Moving away from chat: Hard-earned lessons

Since we moved away from chat a few days ago, we’ve had a lot of users come and ask us why we decided to bring chat to a bare minimum in our app.

While several of our users loved the chat feature, for a lot of our users chat was a cumbersome way of doing things (too many taps, easier if they did it themselves etc.).

After extensive debate internally, we took the call to phase out chat from our app and create the same level of experience using automation and simple user interfaces. The rest of the app remains the same – but it is simplified, fast and without any delays.

Since a lot of people believe that chat is the new universal UI (like we once passionately believed), I thought it might be useful to talk about our experience and learning.

Background

Back in early 2015, we thought that chat would become a universal UI because people were really using chat like crazy on their mobiles for P2P messaging. We thought we could build a personal assistant that helps them get things done over chat.

We built our chat process team over a period of 3 months from March to June 2015. By June 2015 – we were probably the biggest C2B (consumer to business) chat apps in the world. Probably bigger than all our Indian competitors and American counterparts like Operator and Magic combined. We were doing more than 70,000 chat sessions a day (not messages, chat sessions). The idea was that the manual chat would provide enough training data for building out a great bot.

Initially, we had a great response – customers hadn’t seen an experience like this before and loved the fact that there was a real human being on the other end helping them with their queries.

Learning on chat

The only problem with chat was that customers who tried it weren’t coming back. So we tried harder, optimised first response times, average response times, our knowledge base, canned responses and built better dashboards for monitoring all of these (all the while scaling the backend for the chat volume). That still didn’t work.

We thought that at some point users would get trained to use chat in the right way (like how people got trained to use Google). It now seems foolhardy to even think like that but we really thought that chat UI will truly work, if only we worked hard enough.

Next we thought – how about using a NLP-based chat bot and also experiment with reimagining chat (make it into a series of simple clicks with graphic UI elements).

The chat bot irritated the users no end (our data science team built a large set of training data, but coping with Hinglish, SMS lingo, vernacular language to write a general purpose chat bot becomes a 5 year science project very quickly). Breaking up across different channels didn’t make the task any easier.

Reimagining chat worked where the permutations and combinations were very limited. Example, we wrote a laundry bot where you didn’t have to type – just select options. It worked to some degree. Then we decided to implement it for ordering food but in user studies the users kept saying that it was very painful to use.

The hard truth (for us)

Finally somewhere in Sept 2015 it became obvious that the problem was chat (there were lots of learning along the way but this one was the biggest). The number of taps required to get anything done was just way too many, no matter what you do. People often confuse the debate with bots, AI etc. but does it really make sense to chat to get a cab when you can simply tap once and book (no matter what you think, our user data was very obvious on this. The answer is no.).

The customer would try it once out of curiosity but never come back. Other ways (simple UI) was just way faster and on the internet people will ALWAYS choose what is faster. Chat might be great for long tail use cases (that random philosophy book that you had always wanted but couldn’t find easily) but mobile businesses in India don’t get built on them.

This Dan Grover (WeChat product manager)  article nailed it and before that it was Connie Chan’s (A16Z partner) tweetstorm.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 1.14.37 pm

This tweet is the TLDR of this blog post.

 

We had learned this the hard way more than 6 months earlier.

Learning and changing

So in September 2015, we took stock and decided to introspect. To use a Charlie Mungerism, we were behaving like a man with a hammer (chat) and everything looked like a nail to us.

We decided to think with first principles and asked ourselves – What does a personal assistant do? What is the easiest/fastest way to do things? What is required to create a personal assistant for millions of Indians? What should be the principles based on which the product team should build? Etc. etc.

New launch and traction

We finally launched the redesigned app in January 2016 and we haven’t looked back since. It was based on a simple insight – don’t force fit chat, just build for the user.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 1.18.24 pm

We’ve been growing super fast with probably the best cross category transaction behavior of any app in India and it looks like we’ve gotten something right.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 2.13.09 pm

Our main screen. Do all things from one app. But without chat.

More than 20 API integrations are already live (and for most of our partners, we are the biggest partners in terms of transactions or traffic). Another 15-20 APIs will be live in the next 3 months.

It also proved to us that chat or voice didn’t have anything to do with building a personal assistant (people also confuse chat/bots with AI etc. We believe AI/Machine Learning/advanced algos are relevant even more so outside of building a chat bot – you’ll at least have actual usage and be able to train the system). Just focus on what is the easiest way to do things for the user and the rest will figure itself out.

The need for speed

We are on our way to creating the world’s fastest product and tech team. We launched recharge, bill payments, cabs, deals, news, journey cards – all in 5 months. In the next 3 months, we’ll be launching many more things. Some will wow our users, some will be duds. But that’s the only way to create an awesome personal assistance platform. Fail, learn, ship, fail, learn, ship…

Personal note

This tweet kind of sums it up.

Screen Shot 2016-05-26 at 1.30.07 pm

While it is supposed to be tough, the toughest of all was the decision regarding our chat operations team. We have taken the decision to let go of most of our chat colleagues. We looked at the retention cohorts or uninstall cohorts for all our chat users but they were always much worse than others (for reasons explained above). No matter which way we looked at it, it made sense for us to take this decision.

3 month severance package and outplacement

We’ve given a 3-months’ severance package to everyone who was let go (i.e. our chat colleagues) and we will do our best to help them find new jobs. I’m working with our HR team on this and we have already roped in 12 startups and big companies for out-placing them into the right job profiles (chat ops, voice ops etc.).

I feel proud of the fact that I am working with such smart people in our team who are insanely passionate about our mission. Building a AI-powered personal assistance platform is exciting beyond words.

Ankur
Founder and CEO
Helpchat

Standard

28 thoughts on “Moving away from chat: Hard-earned lessons

  1. A rare honest and practical perspective from an Indian startup. I am sure Helpchat (“not chat” now I guess 😛 ) will move forward and nurture a good product. Feel bad for the employees let go, but tough business decisions have to be made in real life. Looks like they are providing all the support they can. I have seen ex-employers do way worse.

    • Ankur says:

      Thanks Atanuu. Nothing great about letting people go but a 3-month severance package is unheard of among startups as well. Trying to do our best.

  2. Jyotiprakash says:

    Inspirational journey…. Proud of you sir. But can you move towards making Helpchat more as a Wallaet Cum App for multitasking, so as we people can find more way to use it.

    Thanks
    Jyoti Prakash, 9019111930

  3. Thanks for the insights! Hope you continue build the great product… Yes, I have experienced what you have been saying, a right decision of making the app minimalistic and objective oriented. Yup, a lot of integrations can be done in this space to make it a perfect assistance.

  4. ChiCha says:

    are you sure you will be ‘there’ with integrated AI platform? or this rise in txn is just a matter of experimentation from customer point of view? The one who retains his customer becomes the daemon in the market!! Wish you luck

    • Ankur says:

      I didn’t really understand the “either” “or” scenario here. The simple idea behind this blog post is that building a smart assistant doesn’t necessarily have to be based on chat and we’ll go ahead and create our product based on that premise.

  5. Alay Jhaveri says:

    Makes a lot of sense, the amount of time is takes to revert on chat is much longer for most of the things that helpchat offers. This also involves lesser human intervention and helps build a consistent service level. Good luck!

    • Ankur says:

      Thanks. Seems obvious now to us now, though a lot of other competitors are stuck with it because of sunk costs (both real and psychological).

  6. Beautifully written. most affirmative statement was “we were behaving like a man with a hammer (chat) and everything looked like a nail to us.”
    But there is still bright future for the chats which are offloading users load of doing certain things. Obviously replacing 1 tap cab booking with chat was not so wise thing. but there are still many things we can ease out using chats. We also need to take care of not worsening user experience.

    • Ankur says:

      Yeah that’s correct except there doesn’t seem to very much that chat is better for. Customer service use-case has potential as doing a call is quite painful in most cases but nothing much on the transaction side.

  7. One thing no one seems to mention is this: while it definitely is quicker and easier to click/tap on a control that is presented on the screen than it is to type a message, it assumes that this control on the screen is already presented to you. In reality, the most infuriating part of the screen-based user interaction (GUI) is actually navigating to that place where the control is available for tapping/clicking. We’ve all been there numerous times — you want to get to the page/screen/tab etc. where you’re hoping the “Change my order” function is, but you’re spending many, many minutes chasing your own tail, going back and forth, swiping left/right, clicking on various links and tabs, cursing and swearing etc. That’s why user interface based on screen interaction is a major fail.

    • Ankur says:

      Hey Alex – what you are talking about is a problem of bad UX/UI, not a problem with UI per se. In terms of different user flows etc, in fact the UX suffers even more on a chat bot / automated chat elements because the customer’s journey is even more linear. In a simple UI you can hit a back button, in chat it quickly becomes more painful to go back to the previous part (imagine a tree structure). This was the exact same issue we faced when we built the food-bot (choose cuisine > location > price range > show suggestions and now go back to one of the upper legs of the tree). When you start trying to solve for that problem, it suddenly hits you – why am I hammering on about doing it in chat when it is as simple as it can be already.

      So I don’t think screen UI is a major fail – in fact it is all around us. Just that some people do it well and some people design it badly.

  8. Hello Ankur One experience worth sharing with you is Hotel booking is where Chat is worth because if I use make my trip or for that matter any website I was flooded with many options and then was seeing their reviews and distance from my desired location and price and offers and so on which took e atleast 1/2 hr to 1 hr in booking a room, where as I tried same thing with help chat and i was able to resolve the issue in a matter of 10 mins or so, yaa you are right that users are not actually doing any transaction because i myself after getting an idea checked with original site and booked from there it self, But any ways all the best for your new phase of Helpchat, You are role model for many young entrepreneurs.

  9. Pingback: Chatbots make a lot of noise but remain on the sidelines – Tech Future Today

  10. Sahib says:

    Hi Ankur,

    I must say you took a very Bold & Correct decision shifting from chat, being a Data Scientist I find i quite stupid when startups are trying to forcefully fit in AI/ML when there is no need and frankly a lot of times it’s utter stupidity and will destroy your product!
    I have worked a bit on chat bots and can totally relate how NLP fails terribly with vernacular languages, half english etc 🙂

    • Ankur says:

      Thanks Sahib. It was a tough decision only because of how invested we were in chat. But things are great now. We grew 14X in transactions in 2016.

  11. Pingback: A new Chat feature won’t change anything – Ankush Thakur

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s