Our Latest Experiments in Conversational UIs


Conversational user-interfaces and private messaging services are two big trends in online news. Labber Tom Maslen introduces two trials — one on BBC News article pages and one on Facebook Messenger — that explore how our readers might want to interact with conversational journalism formats.

Over the past 12 months the ecosystem for creating bots, especially on Facebook Messenger, has exploded with new tools and services. At the same time, we’re seeing a massive growth in private messaging apps like Messenger, WeChat and WhatsApp.

Creating bots to power conversations on these apps has become almost trivial, but deciding what to do once you’re there is trickier. So we’re running a series of quick, short experiments to see if we can create conversational interactions with our users that they enjoy.

Two of these are live right now.

Facebook Messenger quiz bot

We’ve created a Messenger bot in conjunction with BBC News’ So I Can Breathe season, which is a collection of solutions-focused reporting on the topic of air pollution. The editorial team hopes to get higher levels of engagement with young female audiences by formatting the quiz for Messenger. By experimenting with off-platform formats, we hope to expose new audiences to BBC content.

In-article chatbots

This bot is being appended to the end of selected BBC News stories, giving the user the opportunity to find out more about the topic of the article in a more conversational style.

We’re running multivariate testing, mostly on personal finance stories, where the subject domain — like the minimum wage or house prices, for example — can be complex and full of jargon. We will be focusing on stories where the reporter could provide more explanation in the body of the news story, but doing so would make the article longer and more complicated. Over the past few years BBC News (like many other news organisations) has added more information by breaking additional content into a series of questions and answers on a separate page, but we want to see if allowing questions on the same page as the news story will be more engaging.

The bot conversations are based on pre-scripted material written in a multiple choice format. We’ve made the UI similar to what you might find on a private messaging app to make it a more intuitive tool for our audiences.

Both of these experiments are deliberately scratching the surface of what we could do with conversational UIs and bot technology. We’re running these two different trials quickly and using real user data to learn more about which new formats our audiences are interested in engaging with. We’ll be sharing our results on our blog at the end of the trials.

You can visit our project page to get a more complete view of our work with bots and conversational UIs.