Behind the BBC's Messenger News Bot


BBC Mundo has launched the corporation’s first news bot in Facebook Messenger. News Labber Lei He explains why the team chose to focus on user experience over extra bells and whistles.

The Mundo Messenger bot was commissioned earlier this year because of the World Service’s constant desire to experiment with new ways of reaching audiences. It’s the BBC’s first news bot in one of the world’s largest platforms, which is why we focused on designing a product which was intuitive for our audiences to use.

The bot is a result of a collaboration between World Service and BBC Mundo. I worked alongside Trushar Barot, Mobile Editor for the BBC World Service, whose experience with mobile platforms gave us a lot of insight into what makes a chatbot work. I also worked closely with Rafael Chacon, Interactivity Senior Producer for BBC Mundo, who helped us understand the BBC Mundo audience and design the bot interactions.

Although we’ve been experimenting with text-to-speech technologies and artificial intelligence services, our Mundo bot has very basic functionality. Users are presented with four commands:

  1. Subscribe. This gives the bot permission to send notifications once a day with news headlines.
  2. Get stories. When users ask for news (“Noticias”), they receive a carousel of links to top BBC Mundo stories. They can choose to share the stories with their friends from within Messenger or read the full article on the BBC website. They can also ask the bot for more stories, which will automatically generate a new batch of links.
  3. Get help. Even though we tried to keep things simple, we wanted to provide users with instructions in case they were feeling lost. When users type “Ayuda”, a description of the four command options is presented, along with an email address that can be used to reach a member of the Mundo team.
  4. Unsubscribe. This command stops push notifications from the bot.

We decided to keep the bot simple partly because we’ve realised from hackathons and rapid prototyping sessions that users don’t always know how to interact with a “smart bot” that’s powered by AI. Whereas other news organisations have created independent project pages for their more experimental bots, ours inherits 2.6 million followers who will interact with it directly when they message our Mundo Facebook page. In addition, there’s been concern over black box algorithms and biased distribution platforms, so we wanted to give users clear, simple commands to control the news they receive.

We worked with Dario Ramalho, UX Designer for BBC News and Edward White, Copy Writer for UX&D to design the best bot experience and set the right tone for the interactions. Here are some of the ways we focused on user experience:

  1. The bot’s greeting message clearly states what the bot does so our users know what to expect.
  2. We personalise the messages by addressing users by name.
  3. We account for possible typos. For example, a user will still receive a round-up of news stories whether they type “noticias” or “noticisa”.
  4. We vary the notification messages, so users aren’t receiving the exact same wording every day. We hope this makes interaction more natural and engaging.

BBC Mundo Messenger Bot gif
A demo of the bot.

These decisions might be behind the good subscription rates we’ve seen so far. Over 1,000 people signed up in the first three days after the bot launched. We’ve built a simple dashboard for editors to monitor the numbers of subscriptions versus cancellations, as well as the number of referrals to the BBC Mundo website that the bot generates.

Mundo dashboard screenshot
The dashboard we built for editors to monitor key metrics.

We plan to work with the World Service Audience team to introduce more metrics, such as which articles tend to be the most read and how many articles users read for each interaction with the bot. We hope this will teach us more about audience behaviour and preferences, which we can then apply to our future work on bots.

Depending on that audience behaviour, we might extend bot services to other BBC World Service languages. We might also experiment with a bit more artificial brain to power bot interactions. For now though, we’re pleased that our news bot can tap into one of the most-used messaging platforms (1 billion users in total, with approximately 11% of the world’s population using it monthly) and the language with the greatest number of speakers. It directly addresses World Service’s goals of increasing reach and access to news.

QR code leading to Mundo Messenger bot
Scan this QR code to try the Mundo Messenger bot.