Today, online shopping is a cold experience filled with sterile UI. You add something to a “shopping cart” that’s really just a list of stuff. You enter your credit card and shipping information into a bunch of boxes. You agree to pay. Anything that felt novel or personal about the shopping experience disappears by the time you check out. And if you need to return something, things only get worse.
But at Facebook’s annual F8 conference, the social networking giant revealed a new, more personal approach to online shopping called Businesses on Messenger. Basically, your interactions with a company following the first sale becomes a slow-burn SMS chat with the business itself. You know how you can “like” something on a news site, and have it show up in your Facebook feed? Well, Businesses on Messenger allows you to opt in when checking out on a purchase, then turn that shopping experience into a Facebook Messenger conversation with the business.
Merchants can use the app to immediately send you a receipt, and message you again when your item has been shipped, complete with tracking information. If there’s a problem with your order, you can continue the existing convo rather than dig through customer support on the company’s site. And if you, say, really like a shirt you bought and wanted it in some other color, you could buy it with a single conversational request. There’s no need to go through the checkout process again. You’re now chatting with a personal shopper.
From the standpoint of UI, there’s no question that this sort of shopping experience could eliminate many of the pain points that come with certain facets of online shopping. But it will come with a tradeoff. In getting better access to these businesses, the businesses appear to be getting access to you. Unless there is some contingency that we missed during the F8 presentation, there’s no reason that the business couldn’t casually text you when there’s a sale, or when some new, potentially flattering wardrobe comes in. The messages are a two-way street, with an intimate half-step more access to our daily lives than fliers that might come to our home, emails that arrive in our inbox, or even the calls that come to our phones. Think about it: Some of us screen our calls. Nobody screens a text.
Furthermore, while the text-based UI itself is appealing, it’s not in itself a solution to the lousy customer service that a lot of online retailers have. Just like you might call a help line with your order number and get nowhere, you could use Businesses on Messenger to have a completely infuriating time sink of a conversation with an ESL customer service representative who doesn’t care about you or that other color of shirt you want. (Though, as artificial intelligence gets better at processing our natural language, you could imagine Facebook and its retailers cutting the human out of this equation entirely.)
For now, Facebook is relying on Zendesk–a company that handles customer service requests as its bread and butter–to juggle some of these logistics and ensure quality. They’ve also soft-launched with only two retail partners to start, Zulily and Everlane. Other businesses can sign up here for the future rollout.
Both Google and Path have experimented with their customers’ texting businesses, but Facebook Messenger’s 600-million-person install base has the sort of scale to make the idea very big, very fast. It’s enticing to imagine a day when I can text Amazon, “Send me four of the cheapest, best-rated 60W light bulbs you’ve got.” Here’s hoping we can trust businesses to honor our wishes, and let us dictate the conversation on our terms.