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How Texting With Chatbots Creates A Better UX Than Apps

Cloe, Digit, and a coming generation of service apps are gunning for your Notification screen–and dodging the App Store.

If there are two things I’m terrible at—and I’m keenly aware that the real list is long enough to fill a floor-length scroll—they are: 1. Saving money, and 2. Picking a restaurant or bar. If the two character deficiencies are somehow related, I’m not sure I want to know that.

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Thankfully, my woes have gotten significantly easier in recent weeks as I find myself nearly every day using Digit and Cloe. What makes them interesting is that they’re not “apps” as you might know them. They don’t have pretty round-cornered icons for you to poke at when you want to open them. And they aren’t enormous timesucks like Instagram or Twitter that drag you into the scrolly murk. Instead, you interact with Digit and Cloe primarily via SMS text message, as if they were a friend. They’re a bit like AOL’s old chatbots retooled for your phone.

In case you haven’t already seen your friends spamming their sign-up links all over Facebook, Digit is a new banking startup that helps users save money. Once you link Digit to your normal checking account, its algorithms will start assessing your daily debits and other transactions. (How much you spend on a Monday versus a Saturday, for example.) After a week or so, it will start making small and hopefully unnoticeable deductions—like “a benevolent thief,” as my colleague Ariel Schwartz wrote—that then get get tucked away in a Digit savings account. You can withdraw the balance any time, and for every friend you sign up, you get $5. Not a bad deal!

Surprisingly, since I started using Digit a little over a month ago, I’ve been able to put away a few hundred dollars with no perceivable changes to my checking balance. Digit works so well because it’s invisible—it’s the perfect, mindless money-saving app for irresponsible spendthrifts like me.

One feature I really like about Digit is that it automatically texts me my checking account balance every morning. This is useful for a couple of reasons. For starters, firing up my normal banking app while I’m still half asleep is jusssst difficult enough that I sometime forget to do it every day. My password string contains letter cases and numbers that require advanced finger gymnastics on my iPhone 5S’s itty-bitty screen. The daily reminder is helpful for making smarter purchasing decisions. Two, using Digit is relatively intuitive. (If you want to see your last three transactions, for example, you text back the word “recent.”) While the chatbot on the other side can sometimes veer a bit too conversational for my taste (when I crossed the $100 savings mark it texted me a GIF of a dancing goose; see below) overall I’m quite pleased with how it’s working out so far.


I asked Ethan Bloch, Digit’s founder and CEO, why he made the decision to go with text messages instead of building an app. “It was super ghetto. I wish I had a great, eloquent reason,” Bloch tells me over the phone. “I don’t. The honest reason is it was easy. It was fast. We didn’t want it to be another notification because we didn’t want to have to build an app; I just really wanted to ask Digit for my balance. Really quickly, we wrote the code and it shifted [to SMS].”

Whereas Digit is helping me save money, Cloe is helping me find fun new ways to spend it. Cloe is another recommendations app that helps you find local businesses to frequent, similar to Yelp or Foursquare. It bills itself as “Siri’s smarter sister” but that analogy is not quite right, mostly because behind the SMS curtain is a thinking, breathing human feeding you answers. It’s more like a concierge than a robot. Your preferences are saved in a database, which helps your Cloe make an educated guess about where you might want to go.

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Although it’s only available in New York and San Francisco for now (using Cloe requires obtaining a “secret” phone number, because exclusivity!) it’s powerful. It makes a strong case for contextualization as the Next Big Thing in the recommendations space. Whereas Yelp can lead to bad haikus and decision fatigue, and Foursquare needs your Swarm check-ins to make educated guesses about what kinds of places you like to haunt, Cloe will simply feed you a recommendation or two when you ask it a question. It’s conversational and easy—even if it isn’t always on the nose.

“How it works is exactly like a friend,” Cloe co-founder Chase Hildebrand explains to me during a call. “The more you’re communicating with her, the more she’s going to know. It’s like, Hey! I know you don’t really prefer the fancy grilled cheese sandwich on pumpernickel. You prefer more of the American classic throwback that your mom used to make.” Therefore, instead of pointing you to a fancy grilled-cheese food truck, Cloe might point the way to the nearest diner.

One minor complaint is that at times its recommendations can feel basic and predictable, like the NYU junior moving to Williamsburg for the first time:


But what makes Cloe useful is its ability to process multi-layered questions that a single-string Google query might not immediately answer. It’s useful, and better yet, it’s fast. Like Bloch, I asked Hildebrand why he chose to forego an app and instead opted for a text-based user experience. “You don’t have to create logins or usernames,” he said. “I felt it was the preferred way that people communicate. We’re really trying to make it so you can create experiences. It’s not another cumbersome app on your phone.”

As someone who gets sent new apps to try out all the time, the sticking power of both Cloe and Digit stood out to me for a few reasons, and though they serve different audiences, both made me think about the inherent advantages of building a product that is text-message-first. Here’s what I came up with:

1. You don’t have to be constantly rolling out iterative and annoying app updates. Not only does this eliminate fragmentation when a section of your customers don’t regularly update their apps, but there’s no messy UI design to deal with either. As a developer, you can focus your time and energy on tightening the nuts and bolts of the service itself. You can make changes on the fly instead of collecting them all together for a single update.

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2. There’s no need to enter usernames and passwords. If a phone number is the security measure, this solves one of the mobile world’s remaining pain points whenever you need to restart your phone.

3. You don’t have to deal with the App Store or Google Play, flouting any sort of pedantic gatekeeping. As a dev, you interact with your users largely on your terms.

4. You get first dibs on the Notification screen—the phone’s most valuable piece of real estate. The power of glanceable information can’t be stressed enough; it’s perhaps the only reason anyone takes (took?) Yo halfway seriously. Being one of the first things someone sees on their phone is an enormous advantage if you want to keep users returning to you, again and again and again. (See also: Poncho.)

There are potential drawbacks for companies looking to occupy this space, particularly in terms of developing a business model. Or, you know, making money. While Digit relies on accrued interest for revenue, Hildebrand was cagey about how Cloe might one day monetize. In my opinion, it is difficult to imagine how advertisers would fit into the picture without feeling intrusive. After all, your text-message log is probably the most intimate space on your phone.

Done well, though, texting apps have a lot of utility. “That tiny little experience is the hook that gets people addicted to using Digit,” says Bloch. “We already live in our messaging app. We open that thing up like 28 times a day.”

About the author

Chris is a staff writer at Fast Company, where he covers business and tech. He has also written for The Week, TIME, Men's Journal, The Atlantic, and more.

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