Can chatbots change the climate-change conversation?

Can chatbots change the climate-change conversation?

Daresay Team - July 21, 2017

Can chatbots make us more environmentally responsible? Designer Jakob Åberg shares some of his research on chatbots and climate change.

When Daresay designer Jakob Åberg had to choose a subject to examine for his Master’s degree thesis in Interaction Design at Umeå University, he knew exactly the area of developing technology he wanted to focus on – how chatbots could be used to motivate people to live more sustainable lives.

To many companies, ‘chatbots’, programmes designed to simulate ‘real’ conversations with users, are tools that simply provide a means to an end, often utilised by marketing teams to carry out simple functions and tasks, and in place of a real person as a way of reduce running costs. However, as Jakob explored in his thesis, this approach only scratches the surface of chatbots’ full potential.

Jakob analysed the design and use of chatbots as a way of motivating people to actively engage in more sustainable, environmentally aware behaviours. No mean feat when, even today, world leaders are hailing climate change as some elaborate hoax.

When motivation is everything

The first and most obvious challenge for Jakob had to be answering the question, ‘how do you motivate people to do anything?’. This proved to be the foundation of the study, for which Jakob identified a number of key areas, from equipping people with the knowledge they need to behave in a more environmentally friendly way, to incentivising and rewarding them when they act upon it – whether that be an economical benefit or more related to convenience.

“The biggest problem with climate change, is us.” Says Jakob. “To reach a sustainable future we all need to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. This is where I knew I wanted to get a better understanding on how to motivate behaviour change with conversational user interfaces (CUIs). CUIs are discussed as the future of interfaces, but can they be used to persuade and motivate our everyday behaviour?”

Of course, it’s only when you understand what motivates people – and the conversations that inspire the desired action – that you can design technology, in this case chatbots, that will deliver the behaviours needed to spark real change.

Old technology, new tricks

Can chatbots ever be capable of having ‘meaningful’ conversations with users? CUIs enable people to interact with smart devices using spoken language, which can be through a chat, through plain text or speech. CUIs have been around for many years, however it is only recently that they’ve picked up wider attention. For example, in April 2016 Facebook released their own chatbot feature in Messenger. So, even those at the leading edge of technology have really only just begun to explore chatbots and their potential for communication.

“Getting started with designing for conversational user interfaces can be a bit overwhelming”, says Jakob, but says that the chatbots’ goals and the user intents are key factors of choosing the right platform.

When developing for chatbot interfaces, Jakob believes designers have to rethink their process.

Designing for Android, iOS or Web means that there is a lot of focus on style, fonts and colors. But in a chatbot interface these do not need to be taken into consideration at the same degree. The content is the style of the chatbot and the focus should be on how this content is communicated; with the personality and appearance of the chatbot. “A chatbot has its own personality,” says Jakob, “And just as with new people, it takes a while to get to know them.”

So can chatbots help save the world?

Though Jakob’s study couldn’t definitively show statistical evidence that people’s pro-environmental behaviour can be increased with conversational user interfaces or chatbots, the result from the user interviews did indicate that chatbots can motivate people to consume food in a more sustainable way.

“We all need to change behaviour in order to reach a sustainable future”, says Jakob. “To find the right way to do so, different digital channels need to be tested. Social influence has shown to have a big impact on people. If a chatbot can get into this social sphere it has the ability to motivate people’s behaviour on a completely different level than any other form of technology.”

This article is based on a post published on Medium.com. To read Jakob’s original article click here.

Umeå

Fredrik Johansson

Business Director

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