment).

But whether we are talking websites, mobile apps or the fusion that is the mobile web experience, it has traditionally all been very structured, very sanitary — and, yes, very limiting. At the end of the day, at least in the business spaces that we are talking about, all of these solutions — websites/mobile-web, and apps are an attempt to bridge a gap between the user, a human being, and information. Vast troves of information.

These orderly user interfaces allow us to try to make sense of large amounts of information by providing a structured way to retrieve and display that information. We have now reached a point, for various reasons, where it is precisely this structure that prevents us from going further towards turning information into actual answers and actionable insights.

The data is too compelling to keep it locked within the confines of what these interfaces can provide. Humans, conversely, are too constrained in what they will feed to these interfaces to actually find what they are looking for.

Bots focus on action

How often have you, as a Realtor, shown a house hunter exactly the house that their criteria suggested that they would love, only to have them inquire about a house that had a feature that they did not identify as a top priority? Humans are fooled by this behavior because we put too much emphasis on intention and too little emphasis on actions.

Bots will not care a whit about intention — and will focus exclusively on, and learn from, action.

Imagine, for instance, a bot that presents the consumer with a list of properties that IT has curated for their review. It may start with properties that fit their professed needs, but it will almost immediately be able to pivot on actual behavior. How long did you linger on the photo of the bathroom, for instance?

Or for the agent, an MLS-connected bot that messages you over your morning coffee that your listing for seller X had a particularly good day online yesterday, with an increase in page views and clicks from various sources.

Seeing this, you can reply with a natural language command like ‘tell seller,’ and the bot will accordingly message the seller the analytics report on your behalf. When agents view the home for brokers tour, your MLS-connected bot can ask them their price opinion, and aggregate this information and let you know in real time what fellow agents are thinking.

Bots will be changing everything about our world in the coming months and years. As Microsoft’s CEO said just last month:

“Bots are the new apps,” said Nadella during a nearly three-hour keynote here that sketched a vision for the way humans will interact with machines. “People-to-people conversations, people-to-digital assistants, people-to-bots and even digital assistants-to-bots. That’s the world you’re going to get to see in the years to come.”

Three days ago, Facebook had its developer conference, and the keynote address was all about bots, which are about to revolutionize the Messenger app with functionality we could only dream of a decade ago.

Bots can help aid human to human, human to machine, machine to machine, and machine to human interactions. That is a broad spectrum, and helps illustrate why this UX tsunami is going to be so disruptive.

Need help saving money, for example? Try Digit. It will connect to your bank account, and selectively, intelligently, squirrel away small amounts of money to a separate savings account by understanding your spending patterns.

Want to be more productive, and have a more collaborative team experience or work environment? Try Career Lark. This bot will quickly understand your environment, your role, your goals, and start collecting feedback from the people that matter, to help you achieve those goals.

The bots are coming. And they will invade all sorts of interesting spaces in our lives to facilitate a shift from structured interactions towards a much more familiar, much more powerful, conversational user experience. This in turn will feed into a whole new era of machine learning, which will produce even more useful bots.

So I have to conclude by asking:

If bots are the new apps, where is the MLS bot?

Michael Seguin is the director of technology at Contra Costa Realtors and the president and CEO at GotWebDev, Inc.

Email Michael Seguin