SAN FRANCISCO — My Tom's Guide colleagues in New York are about to get some freshly delivered flowers. And they have a Facebook chatbot to thank for it.
The bot was built by 1-800-Flowers, and it lives in Facebook's Messenger app. Facebook worked with the flower delivery service to create it and hopes it will illustrate how bots make shopping and conducting other business a quick and easy process from within its chat app.
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Facebook, in fact, is opening up its Messenger Platform by adding tools that will let developers build bots of their own. Unveiled at Facebook's F8 conference for developers today (April 12). In Facebook's vision, you'll be able to use bots to check the weather, confirm reservations, and handle other business that would normally send you to a website, telephone or separate app.
Right now, what you can do is order flowers by connecting with 1-800-Flowers through Facebook's Messenger. I sent the flower delivery service a message from the Web version of Messenger that I wanted to order some flowers and waited. Then, I waited some more. Finally, after 20 minutes of radio silence, I asked the 1-800-Flowers bot if it had any suggestions. The bot asked me to repeat the address I wanted to send the flowers too.
That's not the most natural start to a conversation, particularly when natural language is touted as one of the lures for using bots. But I pressed on, saying I wanted the flowers delivered to New York. It was then that I learned the 1-800-Flowers bot really demands specifics.
And sometimes you'll find you've supplied the bot with the right information, and it still doesn't quite grasp what you're asking.
Eventually, the bot and I agreed on the address, and I was told to select a date for delivery. Following that, the bot serves up categories of flowers with options for various arrangements.
At this point, I switched from the desktop version of Messenger to the iOS version running on my iPhone 5c. I was pleased to see I could pick up the conversation across devices and that it was just as easy to scroll through options on my iPhone's screen. I was less pleased when I tapped on a selection, reconsidered my choice and tried to change it, while the 1-800-Flowers bot focused on sealing the deal.
The secret to getting out of this eternal loop is to type Help and the 1-800-Flowers bot will give you the option of starting over.
And so we started over. (Remind me again how talking to a bot is easier than talking to a person.) I entered the address, selected the arrangement I wanted, entered in the name of the person who I wanted the flowers delivered to and added a personal message for my Tom's Guide buddies. Then it was time to enter my billing address, which I had the option of saving for future orders.
When it's time to pay, the bot sends you out of the Messenger app and over to Stripe, 1-800-Flowers's payment provider. From there, it's simply a matter of entering in your credit card info and confirming the payment.
When you're done, you can return to Messenger where the 1-800-Flowers bot is waiting with a confirmation number, along with a prompt to order more flowers in case you're made out of money. We'll update this story once the flowers arrive at their destination since bitter experience has taught me that ordering flowers through mobile devices doesn't always end happily.
All told, it's a fairly smooth process for something that just launched, and it figures to improve over time, as developers improve language recognition to make the experience more like a conversation. I'm not sure I would order flowers again through the bot — the hiccups where the 1-800-Flowers bot didn't understand me or refused to cancel my order would have scuttled the deal under normal circumstances — but people inclined to conduct their conversations through chat apps will likely embrace our bot-centric future.
Facebook's not the only tech giant pushing bots on us. Microsoft is also making a big chatbot push with new developer tools, and the initial results have been just as mixed as my flower-ordering experience. It's clear that bots are going to be a big part of our future interactions; whether those interactions prove to be fulfilling will be another matter.