When Barbara Ondrisek started out in the software industry more than 15 years ago, she was one of a handful of female developers, apps were not yet invented, and bots were something from a sci-fi film.
In honor of International Women’s Day, we asked Barbara to tell us about how she got in to developing bots. Why? Because when Skype and other tech companies were just getting started in conversational computing, Barbara not only embraced it, she created one of the very first bots for the Skype platform. It’s called Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot and it helps you find hip venues—like restaurants and galleries—wherever you are. Barbara also co-founded Chatbots Agency in Vienna, Austria, and co-organizes the BotBarcamp.wien (a BarCamp about chatbots, bots, AI, and natural language processing).
Barbara: I studied computer science at the University of Technology in Vienna. I’ve just always been fascinated by computers and all the things you can create, and problems you can solve, with technology. I started out building websites and databases, but as mobile began to take over, I naturally moved to apps—and then bots.
Skype: How did you get interested in bots?
Barbara: I love to play around with other technologies and, after Microsoft announced the important role of bots at the Build Developer conference last March, I was eager to get to work! So, I created Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot—one of the very first bots on Skype.
Skype: Why did you choose a cat?
Barbara: First, I love cats. Second, I decided to use a cat as the character to chat with because I think every single cat owner would love to actually talk to their cat! Also, people tend to be uncomfortable when they cannot distinguish whether they are chatting with a person or a computer program. So, I chose Mica as the perfect dialog partner. Plus, she purrs! (Yes, it’s a female cat, despite the moustache!)
Barbara: That’s where it gets very interesting. Only 25% of incoming requests are to discover local venues. The other 75% were chit chat exchanges or sending kitty photos and “meows” back and forth. That was surprising. People, especially teenagers and seniors, tend to IM with bots more. Studies show that seniors have a tendency to chat with virtual personal assistants when they are lonely; the same happens with bots that are capable of conversation.
Skype: What tips do you have for other bot developers?
Barbara: The personality of a bot is the key to attracting users and keeping them coming back. It’s the secret sauce! Otherwise, you could just use a website, an app, a hotline or widget. People come back because of the entertainment factor.
With Mica, I also learned a lot about user experience design. It is a much more complex process than I thought. First, you have to work within the framework of the service (Skype, in this case) and, because the graphical user interface (GUI, or the text-based chat back and forth with the bot) is limited, all the functionality must be built into—and conveyed through—conversation.
Barbara: It will be great when basic bot standards are established, and users have a vocabulary they can use with every bot to make communication even more natural. Right now, most bots understand “hi,” “start” and “help.” Users try different combinations or commands to see what a bot understands, and where its capabilities and limitations lie. That’s all to be expected with a new technology and early adopters enjoy experimenting.
I’m looking forward to evolving Mica, the Hipster Cat Bot and follow the Bot Framework Blog for the latest developments. Keep them coming!
We love to learn how developers are building for the Skype platform. If you know of someone doing amazing things with our technology, tag us @Skype in social media.
And in honor of International Women’s Day, and as you celebrate all the awesome women in your lives, why not share our Power Women Mojis over Skype!