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“In Tech, You Need to Be Comfortable with the Uncertain”



Founder and CEO of VERSA Kath Blackham talks LBB through the inspiring potential of conversational AI, the value of an open mind in tech and why living in England sparked a lifelong love of crisp sandwiches…

“In Tech, You Need to Be Comfortable with the Uncertain”

Adobe XD is a proud supporter of LBB. Over the upcoming months, as part of the sponsorship of the Digital Craft content channel, we will be spending time with some of the most innovative and creative minds in the industry. 

Today we’re chatting with Kath Blackham, founder and CEO of VERSA, Australia’s first conversational agency. Kath’s role puts her at the forefront of AI, a technology which has been driving dramatic change in the industry - and indeed the world. Here, Kath reflects on how far the tech has come, her advice for companies looking to adopt AI, and why she’ll never stop loving what she does.

LBB > First things first, what is Conversational AI?

Kath Blackham > I define it as any interaction that people are having with a machine. So a really good standard example of conversational AI is Amazon Alexa. But it also encompasses chatbots on websites, or on phone calls. Anything where you’re talking to a computer.  

More recently, there's been a move towards ‘digital people’. These are kind of renders of humans that look very human-like, and that are able to show empathy. So they’ll do things like bury their brow when you say, for example, “I'm super unhappy about this”. Essentially, it’s about trying to emulate human conversations and show a bit more empathy than, say, a bot does when you're just typing into it. 

And I suppose the ultimate aim of this is to help augment humans in lots of different ways. I was just on a call today with Google, and they believe that conversational AI will be embedded into pretty much every mobile app that we have going forward. It’s easy to see why - technology always evolves along the lines of what’s easiest to use. Why wouldn't you build experiences where you can just, instead of having to push buttons, simply speak? 

LBB > Do you see Conversational AI as a natural starting point on the customer journey? If so, why?

Kath > I absolutely do. So if you think about a website, you’d probably imagine a homepage with lots of different drop-down menus with subcategories and basically a fair bit of information that a customer would need to sift through in order to get to what they came for in the first place. 

With conversational AI, you can replace all of that very simply with a question that pops up and asks ‘hello, how can I help you today?’. You’ll then use your own words to explain why you’re visiting the site, and the AI can deliver you the content you need based on that. So instead of digging through menus and subcategories you can just receive the information you came for within the first few seconds of being on the site. 

LBB > And so what are the advantages from a businesses’ perspective of having a Conversational AI as a ‘front-of-house’, as it were?

Kath > Yeah, good question. So beyond the obvious points about simplifying your customers’ experience, there’s a point here about SEO. 

One of the key advantages in all this comes from the fact that Google judges you based on all the content you have on your site - because it’s all about keywords and making sure your site has those keywords. If you have a bot that is on your site and taking users to very specific pages based on questions they ask, you can have thousands of pages that go into clear details about what the user needs, without those pages ever cluttering your homepage or navigation bars. 

A problem that web pages have right now is that they often throw up very general answers to quite specific questions. I’ll give you an example - let’s imagine you’ve seen me speaking at a conference and you want to book me to speak at another conference. Right now you’d have to go to my company’s site, and look under a section called ‘Our Team’ and eventually it will be there. So the user has to make that connection, and that’s no guarantee. With conversational AI, the tech can do all the work.

LBB > There’s an element of trust here, though - how can businesses be confident in AI to do this job and be the first impression a customer might have with their brand?

Kath > That’s the killer question. And when it comes to integrating AI into your business, you do need to make sure you’re buying quality. Bots can get a bad name, and understandably so - when AI gets it wrong the results can be embarrassing, comedic, or even a bit creepy. 

So it isn’t just a case of saying “I want an AI” and it being ready to go immediately, it needs to be bespoke to your business. Your AI needs to be the biggest expert on your company. 

Over time, an AI is very good at becoming this. Because if customers are asking your AI questions, it can learn what the most frequent issues and inquiries are amongst your audience. But the point is that if you’re going to invest in AI, you need to commit to it. A half-assed or ‘off-the-shelf’ conversational AI will not benefit your business. It’s only by committing and giving the AI the exposure and information it needs that you can build that trust. 

The one piece of advice I always give people who are looking to work with conversational AI - whether that be in bluetooth speakers, in a car, or a website - is that it’s not a ‘build it and we’re done’ kind of thing. You need to constantly be in a process of improving it and helping it to evolve so that it keeps pace with consumer expectations and their experience. 

LBB > Beyond web pages, are there things which Conversational AI is able to do today that haven’t been possible previously?

Kath > I think that’s all about what the machine is capable of understanding. Amazon Alexa talks a fair bit about how we’ve caught up to humans in terms of the voice and conversational tech, apart from the way we use hand gestures and facial expressions as part of our communication. That’s why regularly chatting on Zoom has been tough for some people! 

Those gestures help us to fill gaps in knowledge during conversations, and can provide context. Machines have always struggled with that side of things, but they are getting better. This is a couple of years ago now, but check out Google’s Duplex tech if you haven’t already. That’s AI set up with the goal of replicating human-to-human conversation and I think it’s done a pretty spectacular job. You have a lot of the nuances and little verbal tics in there which you would expect to find if you were simply talking to another person. 

Projects such as Duplex, I think, really hit that point home that this is about so much more than chat bots. We’re working on a project of our own at VERSA right now which is all about helping people to get appointments with their GP. So rather than having to wait what can often be hours to speak to a doctor, there are a lot of functions that sophisticated AI can take care of. It can make, confirm, or change an appointment. It's designed to carry out a lot of that admin stuff which can be a huge help to the surgery itself. I think if you look at where the tech is now with projects like Duplex, it’s easy to see how seamlessly we can integrate these ideas. We’re not talking about something like early-days Siri, where half of all the words you say don’t even get heard properly. It’s come a long way from that. 

LBB > And how do you guys ensure you’re always at the cutting edge of this stuff? 

Kath > Well, in tech I think it’s good practice to be comfortable with the uncertain. It’s good to have your ‘bread and butter’ as it were in terms of the core work you do. But on top of that, you need to make sure that you’re investigating new technologies and ideas as they crop up, seeing how they can change or evolve what’s already at your core. 

For me, that’s one of the joys of the industry. I love the feeling of quicksand under my feet and I need to change quite quickly every day. That probably sounds like a nightmare to most people! But being successful in tech means you have to teach yourself it’s okay going into a new project without being a total expert. You accept your naivety, and harness that to embrace the new. 

LBB > More personally, you started out studying management at Leeds Uni in the UK - what kind of experience does living internationally bring to your work? And did you pick up any distinctly Yorkshire habits or perspectives?

Kath > I definitely picked up some Yorkshire habits - that’s the reason I’m still delighted to eat a crisp sandwich when the opportunity arises! 

On that point about an international perspective, I’ve lived in a fair number of places and taken so much from all of those experiences. Looking back now, I’d say those experiences have combined to give me a good understanding of the need to build digital experiences with true accessibility and inclusion. 

I think you have to travel to really get it into your head that there's other people who don't speak English in this world. Probably my most interesting overseas experience was living in Russia for a year or so, that was a game-changer. It taught me so much about vulnerable parts of society about living on nothing but being happy with that. It kind of changed everything for me.

LBB > Finally, what’s been keeping you inspired and motivated through these recent turbulent times? 

Kath > You know, this probably isn’t the kind of answer you’re looking for here but I have to talk about something that happened quite recently. 

I was speaking to a woman had transformed her company during the pandemic. She runs a communications agency, that has always placed inclusion at the heart of what they do. So during Covid she focused on getting messages through to parts of society who otherwise wouldn’t have got those messages. She employs linguists who target communications - often focused on public health - to parts of society where maybe English isn’t predominantly spoken. And as we know, it’s often those parts of society who are more vulnerable to covid-19. So she translates those messages and uses technology to make sure they get heard by the people who need to hear them. 

Ultimately, that’s why I love doing what I do. It’s about using technology in inspiring ways to improve lives. And the more we succeed in pushing the boundaries of that tech, the more opportunities like this one we’ll create. So it’s easy to be motivated when you see the results of your work helping people right in front of your eyes. 

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Adobe, Fri, 26 Feb 2021 12:22:03 GMT