How to make friends with the bots

talking to a bot

Let’s face it. Bots are going to take over the world. One day we’ll all wake up, and every online interaction will start with talking with a bot. Think of them as Walmart greeters for the internet (except that Walmart just announced they’re laying off all their greeters).

I’m fascinated with bots. In my work, I’ve been helping our bot team choose language that is friendly, clear and helpful. But herein lies the problem with bots. For communication to be effective, you need to understand how people are feeling, thinking, and what you want them to do. It’s called knowing your audience. And with bots, you’re not exactly sure what the frame of mind is of the person at the beginning of the interaction, and just as important, at the end of the interaction.

I’ll illustrate this by sharing my latest interaction with Koodo’s bot. Koodo’s tagline by the way is “Choose Happy”. It went something like this:

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“Hi Koodo bot. I need your help. My daughter has fried her phone a second time and I want to know my options for my contract.”

(Four options popped up for me to choose, none of them was what I needed help with.)

So I said, “I think it’s probably easier if I just called you. What’s your toll-free number?”

(The bot in its programming must have picked up on the keyword phrase “toll-free number” so it answered this)

“1-800 numbers are free of Long Distance charges, but the local minutes to connect you to the network are still billed at the local minute rate. The numbers you can call are (list of numbers). If you run out of minutes, you will be charged for additional airtime. You might get a prompt to a recording message if the toll-free number isn’t available in your area.”

Then it asked me if their answer was helpful. I gave it a thumbs down.

We went back and forth a few more times. At this point, I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to just get their stupid 1 800 number from the bot and the UX tester in me went into overdrive, so I wrote,

“OK, so what’s the number you stupid bot” just to see how it would respond.

The bot answered, “Now, now, let’s play nice!” and send me a GIF of Maggie Smith looking affronted.

giphy

OK, so I don’t know how you would react to Maggie Smith raising her eyebrow in a supercilious manner just because you wanted to talk to someone in customer service, but my emotional response went from a ha, ha, I don’t believe it said that, to incredulous, to how dare you, you stupid bot? I showed it to Clare who had been sitting beside me the whole time and asked her how she felt about it. She said the exact same thing.

Let’s just say, I didn’t “Choose Happy” from Koodo in that moment.

To end the story, I ditched the bot, found their 1 800 number somewhere else, called them and finally found a human that was very helpful and resolved my dilemma. I did have to wait on the line for about 10 minutes though to speak to said human.

So if bots are here to stay, how do we make friends with them? Here are some tips:

  1. First, go in knowing their limitations. Bots do serve a purpose—they can answer simple questions, freeing up customer service agents to address more difficult issues and concerns.
  2. Be aware if you are dealing with a bot or a human. Sometimes this can be hard to know. If you’re not sure, ask. You’ll know after the first few interactions when five lines of text appear instantaneously.
  3. If after the first few questions it’s clear the bot’s programming isn’t giving you what you need, ask to speak to a live person. Most bots that are programmed well with have a human offramp, where you just pick “speak to a person” and they’ll redirect your enquiry.

If all else fails, you can always derive some entertainment value by messing with it. Just be prepared for the Maggie Smith gifs.

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Best happy acts of 2018

Author and her daughter

When I started this blog four years ago, I hoped I would find a community of people who would join me on a journey to explore what it means to be happy and be inspired to take action to create our own happiness, one happy act at a time.

I also knew there would be others who would never “get it” and think I’m crazy. I once had someone ask me, why do you blog about the same thing every week?  Sigh.

While there is always a common thread in my posts: exploring what makes us happy, I hope dear loyal readers you have figured out that like life, happyact.ca is a smorgasbord of content. Some weeks, it is a blog for foodies or commentary on work; other weeks it’s a travelogue or a humour column.

Some weeks it’s an advice column where I’m seeking advice for a problem or issue in my life. Other weeks, I’m sharing a tiny drop of inspiration or motivation. Either way, I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it and it’s helped you on your journey to be happy.

I know life gets busy and there is a good chance you may have missed some happy acts this year, so to help you overcome FOMO (fear of missing out), here is a reprise of my top ten favourite happy acts of 2018. I hope you keep reading every Sunday morning and continue on with me on this journey in 2019.

On travel and exploring

On being happy at work

For giggles

Motivation and inspiration

Happy New Year everyone and here’s to a happiness filled 2019.

Why not?

kid ready to fly

Special guest blog by Ray Dorey

You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
Wayne Gretzky

A few weeks ago, I caught up with a good friend over coffee. You might have heard of her. She’s the driving force behind the Happy Act blog, Laurie Swinton.

One of our exchanges was about a course I’ve been taking in genre fiction, which led to a discussion about comedy writing. I brought up the iconic Saturday Night Live, and what an absolute blast those writers must have crafting timely sketches for that particular week’s show.

And then, casually out of left field, Laurie suggested, “(SNL creator and executive producer) Lorne Michaels is Canadian. We should ask him about sitting in on a couple of writer’s meetings.”

I smiled. Was she serious? Surely there wasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of that ever happening.

But then I recalled a time in my life when such a proposal was common.

I grew up captivated by all that was Disney; the movies, the tv programming, and the theme parks. I couldn’t get enough of the Mickey Mouse brand magic. Disney fueled my imagination, and creative passions.

Eagerly, I would scribe my heart out; sometimes conveying ideas, other times making requests, and nearly every time, I received a response. It made no difference that the replies were often form letters. I was still ecstatic.

Rejection letter from Walt Disney corporation

Sometime between then and now, I grew up, at least a little, and perhaps I lost some of that youthful exuberance. Today, I might only execute similar reach-outs when I thought I had a high chance of success. Dreams perhaps died before they ever had a chance to blossom.

But my younger self always had it right. What’s wrong with asking, even though a voice might warn you there’s a slim chance of reward? You could be inaccurate in your presumptions, or you could simply catch lightning in a bottle. Stranger things have happened. Why not to me? Why do people buy lottery tickets? Because the prize is so much greater than the risk–despite the low odds of winning.

Feeling buoyed, I told Laurie I would write to Lorne Michaels with our request. And I did. A brief search yielded multiple mail and email addresses for Mr. Michaels. So I crafted and launched the following missive:

Mr. Lorne Michaels
Creator and executive producer, Saturday Night Live
NBC Studios

30 Rockefeller Plaza
New York, NY – 10112

Dear Mr. Michaels,

No, I am not high and/or mentally unstable, depending on who you ask.

A friend and I, fellow Canadians and aspiring writers, are both long-time fans of Saturday Night Live.

While meeting recently over coffee, our conversation led to speculation about the creative process used to craft and hone material for the show, and how much indescribable fun it must be to participate.

So we were wondering (here comes the crazy part)…

Would it be possible for the two of us to sit-in on one or two writers meetings as observers?

We are not asking for anything else, and we can only offer our undying gratitude in return.

Sincerely,
Ray Dorey

A few days later, I received a response. My heart leapt in my throat.

One of the email addresses had bounced back. Oh well… it wasn’t the response I was hoping for, but it wasn’t a no, and it was still early. Seeds need time to yield mighty oaks.

But whether Mr. Michaels ever responds is really secondary here. The point is that I made the attempt, and knocked on a door that would have never had a chance to open otherwise.

I encourage you, as I re-encourage myself, to dare to defy logic, and to be more creative and optimistic with your pursuits. We’re only here for a short time, and fortune favours the bold as they say, so why not?

You can read more of Ray’s adventures and short stories at storiesfromdoreyville.wordpress.com.

Epic fails and lessons in writing from the school of hard knocks

Mark Zuckerberg

This week, on the 14th anniversary of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg shared a posted about his failures. He wrote, “Over the years I’ve made almost every mistake you can imagine. I’ve made dozens of technical errors and bad deals. I’ve trusted the wrong people and I’ve put talented people in the wrong roles. I’ve missed important trends and I’ve been slow to others. I’ve launched product after product that failed.”

There are many days when I feel like an epic failure as a writer (or mother, or wife for that matter). The other day I read something I wrote a year ago. It was crap.

Writing for someone else’s voice is probably one of the hardest things for a writer to do. I need to do this a lot in my work. Here are some of my epic failures in writing over the course of my career.

  • Assuming someone’s spoken voice is the same as their written voice. I worked with one leader who was personable, funny and engaging in person, but whose written prose was formal and stilted.
  • Creating a narrative that wasn’t the narrative of the person giving the presentation. I prepared a presentation once for a leader and weaved a theme through it that I thought would resonate with the audience, using references to popular culture. It fell flat because it was my narrative, not their narrative.
  • Not using enough stories in my writing and not digging harder to find stories. Everyone has a story.
  • Slipping into corporate puffery. If something I’ve written sounds like a company wrote it, not a person, I’ve failed at my job, and I have.
  • Being too wordy.
  • Not being able to convince people to use clear language; people will often default to language they are used to or think others want to hear.

Yes, I have failed miserably time and time again. But there is one thing that makes me happy. I’m in good company.

 

Fifty shades of happy

This weekend is Valentine’s Day. It’s also the opening of Fifty Shades of Grey, the much anticipated screen version of E. L. James novel.

Some of my daughter’s friends read my blog, so bear with me as I indulge in a little wordplay to keep today’s blog G-rated. Today, we’re going to talk about developing your musical talents.

My journey into Fifty Shades of Grey started with disdain. I had heard the book was poorly written and just one musical scene after another, so I had no interest in reading it.

Then one cottage weekend I got curious. I watched as all my friends, even the guys were seduced under its covers. One by one they picked it up, ran their fingers over the pages, and became breathless as they read it in earnest. Hmmm, time to see what all the fuss was about.

I have to admit, I was surprised. I fell in love with all three books and not for the reasons you are probably thinking.

Sure the musical scenes were fun, a bit repetitive maybe, but what I found really interesting about the books were they tapped into a fundamental conflict of women in today’s society. As young women we are taught Victorian values of chasteness and purity. As human beings, we are creatures of desire, passion, and love. To me, the brilliance of James’ novel is her portrayal of the struggle of the main character as she disputes Victorian values and embraces her musical talents while seeking to understand her own limits and desires.

I’d also like to say a few words in James’ defence on the writing. Personally, I think the books are well written. Any writer that is able to lure you into their world and keep you hostage there so you are compelled to keep reading the next chapter or page in my mind is a good writer. The characters are also interesting and if you had kept reading, there’s intrigue and action with helicopter crashes, car chases, and more. I also think it’s brilliant how James finished her third novel.

Say what you might, it’s hard to argue with success. More than $100 million in book sales and the 56 million YouTube views and counting for the movie trailer.

Love or hate it, this week’s #HappyAct is to tie a few shades on: read the book, go see the movie (although I hear some of the initial reviews panned it) or create your own fifty shades of happy this Valentine’s Day weekend by spicing it up with your partner. May you make beautiful music together.