UX Design
< 5 minute read

Machine Language – A Guide to Chatbot Terminology (with Infographic)

Micah helps businesses craft meaningful connections through branding, illustration, and design.

In the glory days of AOL Instant Messenger, back when screen names and away messages were serious literary pursuits, a mysterious chat maverick strode about the dial-up frontier and schooled legions of uncouth adolescents in the art of conversation. Who was this rogue wordsmith, this tireless vexer of pre-teen millennials? Surely no mortal could generate replies with such speed, charm, and unflinching certainty. Turns out it was a bot, an artificial chat companion named SmarterChild, and it was sublime.

No matter the topic, intensity, or logic of conversational challengers, SmarterChild always had the final word. Backed into a corner, it would offer updates on news, weather, and movies. An object of ridicule, it would lecture offenders on the importance of good manners. Best of all, SmarterChild was always up for discussion and eager to offer the most earnest replies its programming would allow.

Chatbot terminology
No amount of pre-teen nonsense could derail SmarterChild from its commitment to the weather.

That was the early 2000s. Not long after, Facebook poked the world, AIM experienced mass exodus, and SmarterChild embarked on an extended sojourn after its parent company was acquired by Microsoft. Chatbots were largely forgotten, but in the years that followed, while we were still learning to tap, swipe, and scroll with our thumbs, it’s rumored that SmarterChild ignited an AI revival in the wilderness. Whatever the truth, we’ve come full circle, and chatbots have once again staked claim to our shriveling attention spans. Unfortunately, we still don’t know what to make of them.

The specter of SmarterChild is strong with us. We expect bots to be buds, only to discover a throng of duds. The way that companies have marketed bots hasn’t helped. We’ve been promised companions, assistants, and friends, but those are human roles. Chatbots have unique abilities that humans don’t. When we regard them as non-human tools, they provide business opportunities that humans can’t. Unfortunately, there’s much confusion about their capabilities. Even more so when it comes to their underlying technology.

Chatbot infographic
These bots create conversational dead-ends with replies that are either vague, impractical, or downright nonsensical. (Image by Chatbots Magazine)

Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Natural Language Understanding are significant conceptual roadblocks for most. On the one hand, computers are quite skilled when it comes to detecting human speech, recognizing patterns in conversation, and turning text into speech. This is Natural Language Processing.

On the other hand, computers are unsophisticated distinguishers of intent, especially where ambiguity, a constant of human communication, is at play. This is Natural Language Understanding. Bots talk a good game but understand very little when meaning or speech habits fall outside their programming. As a result, opinions about chatbots tend to be dogmatic.

Chatbot vocabulary

At one end of the spectrum exist the doomsayers, the conspiratorialists that believe chatbots are becoming more human than their creators, and it’s only a matter of time before WE’RE answering inane questions for THEM. At the other end, we have the AI evangelists, who pine for a day when bots overtake every task that humans find undesirable, all to the tune of ever-increasing profits.

There’s ample misinformation, but we aim to cut through the exaggeration and break things down nice n’ simple. This infographic is nothing but straight talk—the most important chatbot concepts that anyone needs to know in order to have an expert-level conversation.

Chatbot application

• • •

Further reading on the Toptal Design Blog:

Understanding the basics

What is a chatbot and how does it work?

Chatbot terminology causes confusion. Chatbots are computer programs that respond to human messages. They are designed one of two ways: The first is based on rules that dictate the bot’s replies to specific commands. The second is with AI, where the goal is to comprehend the nuances of human language.

What are chatbots good for?

Some chatbots are designed to carry on casual conversations. Others act as customer service reps, providing deals, booking dates, and product support. There are also “digital assistants” that can do everything listed above while providing hundreds of extra features, like banking, home security, and traffic advice.

What are the types of chatbots?

There is an array of technology used to design chatbots and chatbot vocabulary, but much discussion centers on chatbot scripts versus artificial intelligence. A chatbot built using a script relies on predetermined responses. Chatbots built using AI are designed to learn the intent of human language.

Why do we need chatbots?

People need chatbots to help with a variety of tasks like getting product recommendations, news updates, and customer service help. Instead of navigating through traditional digital interfaces, users can simply ask the bot a question like, “How much do plane tickets to Miami cost?”

How do chatbots help businesses?

Chatbots help businesses communicate with customers efficiently, often filling customer support roles. Chatbots are also effective eCommerce sales tools as they can offer deals and streamline the purchasing process. Chatbot limitations are real, but they can be a great addition to a company’s customer experience.