Have you ever chatted with a chatbot? Chances are that if you have, it was on an e-commerce website and the virtual agent was assisting you on finding the right purchase and at the same time trying to sell you more. Furthermore, chances are that the chatting experience was not very impressive. just a very small amount of topics leaded to a plausible response and within a one minute time frame you would have seen one or two responses several times. And a ‘commercial’ chatbot has a relatively simple task. building a chatbot that should provide health and lifestyle information to youth… that’s an entirely different challenge. I hope that with Bzz I have done my part in getting it right.
There are many e-health interventions out there that try to provide tailored advice to users. Some of which even use an interactive agent as a medium of passing on that advice. Bzz is one of the few interventions worldwide that provides information on such varying subjects as alcohol, drugs, (safe) sex & sexuality, nutrition, smoking, sporting injuries and hearing disabilities. But that’s not even the most important fact about Bzz. The big difference between Bzz as a health chatbot and other initiatives is that we spent a lot of time and energy on the conversational capabilities and ‘chit-chat’ function of the Bzz. Users can chat with Bzz on various subjects ranging from football to Santa Claus to politics. Not that you would get answers that are inviting to carry on about the subject, Bzz will attempt to steer you back ‘on topic’, but in comparison to other bots we’ve seen around the world it’s quite different. Where other bots would respond to ‘Santa’ as input with something like “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”, Bzz would reply (in december) “I’m really excited about what i’m getting this year! :)”. Does that have anything to do with health? No. But it does encourage users to chat away with Bzz. We’ve seen many examples where conversations begin completely off-topic but end with serious questions about alcohol use or anti-conception.
Speaking of ‘off-topic’, there’s a a lot of abuse you have to take if you’re a chatbot. It’s a good thing Bzz does not have feelings (or a mother) or he would be hurt non-stop. But again, we keep seeing a lot of users that start by calling Bzz all sorts of names but end up with serious questions. It’s just something you have to try out apparently. What made it even more of a challenge is that users that wish to insult by Bzz by calling him, for example, a homosexual is that the term ‘homosexual is actually on topic. So Bzz had to find ways of replying in a neutral manner so as not to escalate the, unconstructive, abuse as well as not offend users that have serious questions about homosexuality. Looking at the finding of the user evaluation by the university of Maastricht, we have succeeded in that task.
Expanding the subjects
In the evaluation users were asked to compare their Bzz experience with their search-engine (Googling) experience and their (expected) experience with a help line. Bzz scored at least as well as the help line on subjects as ‘reliability’ ,’speed’ and ‘anonymity’ and a lot better on ‘ease of use’. Bzz beat search engines on every subject that we inquired about except for ‘number of subjects’. That did not really surprise us. At that point the only topics that Bzz could discuss were alcohol, drugs and (safe) sex and sexuality. The conclusions of the research meant that we wanted to try to expand the number of subjects that Bzz could provide tailored information for, maintaining the natural conversational skills that make Bzz unique worldwide.
This expansion meant we encountered whole new challenges such as, if a user makes an inquiry about ‘smoking’, does this refer to smoking of a nicotine or a marijuana cigarette? All information comes from different Dutch knowledge and expertise centers and which one is going to deliver the answer when someone ask if ‘sexual performance improves or not when you’ve been drinking’? And what if your subject, e.g. sporting injuries, could actually be a lot more efficiently be uploaded and answered when you use a completely different conversational style than Bzz is used to? (“You are asking me about hockey? Well, I ‘ve got the following information on hockey for you: 1. warming up 2. safe sports clothing 3. et cetera…) In about three months time we will do a new evaluation round among Bzz-users, we’ll see how we’ve done with the expansion. For now, I’m just hoping the breadcrumbs campaign we’ve started to attract more users than the current 60.000+ will catch on. If it does, than bzz wil;l have been responsible for more than one online success-story.
If you would like more in-debth information about Bzz, send me an e-mail.