Adventures in Conversational Commerce

One type of tool that Shopify has developed for entrepreneurs is messaging bots that behave like “virtual employees” – they autonomously handle customer service interactions, online marketing campaigns, and even make sales.

These very simple bots help overwhelmed entrepreneurs stay on top of their businesses without spending the time and money required to hire additional human staff.

In this talk, Elizabeth discusses the UX research and design work that goes into developing these “game-changing” employees for busy entrepreneurs, and shares lessons learned along the way about facilitating communication between businesses and their customers.

It’s only recently that brands started to engage with their customers on social media. It’s still a little weird but it’s how things are. What a time to be alive! 😉

Talking to brands is becoming known as Conversational Commerce.

Things have changed in a lot of ways, there was a time not very long ago that you generally had to physically go into a store to buy things. Physical shopping was conversational, you’d deal with sales staff who represented the business or brand. So it’s not truly a new thing to talk to brands online, it is in some ways natural.

As a UX researcher for Shopify Elizabeth does a lot of user testing in stores, talking to merchants. One of their channels is instant messaging, eg. facebook messenger.

Shopify use quite a few bots at the moment. Elizabeth will be talking about two of them:

  1. Kit: helps merchants market their products. Texts you suggestions and runs small campaigns for you. Entirely automated, no human intervention.
  2. Messenger Bot: helps merchants communicate and sell. There’s a “message us” button on stores; which starts in an automated browsing system. Real people from the merchant can jump in if they are available. Sales can be done entirely in Messenger.

In reality these are “baby bots” rather than proper bots with natural language processing (NLP).

Tips if you want to make a bot:

  1. Know your users
  2. Understand the medium the bot lives in
  3. Simplify the interactions
  4. Be thoughtful about the bot’s personality
  5. Solve problems, don’t create new ones

What does Shopify know about their users?

  • Merchants are busy, lonely, often not tech-savvy, #1 stuggle is marketing.
  • Customers: shopping online, don’t know shopify, may be skeptical of bots (don’t think they are any smarter or faster than humans).
  • Understanding users and their context helps make good choices with bots.

The medium

  • “The medium is the message” – a conversational medium like messenger should be conversational
  • Customers may open up more in a social medium; you can even learn from the emoji they use
  • People find Messenger feels very personal
  • People tend to say thanks more in Messenger than they do for automated emails
  • …so it’s nice if your bot knows how to acknowledge that! “Thanks” “Happy to help”


  • Simple purpose
  • Simple process

Kit helps with marketing, which isn’t actually simple; but it sticks with things that are relatively impersonal like running an ad campaign. Shopify push back on suggestions of trying to do full customer service because NLP isn’t really good enough for an authentic-feeling experience. Yet.

Balance being proactive with giving the user control. Give people options, but not so many options they get into decision paralysis.

Messenger – they focused on making sure it worked well out of the box for busy merchants. Use data to guide the decisions; keep things simple and set smart defaults.


Bots have no personality or culture unless you create it for them. Users will tend to project their ideas onto the bot regardless, eg. despite the gender-neutral name, most women think Kit’s male and most men think Kit’s female.

Keep it consistent – eg. don’t randomly change the tone from serious to informal. With Kit they have prototype conversations where they work through the way an exchange should go.

Because Kit is an assistant, it should behave like one. The principle became “collective success”, Kit’s a member of the merchant’s team. So Kit says things about “we” and “our” about sales and products.

Solo merchants really like the impression that there’s “someone there working with them”, and yes sometimes it gets a little weird. They also have had people send messages that really sound like they think Kit is a real person, although that is rare (most people are clear it’s a bot).

Watch out for lack of understanding from the user; negative reactions to the bot; context mismatch between the bot-world and the real-world. They had trouble with Kit occasionally talking about “our first sale” as the first interaction, ie. before Kit had done anything to help.

Solve problems, don’t create new ones

Bots are tools, they should solve problems.

Problems that can occur:

  • Not respecting the user’s time
  • Not respecting the user’s context

Merchants are busy! That includes configuring the bot, you can customise the messages sent by the Messenger bot but most merchants haven’t done it.

Don’t make the bot feel like the aggressive salesperson!

Sometimes the messenger bot replies too fast – it makes people feel pressured to keep going

Merchants often feel it would be too creepy to jump into a session and take over from the bot, because it reveals they’ve been watching the user.

If the user says “no” to Kit a few times, it will ask why and their feedback goes to the team.