Because most chatbots understand only a very limited vocabulary, using them can become a guessing game to arrive at the precise incantation to make them do your bidding. The more we talk to robots, the more we talk like robots.

Will Oremus wrote this report in October about Slack’s expansion of support for third-party plugins. Those plugins were previously limited to text-only chatbots—via either conversational UI or specific “slash commands”—but can now offer more traditional GUI elements like windows, buttons, forms, and so on.

It seems Slack’s users found the chat-only UI too challenging because of its rigid command-line syntax. Discoverability was a challenge, and users found it hard to remember the precise words to make the bots go, or even which bots were installed. “Nobody should have to be a specialist in the dozens of apps they interact with on a daily or weekly basis,” said Andy Pflaum, Slack’s head of platform, in an interview.

Will writes:

Bots will “continue to exist and have their role in Slack,” Pflaum said. But the company’s research has found that “the typical user isn’t as comfortable with those, or forgets how to use those methods.” Testing of more graphical interfaces has generated “so much positive response,” he added, and should make apps accessible to “a much broader base of users.”

Slack’s investment in feature expansion at once suggests the success of the plugins (1800 third-party apps and counting), but also the limiting nature of plain-text UI at a moment when bots still have very narrow language understanding. This will get better as natural language processing (NLP) improves and bots get more flexible in what they can understand. We’re already seeing that happen in the latest generation of NLP (see AI Dungeon for a fun example).

In the meantime: when you can take advantage of the full range of UI on a specific platform, you should—and that’s exactly what Slack is doing here. The future of interaction is increasingly multi-modal (and multi-platform for that matter). Enabling people to move nimbly among modes and platforms is as important as the ability to move among services, the very point of third-party plugins in the first place.

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