Facebook M’s bet and the future of web interfaces

Last week Facebook announced its take on the Virtual Assistant, M , supported by a human workforce, to help you get things done. A significant step, with profound implications for Facebook’s future place in all our lives..

At TH_NK we have been tracking, and investing our learning into, an interesting shift that has been brewing for some time. The interface, which is traditionally our gateway to a digital world filled with the apps, tools and services we love, is slowly transforming into a single, intelligent destination. And messaging – which dominates our smartphone usage – sits right at the heart of this.

This latest move by Facebook is just one in a long line made this year, and building on what’s becoming a remarkably clear direction of travel.  We’ve seen the acquisition of Natural Language Processing (NLP) company, the opening of their Artificial Intelligence Lab in Paris, and the evolution of Messenger into a platform.

It would seem then that Facebook has drawn the same conclusion as many before them, that messaging as an interface, assisted by a combination of a human network and bots helping us do our chores is worth the effort. Yann Lecun, in charge of the group’s Artificial Intelligence since December 2013, has spoken of a revolution on its way. Mike Schroepfer, the company’s CTO, has said of Facebook in general that “eventually it is like this super intelligent helper that’s plugged into all the information streams in the world”. The company has been pretty open about where they see things going.

In one sense, Facebook’s been a little late to the party but the focus is incredibly on time. The combination of messaging with human and bot assistance is everywhere and provides a powerful, and game changing UI paradigm. You just need to look at the acquisitions, announcements and recent products from Apple, Google, Amazon, Twitter and Microsoft. Tencent Wechat have just invested $50 m in Kik. And then there are the start ups; With GoButler you can order food, book travel and more. Awesome, whilst offering similar capability goes one step further and offers help to teams and start ups, like researchers finding and analysing information on your behalf. Startups like Assist enable you to ask where to eat, drink, stay or explore, letting you reserve and pay. Facilitated through a mix of bot and the local businesses. Inbox is a personal sales assistant which promises to take away the sales bureaucracy and let you focus on being a better salesman. We’ve recently been impressed by Moov which recently announced their AI Cloud providing real time coaching as you run. Using a clever mix of sensors and cloud processing, the coach advises you on how you run, providing motivation and improvement strategies along the way.

Messaging platforms like Telegram, and everybody’s favourite, Slack both let you integrate and build bots to help you further, automating small mundane tasks. Of course, all whilst communicating with your peers in the real time flow of work.

And far out? Have a look at chatting with Xiaoice on China’s Wechat platform.

The vision of having an intelligent, virtual agent is big A moonshot if you like. Above anything else, the ease of interacting with an intelligence working on our behalf, ordering and booking things, scheduling, searching and retrieving recommendations has the potential to ease the next billion people into the digital world in a far simpler manner than the myraid of interfaces do now.

 Why is this any different?

Certainly assistive bots have been around for a long time, as has the messaging interface, and the concept of the conversational UI. We don’t know if Facebook M will succeed of course, but there is plenty to suggest that they have placed a bet on the right course.

Firstly, they haven’t underestimated the power of text. Voice may be the end game but text is the most flexible and translatable communication format humans have so far have come up with. Its death has been greatly exaggerated.

Secondly, messaging is one of the few universally understood design patterns we have – much more than forms and website GUI’s. Its model is a conversation, with participants, shared understanding and a common outcome.

Thirdly by using a conversational UI we’re cutting straight to users intent, rather than say in a GUI (read conventional web page) waiting for a user to trigger it by clicking or tapping a call to action. Don’t underestimate this. Moving from searching for services, or even content, to ‘casting’ our intent for these things hints at a powerful shift in the way we interact online.

 Finally  they’ve got the idea of being assistive over artificial. You see, we’re an intolerant lot, full of quirks, illogic and emotion. It turns out we don’t really like things, especially robots, behaving too human, because they inevitably turn out to be bad versions of ourselves. So those services that work this out have found ways to make the artificial intelligence component more assistive, in the Facebook M case by handling the upfront conversation and passing to humans. In other cases this may be by structuring the conversations around specific intentions, less open ended, so we never ever hit a “computer says no” moment, or dead end.

Is this what our web interface of the future looks like?

If Facebook’s newsfeed manoeuvres felt a little like attempting to pull the entire web under the blue bar, should we be worried about this? We think not, or at least the battle for the single interface has a way to rage, and there is no reason to think Facebook will necessarily win, or someone won’t come along and change the rules of the game. If you think of a browser or an app as an interface agent to a service or content, you can imagine a future where a lot of “apps” and web pages are assimilated into a single interface, where apps become service “plug-ins” rather than outright apps, and content and web pages become cards. Will this spell the death of the browser, our current web interface agent? Maybe or maybe that’s what the browser evolves into. Perhaps it’s the OS of the future. Ultimately it doesn’t matter, the web isn’t going anywhere, it’s just the way you interact with it that may change. And as ever, it’s ours to be built, no matter what they tell you.

This article was originally posted on the The Next Web dated 19 October 2015


The role of the User Experience designer is changing. It’s becoming less about ‘owning’ experience and more about facilitation and collaboration. And this means we’re going to have to learn to let go.

What is it with User Experience CVs? UX has never been about simply churning out wireframes and yet that’s what I’m often confronted with. Obviously, a strong portfolio is really important, as is a strong design rationale, but what I always look for, above all else, is quality of communication. And it’s because our role is changing. UX is becoming less about deliverables and more about facilitation. And here’s why.

The move toward agile development has seen the uneasy joining of two processes that don’t necessarily complement each other – Agile and UCD. The problem lies in a differing methodology definition between the two disciplines. To developers, iterative means incremental growth, while to designers it means multi-revision and honing of the design – and as a result, the processes conflict.

For the two disciplines to effectively complement one another, we need to be more collaborative. The trouble is that in reality, people often don’t know how to. And while small or single person teams will always exist and produce some great work, the need for collaboration is much more apparent in the larger teams demanded by today’s increasingly complex digital challenges. The problem is, in bigger teams the transfer of knowledge slows down and learning becomes harder through a mix of understandings and perspectives.

I’ve heard of agile projects where people slip into the old mindsets of work being passed down the conveyor belt of the linear development process. And working in silos, they forget to collaborate. This way, great design intent becomes lost in the complexities of build and timings, with the end result rarely being fully true to the original ambitions.

I’ve also heard various cycles of talk around UX coding or Development doing UX. Or even arguments for keeping the two separate due to the different mindsets required. I actually think the truth lies somewhere in between. But there’s no escaping the fact that UX really do need to understand the nuances of the technology they are designing for.

Equally as important, Development needs to recognise the psychological and cultural factors, interaction designs and – perhaps even more importantly – the power that emotional engagement can play.

Couple all this with the myriad of devices, screens and technologies we are designing and it becomes glaringly obvious that it cannot be done alone. No one person can effectively combine their specialist skills and knowledge and take on all these other roles too – no matter how T-shaped, Z-shaped or whatever alphabet shape they might be.

So, while interdisciplinary knowledge is invaluable, specialist roles bring specific skills that the practicalities of projects will always require. Yes, UX will still design, but I really don’t see that as the only core skill any more. I wouldn’t want my design team creating deliverables in isolation. I’d want them to be talking to people, to be encouraging, challenging and educating – both other team members and clients – and getting them involved too. This way we can break away from the constraints of conventional thinking and be more iconoclastic in our approach.

So what is the role of UXD going forward? Well, I believe it will be one of a communicator, an educator and above all a facilitator. It will be about possessing the right skills, learnings and passion to recognise and bring together the separate strands of knowledge required to collaborate and solve design problems effectively. Together.

I see the role continuing to unearth insights into the behaviours we are designing for. But I also see it as connecting the dots between the various research silos that inevitably exist, especially in larger more heterogenous environments. We’ll also need to work together with analytics for a better understanding of both the ‘what’ and ‘why’, and then feed these learnings back through clear principles and visualised forms to help communicate meaning and create shared models of understanding.

Our role will become more and more about helping facilitate the design process by building creative environments and then utilising methods in which we all learn from one another to explore our experience design concepts together, through the perspectives of culture, context and technology.

So, as I sift through my latest batch of CVs, I’m not just looking for a great eye for design, but the wider research, synthesis, communication and facilitation skills that will enable project teams at TH_NK to be ever more successful. And if we all work together and learn from one another, we can take our industry to the next level.

This article by Lee featured in .net on 10th August 2011


After much talking about the idea, i’ve finally took the plunge to start writing and share my ideas around topics such as Service Design, User Experience and Innovation.

I’m particularly focused on the the organisation and teams behind the experience that they create with their services and products. I’m always looking at ways to improve the communication, and collaboration of a team, to ensure they deliver the best possible outcome and in the best possible environment.

I also love to think about the future and how it affects how we work today. So expect a mesh, and likely more, of these areas of interest.