Apps without their own user interface - The rise of 'No UI’ bots and conversational apps

By Shaun Symm, June 07, 2016
Person using a mobile phone

We’re all talk

Have you ever said the words ‘Ok Google’ into your Google app? Or asked Siri to call someone in your contacts? If you have then you’ve already experienced the change that is happening. Apps like Siri have been around for a while now, but 2016 is the year bots and conversational apps go mainstream.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, said in a June 2016 interview that 1 in 5 Google searches in the US are now done using voice and that figure is rising.

Jeff Bezos from Amazon has said that he now has 1,000 people working on the Amazon voice interface Alexa. Plus Amazon’s top selling hardware product (estimated over 3 million units sold) is now the Amazon Echo, a device with no screen that is used in the house and is controlled by voice (Alexa). Google recently announced the launch of their version of the Echo, Google Home and Apple is working on their own version.

These devices enable you to play music, control devices in your home, order a pizza, book an Uber, add events to your calendar all without looking at a screen.

You can see the pattern emerging. The world’s largest companies are making a big push to voice controlled interfaces that are powered by artificial intelligence. Some, like the Amazon Echo truly have no graphical user interface (GUI) while Google search and Siri have very minimal GUIs that are controlled by voice.

Bots are big too

Chat bots are also taking off in a big way. New Slack bots are launching daily and with Facebook’s launch of ‘M’, the Messenger Bot, companies like Uber now let you book an Uber directly from Messenger. These are apps with no user interface of their own, they leverage the UI of the larger platforms.

There is also a growing list of invisible apps, like Peter the artificial intelligence based business lawyer that provides legal services triggered by emails users send to a bot.

Products like Peter up until now would have had a user dashboard where the user would need to login to interact with the application. The user still needs a GUI to interact with Peter but it isn't Peter's GUI. It is the users own business email client that they are already comfortable with and use on a daily basis.

The shift is happening, and it is happening quickly.

Bots and conversational apps: what is means for startup founders and product managers

The principles of product management don’t change but if you manage a digital product, are in digital marketing or are considering founding a startup then you need to be aware of the change that is happening. Instead of building a web application or mobile app the ‘button click' way we currently do, ask yourself if your next digital product could be developed without its own UI or with a very minimal GUI.

Ask yourself:

  • Could your product go to market with no GUI of its own where your users make a phone call or send an SMS to use your product?
  • Could you build a bot off the back of Messenger or Slack?
  • Would building an app (called a ‘Skill’ on Amazon’s Echo) on top of Amazon’s Alexa or Google Home give you a new distribution channel or the potential to get a step ahead of your competition? Would it provide a better user experience?
  • Do you really need to invest in web design, app design and front-end development? Would your users prefer the simplicity of using an interface, that they already use every day, like SMS to interact with your product?

If you are developing a digital product, whether as a startup or in a larger enterprise business, these are questions you need to answer as bots and conversational apps start to explode.

Does this mean the end of UI Design?

No. The choice of going 'No UI' really depends on the product. If Uber launched today, as a bootstrapped startup, they could have chosen to develop their Messenger bot before developing a web app and their Android and iOS apps. However, products like Snapchat need their own GUI in the form of mobile apps.

The point is that a change is happening and big platforms like Facebook will focus on getting app developers to build products on their platforms rather than having stand alone applications.

Think about how Google and Apple 'own' the mobile app eco system. That's what products like Alexa, Slack Bot and Facebooks M are built for ... to own more eyes (and ears!) and keep users on their platforms.

The push for 'No UI' apps will largely be driven by these companies, and the users on their platforms. If you do create a user interface for your product no doubt you'll be developing a 'no UI' version too (unless you're a Snapchat or Instagram type of product) to integrate with the platforms that already have all the eyeballs. You'll do it to please your customers, create new distribution channels and to keep up with your competitors.

The benefits to developing products with No UI are:

  • lower design and development costs
  • you'll get to market faster
  • your users won't need to learn a new graphical interface
  • your users won't need to download a new app

Thanks to technological improvements the user interface as we know it is evolving again. However it plays out, we're excited and you should be too.

A side note: The 'No UI' misnomer

As a side note, the buzzword 'no UI' is a bit of a misnomer. Applications need a UI, whether it be voice or graphical. There is simply a distinction between applications that have their own user interface and those that piggyback off another platforms user interface.

Build a Skill, a bot or a conversational app
If you want to build a ‘skill’ for the Amazon Echo, a bot for Facebook Messenger or another type of no UI application we’d love to help out. Launch Lab are web application and chatbot developers in Australia. We work with startups and corporates to build digital products. We love the no ui movement and know that artificial intelligence is going to change everything in the next 10 years. If you share this thinking get in touch.
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Contact Launch Lab for web design and web development quotes from a local onshore Australian design & development team