Who Needs an Interface Anyway?

Startups are piggybacking on text messaging to launch services.

Instead of functioning via a standalone app, the money-saving tool Digit uses text messaging to communicate with its customers.

Instead of functioning via a standalone app, the money-saving tool Digit uses text messaging to communicate with its customers.

Source: Hello Digit, Inc.

In his rush to get his latest startup off the ground, Ethan Bloch didn’t want to waste time designing a smartphone app. He thought people would appreciate the convenience of not having to download an app and then open it every time they wanted to use Digit, a tool that promotes savings. Introduced in February, it relies on text messaging to communicate with users. To sign up for the service, users go to Digit’s website and key in their cell number and checking account number. The software analyzes spending patterns and automatically sets money aside in a savings account. To see how much you’ve socked away, text “tell me my balance.” Key in “save more,” and Digit will do as you command. “A lot of the benefit of Digit takes place in the background. You don’t need to do anything,” says Bloch.

Conventional wisdom holds that intricately designed mobile apps are an essential part of most new consumer technology services. But there are signs people are getting apped out. While the amount of time U.S. smartphone users spend with apps continues to increase, the number of apps the average person uses has stayed pretty much flat for the last two years, according to a report Nielsen published in June. Some 200 apps account for more than 70 percent of total usage.

Golden Krishna, then a designer at Cooper, a San Francisco consulting firm that helps businesses create user experiences, anticipated the onset of app fatigue. In a 2012 blog post, “The best interface is no interface,” he argued that digital technology should strive to be invisible. It sparked a wide-ranging debate, and Krishna has spent the past several years making speeches, promoting a book with the same title as his essay, and doing consulting work for Silicon Valley companies.

Source: Hello Digit, Inc.

Startups have picked up on his ideas. Product Hunt, a popular website where people post ideas for new tech services, recently compiled a list of more than 40 “apps without an interface,” most of which use text messaging to do things like schedule meetings, sell T-shirts, or process restaurant delivery orders.

In August, Facebook introduced M, a digital personal assistant built into its messaging service that allows people to text requests for a dinner reservation or for the perfect baby gift. The service, which is being tested by a small number of users in California, hints at Facebook’s ambitions to transform its own messaging app into a kind of proprietary Internet where people spend all their time instead of bouncing around among different apps. The social media giant appears to be emulating China’s WeChat, which has embedded a broad range of services into its mobile messaging product.

Text messaging services can feel particularly intimate because they talk like humans. Digit users who type “thank you” after the software executes a command instantly get a “you’re welcome.” The barriers to using a new service are also lower, because there’s nothing to download. In a February blog post, Jonathan Libov, an analyst at venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, recounts standing at a New York City bus stop and having another passenger tell him about Bus Time, which lets people text the Metropolitan Transit Authority to find out how long they’ll have to wait for the next bus. His first thought: “Thank God I don’t need to download another f---ing app for this.”

The simplicity of text-based services often obscures deep complexity. Most companies still struggle with what’s known as natural language processing, so what may appear to be impressive feats of automation are actually being done by old-fashioned humans. Facebook’s M service uses artificial intelligence to field requests, but people perform the actual tasks. Magic, a text-based concierge service that inspired excitement in startup circles when it was introduced earlier this year, does the same.

Ryan Hoover, founder of Product Hunt, salutes this hybrid approach as a way for startups to gauge demand for their product before building all the requisite technology. “It’s a really good idea for entrepreneurs,” he says.

But manpower is expensive, and startups that think they’ll be able to figure out how to get machines to act like people are setting themselves up for disappointment, argues Libov. “Natural language processing and artificial intelligence have seemingly been right around the corner for decades now,” he says.

Digit has succeeded in automating most of its service by limiting its menu of actions. Bloch says he’s built in some features to make his bots seem more personable, replying to certain messages with jokey references to, say, Outkast lyrics. His service now has tens of thousands of users who pay no fees. (Digit makes money by taking a cut of the interest on its members’ bank deposits.)

Despite his initial resistance to building an app, Bloch has come around to the idea, mostly because he doesn’t want to miss out on the marketing opportunity of having his product on display at app stores. His developers hope to get Digit into the Apple’s App Store within the next six months. Says Bloch: “We know that growth is above and beyond our expectations without an app, so we wonder what growth would be with an app.”

The bottom line: Because of consumers’ app fatigue, many new tech services rely on texting to interact with users.

(Clarifies that Golden Krishna is no longer an employee at Cooper in the third paragraph.)

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