Why I’m bearish on bots

Bots are all the rage in Silicon Valley these days. Everyone is talking about them. Facebook has a bot built into Messenger. Google announced a platform for bots. Many startup pitches focus on bots.

But, so far, I’m not convinced.

I’ve worked on bot-related projects. I’ve worked in messaging, speech recognition and natural-language processing. At AOL, we had a local search bot in 2004. (Not my project, but we had one.)

Today’s bots are pretty stupid. They are based on simple keyword recognition. See this example from a recent Messenger conversation I had after I was hit by an Uber:

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Ideally, the bot would realize the context and not even show the “Request a Ride” message. At a minimum, it should be frequency capped so it doesn’t appear every message.

Like I said, bots today are stupid.

Will they get better? Undoubtedly.

Will they replace a personal assistant in the near future? Unlikely.

Consider an obvious use case for bots: appointment scheduling. After all this time, appointments are still tough to schedule.

It sounds simple. Check two calendars and find overlapping free spaces. But it’s not.

Availability isn’t fixed. My availability can vary based on who is asking. Mark Zuckerberg wants a meeting? My calendar is wide open.

For me, multiple factors go into availability. What is my relationship to the person? Are either of us working on an important project? Have I met this person recently? Were they referred by someone I trust?

Have the assistant look at my address book, you say? Well, relationships vary over time.

Location matters. Again, this is context sensitive. I one joked with VC Shervin Pishevar that location varies based on importance of the two parites. Jokingly, we scheduled lunch at Madera, which is basically across the street from most venture firms. But there’s a lot of truth to that. If I’m meeting a friend who lives on the peninsula, we try to alternate peninsula and SF. If I’m meeting a VC, it is usually in Menlo Park. Meeting someone who needs my advice? Probably a coffee shop a few blocks from me.

Location also depends based on our local travel patterns. I try to schedule my meetings on the peninsula on one day to minimize my driving. I know some people spend one day in SF. I adjust to take that into account.

The rules vary for out-of-town visitors. Some of my friends visit from the East Coast. Some do it every other week. I can see them pretty much any time. But for a friend who visits once every six months. I’ll work hard to open up space.

Location can be a Skype call if I need to chat with someone who I won’t likely meet up with.

Timing matters. Is the request urgent? I’ll open up availability. If not, it might wait a couple of weeks.

I’m having surgery next week. It was scheduled according to the surgeon’s schedule because she has a specialized skill. I scheduled everything around it. During the recovery period, I’m not taking meetings. But if someone and something important needs to happen, I’ll suck up the pain.

Then there’s the issue of social projection. Maybe I don’t want to project that I have nothing going on and my calendar is wide open. Or I want to project that someone is really important to me.

Something that seems to be so simple can actually be really complicated.

Is my scheduling more complicated than most? Probably. But if it weren’t complicated, the utility of a bot would be less valuable. Could a bot learn all of these rules? Maybe.

It’ll take a lot of time to get there.

Maybe a bot can put it in on my calendar for 2020.

Reinventing the banking experience in 2016

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On a recent trip to New York City, I did some secret shopping of banks. I posed as a customer looking to open a new account with $250,000. I visited banks large and small, including Citibank, Bank of America, Chase, Valley National Bank and TD Bank.

Although banks have become more open and inviting to consumers — in many neighborhoods, it isn’t a prison environment with tellers behind bulletproof glass — I came up with a number of ways to update the banking experience. Some of these require changes to approaches to security, but I think they are necessary for banks to be relevant.

In bank

  • Ability for bank staff to access Dropbox, email, etc. There are obvious security implications of this, but this is the way millennials work. The primary repository for many documents are in cloud storage. If your bankers don’t have the ability to access Web services, you’re at a disadvantage. I love that my banker at First Republic can do most things over email and Dropbox.
  • Web access for certain employees. Although some bank networks are locked down for the lowest common denominator (bank tellers), some people need access to the broader Web. This includes investment advisers and personal bankers.
  • Simpler ATMs that allow most of the transaction to be done from the customer’s mobile device.
  • Allow customers to enter their data. Although many banks use PIN pads, there is other data that needs to be entered. iPads could allow people to comfortably enter data such as email addresses.
  • Bathrooms! In the past, bank transactions were predominantly about quick withdrawals and deposits. Now, more transactions require more time. This includes account opening and investment transactions. When you might be in the bank for 15-20 minutes, bathrooms become more important. In my secret shopping, most banks wouldn’t offer a bathroom. A few did, but it involved going into a backroom.
  • Chargers. Just like bathrooms, charging devices are becoming a Big Necessity. In some of my secret shopping, bankers allowed me to use their personal chargers or asked around the bank for one. It’s not expensive to outfit each station with micro USB and lightning charges.

Call center

  • Better IVR and ASR systems. One of the more frustrating banking experiences is calling a bank, entering the account number and then having to give it again to the rep. These systems need a streamlined user experience with user needs in mind. They shouldn’t be one-size-fits-all. For example, if a bank notices that I do all my banking online, I should go straight to a representative. (The chances that I will call for something I can do online are zero.) People who never bank online would be given the full automated system. Segmentation could also be done by asset level, e.g. customers with more than $100,000 go straight to a rep.
  • Allow CSRs to follow transactions. For some transactions and events, there is a time delay between a request and a final outcome. Normally, this involves the customer calling back and dealing with someone brand new and re-explaining the situation. Citi lets an agent monitor an account for future follow up. I’m always impressed when the same person calls me back with a resolution.
  • Automatic emails for frequent transactions. For example, if a customer requests a late-fee credit, an email is automatically generated stating the amount of the late fee credit and an expected post date. Ideally, these emails will show up before the customer hangs up.

Omnichannel

  • Data should be shared across platforms. If I start a credit card application online, I should be able to finish on the phone if I have a question.

One thing I noticed that really impressed me: Chase bankers rate other Chase employees. My banker had to call a support line. After he finished, he was presented with a survey to rate the support desk. This kind of feedback is invaluable in weeding out bad employees.

redesign | payments: redesigning the ATM

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The humble ATM. We’re surrounded by them. Since Chemical Bank opened the first ATM in 1969, consumers have had access to their money more conveniently than waiting in line for a bank teller.

ATMs have evolved over time, becoming smaller, smarter and ubiquitous.

Consider:

  • The advent of ATM surcharges meant that every mom and pop grocery store, gas station and bar could afford to put one in.
  • ATMs can now accept checks and cash for deposit without using an envelope.
  • ATMs have been used to sell postage stamps and airline tickets.
  • The newer Chase ATMs now stand in between customers and tellers, offering a wider array of services.

But mobile technology allows ATMs to slim down considerably. Here’s how:

  1. Open your bank’s mobile app.
  2. Specify the amount of cash you want to withdraw.
  3. Touch your fingerprint.
  4. Tap your phone against an NFC reader.
  5. Cash pops out of a dispenser.
  6. Your receipt is shown on your phone.

This eliminates the screen, keyboard and printer.

Banks benefit in a number of ways: less space per machine, lower costs, more throughput per machine (due to shortened transaction times) and eliminating skimming at the ATM.

Consumers benefit from more convenient access and shorter line times.

What would 9/11 and its aftermath look like with the social tools we have today?

Tribute in Light, from Empire State Building
Tribute in Light as seen from Empire State Building – 9/11/2003

Today is the 15th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11.

Shortly after the attacks, I was walking around an exhibit in SoHo called Here Is New York. People had been invited to submit their pictures. These were hung in a gallery. The atmosphere was somber. Union Square was plastered with posters asking if someone had been seen.

In those 15 years, a lot has changed. YouTube didn’t exist back then. (Founded in 2005.) flickr didn’t exist. (Launched 2004.) Facebook didn’t exist (2004). Mobile was in its infancy. (The iPhone didn’t come out until 2007.) Of course, more recent innovations like Snapchat, Instagram, Meerkat, Vine and Periscope didn’t exist. Then-dominant players like Yahoo! and Aol have largely fallen by the wayside. Flickr has become a has-been.

I thought it would be an interesting thought exercise to look at what the world would look like if 9/11 had instead occurred today.

  • Instead of posting flyers, people would use Facebook’s “I’m OK” feature to find news of their loved ones. The service, activated after disasters, prompts people to press a button saying that they’re OK.
  • We’d have live accounts from the disaster scene on Twitter. The whole world would be expressing their sympathies in 140 characters.
  • With smart phone cameras and cheap video cameras like Dropcam, investigators (working with the likes of Google) would be able to create 3D models of the events.
  • We’d see a flood of pictures on Instagram.
  • CNN and other news networks would offer live streams to everyone.
  • People would watch replays of the events on YouTube.

One thing that likely wouldn’t happen: Periscopes and Facebook live. The apps wouldn’t work in the saturated environment. The excessive demand during 9/11 meant that cell networks and landlines in the area were overloaded. There’s no way that current data networks could handle all that traffic. Even pictures would have to be uploaded over broadband connections.

The biggest change — and the one with the most effect — is the advent of in-flight WiFi. Using the communication networks we have today, passengers would be better informed of the events. They could follow the news. With the additional information, they could thwart the hijackers like heroic passengers on Flight 93 did.

In flight WiFi would also allow passengers to leave messages for their loved ones.

In short, 9/11 would be completely different on 9/11/2016.

(This post was posted on a flight from San Francisco to Seattle.)

(This post was updated on 9/11/2016 to reflect the 15th anniversary and to add Facebook Live, which didn’t exist back then.)

Amazon’s Echo is a brilliant, brilliant gadget

Rakesh Agrawal is an expert in product design, having designed products for leading companies such as Microsoft and Aol. He has also reviewed products and written for TechCrunch, VentureBeat, The Washington Post and GigaOm.

The best $100 I’ve ever spent on a gadget. The price has since gone up to $150, but it would be a bargain at $300.

Full review to come. But don’t wait, just BUY IT!

After you watch this video, of course.

redesign | news: The Washington Post

The Washington Post | May 15, 2015

Why Google and Facebook won’t suffer the same fate as AOL

Our CEO, Rakesh Agrawal, writes for The Washington Post on why Google and Facebook won’t suffer the fate of AOL.

With Verizon finally putting an end to the misery of AOL’s decade and a half long decline, some are wondering whether today’s juggernauts — Facebook and Google — will face the same fate. The answer is unequivocal: No.

To understand why, it’s helpful to look at why AOL went from being the No. 1 Internet provider in the country to a has-been outpaced by companies such as Facebook and Google. Facebook is worth more than 50 times the acquisition price for AOL. Google nearly 100 times.

redesign | travel: Travel gear 2007 vs. 2015

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I’ve been traveling all of my professional life. As the years have passed, so have the tools I use when I travel.

Here are my 2007 travel gadgets:

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And now:

IMG_20150111_101218Many of the things in the top picture have been consolidated into my iPhone 6:

  • Garmin navigation GPS/Palm.
  • Garmin hiking GPS.
  • iPod.
  • Phone.
  • USB sticks (I just mail or cloud the contents).

Others have been obviated by technology. I no longer carry Ethernet cables or the router to provide WiFi for me.

My current line up includes:

  • GoPro and accessories. (This is a ski trip; not taken for pure business trips.)
  • A bunch of cables and accessories stored in a GridIt.
  • A Lumix DMC-FZ70. 60x optical zoom FTW. (Don’t usually bring my DSLR.)
  • A power strip. Great for sharing power with others at airports.
  • A SOL Republic Punk speaker. (It’s smaller than a Jambox.)
  • A nano SIM cutter. I use this only on international trips, but it’s small enough to leave in my travel bag.
  • Car power adapter. Always be charging!
  • A 5-port USB charger. Always be charging! This one has a separate cable to deal with tricky hotel room situations.
  • Massive Mophie. Always be charging!
  • LiveScribe 3. It’s the real deal for note taking and syncs great with Evernote.
  • An Asus Chromebook. Unlike my MacBook Air, I won’t be heartbroken if I lose it at security.
  • iPad mini 3.
  • iPhone 6.

I’d probably ditch the Chromebook, but Google gives you 12 free gogo passes with each Chromebook. That alone is worth more than the cost of the Chromebook. Having it lets me stay productive in the air.

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redesignAnswer: Paper statements are more convenient

From Skitch (6)

I’m not a Luddite (clearly). I’m an environmentalist.

But the process for getting online statements is convoluted. Every bank has their own log in system. Everyone has their own archiving rules. Sometimes the format online doesn’t include the same information that the paper statement does.

It’s not hard to miss a statement alert in your email along with the hundreds or thousands of emails you get a month. This could easily lead to a pile of late fees and interest charges. Some issuers do a good job of identifying auto pay in their e-statements; some do a terrible job.

It’s next to impossible to search across the statements from issuers. Ironically, I scan all the paper that is sent to me and then shred them. (I scan them into Evernote to make them easily searchable.)

The paper also serves as a reminder that I need to pay the bill.

What would get me to move to digital statements?

  • If I could get them in secure email, just as easily as I get them in the physical mailbox. 
  • Better design of online statements.
  • An easier way to access them.

redesignAnswer: Paper statements are more convenient

From Skitch (6)

I’m not a Luddite (clearly). I’m an environmentalist.

But the process for getting online statements is convoluted. Every bank has their own log in system. Everyone has their own archiving rules. Sometimes the format online doesn’t include the same information that the paper statement does.

It’s not hard to miss a statement alert in your email along with the hundreds or thousands of emails you get a month. This could easily lead to a pile of late fees and interest charges. Some issuers do a good job of identifying auto pay in their e-statements; some do a terrible job.

It’s next to impossible to search across the statements from issuers. Ironically, I scan all the paper that is sent to me and then shred them. (I scan them into Evernote to make them easily searchable.)

The paper also serves as a reminder that I need to pay the bill.

What would get me to move to digital statements?

  • If I could get them in secure email, just as easily as I get them in the physical mailbox. 
  • Better design of online statements.
  • An easier way to access them.