Lingubot's "Hi, I'm Anna," Traction Software's TeamPage 3.7

David Sims : First Coffee
David Sims
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Lingubot's "Hi, I'm Anna," Traction Software's TeamPage 3.7

By David Sims

The news as of the first coffee this morning, and the music is Oliver Nelson's The Blues and the Abstract Truth:

Lingubot, whose officials like to call it "the world's busiest interactive web assistant," is now available in America, officials say.

Lingubot officials claim their interactive web assistant has "over 250,000 conversations every day for leading global organizations, such as Lloyds TSB, Aviva, IKEA, BBC, Daimler Chrysler, BT and over 100 other companies." It's available in America from Creative Virtual.

Lingubot uses a natural language interface, as officials explain the "Lingubot Natural Language engine interprets user questions from key words and phrases and responds with qualifying questions and options to proceed," such as asking "What kind of account would you like to open," and listing the account types available.

The Lingubot engine can also be integrated with forms within the web site, as IKEA did for their "Ask Anna" feature. Anna's a typical bot of this type -- an animated face and shoulders, cute but not too cute, who looks like she was thinking how she could best answer your questions in the shower this morning.

The thing is, with bots like this, they're much like the clanky Soviet style of customer help -- the "help" person is much more interested in getting their script right than actually helping you, and you need to already have a pretty good idea of what you want to use them, it's hard to go from 0 to 60 using one.

It's like Apple's obnoxious Help feature on their iMac, where they don’t let you search a database with keywords, but make you select from lists of general questions instead. You need to already know something to use the feature, it's not much help to those who need help the most.

Same with Anna. When you're specific enough with your questions, she's okay -- typing in "garden tables" elicits "Please have a look at the Tables," but strangely no link is provided -- but you'd think she'd pick up on key words a little faster: "Where can I get a garden table?" gets you "I'm sorry, to which IKEA store would you like directions?"

And of course the whole Cute Answer Gal bot idea is a case of too limited a function being presented as something else. I mean, we all understand database querying FAQ lists, if you want to know where the wombats in the zoo are you type "wombats" in the box and you get what the database has about wombats including, presumably, the most-asked question first, where they are. But if you see a human face you simply expect to be able to ask a direct question and get a direct answer. Anna can't do that.

For this reason, putting a human face on the functionality of a database FAQ is giving your online browser greater expectations than it can fulfill. Sure it's a cute idea, but it's not a good one, it can really only disappoint.

For example, the IKEA here in Istanbul is known fondly in the foreigner community, and among many Turks, for serving unusually good salmon at a good price in the cafeteria. But you try asking Anna "How is the salmon today?" and you get told "I know people love animals, but I'm here to talk about IKEA."

And ask her "Do you sell cars?" You get "answered" "I'm sorry, to which IKEA store do you want directions?" By the way, that seems to be her all-purpose answer when she doesn't know what else to say, instead of offering immediate escalation options.

And you kind of feel sorry for Anna too. Asking her "Are you free for a movie tonight" gets "I don't really want to talk about personal issues like marriage. If you could talk to me about IKEA that would be much better." Any gal who thinks you're proposing when you ask her out to a movie, well, you understand why she's at work 24/7.

But you can see why she's still single: Try paying her a simple compliment, "You're pretty," and she says "You are perfectly entitled to hold any opinion you want about me. Furthermore, your comments improve my knowledge base. Thank you!" That's what you like to hear from a girl, that you really improve her knowledge base.

She does have a sense of humor, though, ask her for her measurements and she answers "Which product would you like to know the size and volume for?" And I must say she has spunk, get in the least off-color with Anna and she smacks you down with "I am not designed to understand or feel insults, although my knowledge will surely improve after this conversation." Take that Mr. Potty Mouth, soap's in Aisle 4!

First Coffee has never been crazy about the idea of animated faces taking the place of simple FAQs and good old write your query here text boxes. Lingubot officials reel off the usual stats -- typically over 90 percent of questions are answered successfully by a Lingubot, clients can realize a 30 percent reduction in e-mails and a 25 percent reduction in call center contacts, they can instantly escalate the query to a human customer service assistant via live-chat, e-mail or call-back, using existing call center management software.

Yeah, but all that's true for pretty much any form of online self-help. And animated bots like Anna needlessly raise customer expectations; I can't imagine a scenario where they improve a store's customer loyalty:

"Honey, let's drop by Home Depot and look at light fixtures on the way home from church."

"Oh, um, sorry, we really can't do that, I've already asked Anna about lights, I think she'd be hurt if we didn't go to IKEA."

If there were a functional reason for the things, if there were anything they did function or information-wise better than text boxes, if people were willing to talk to Anna who just couldn't bring themselves to type "tables" in a text box on, if they actually conversed the way you'd expect a sunny gal like Anna to converse, well, fine.

But since none of those things are true, give us plain ol' text boxes where we know what to expect and give Anna a break.

Traction Software, a vendor of products for secure, scalable, web-based collaboration, has announced Traction TeamPage Release 3.7. New features added in this release include extensible widgets, edit history and rollback, inline sections, flexible outputs to any format, and upgraded mobile device support.

Company officials say customers or partners can program Traction live text widgets to recognize invoice numbers and link to an ERP page, or recognize a customer code and show it as a customer name that automatically links to sales history in web-addressable CRM system.

"Traction's products combine the group editing of a wiki, the simplicity of a blog, and a unique access control and comment model to provide secure, scalable web-based working communication and collaboration," said Greg Lloyd, Traction Co-Founder and President. "TeamPage 3.7 adds new capabilities to link, edit, discuss, and deliver web content securely to customers, suppliers and external stakeholders as well as groups within a single enterprise."

Basically, Traction 3.7 lets users create widgets that show, list or link to internal and external web resources. TeamPage widgets can be inserted into any TeamPage blog post or page.

Widgets include inline sections to show lists of links or content driven by any Traction query, mashup style widgets that to show text and graphics from any external source (e.g. a live weather report for any zip code), and live text widgets that turn a text pattern into an automatically live link.

An example of Traction's new live text widgets include a widget that recognizes the text pattern of a UPS tracking code, and turns it into a live link to UPS's status page for that shipment.

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