This tool will help you build a chatbot

This week's tool takes a step into the future, as our colleague Nick Saffan shares the bot-building tool he learned how to use at the Online News Association conference last week and the two bots he has already built with it.

Hare: Hey, Ren! 

LaForme: Hey, Kristen! Welcome back from ONA. I might be saying this too soon, but I actually didn’t catch the conference funk this time. Did you pick up anything?

Hare: Only various and sundry things to drink from: A cool water bottle, a shot glass and, my favorite, a copper mug. The people behind the swag know our tribe well. So what are we talking about today?

LaForme: There were so many great tools at ONA that I can’t wait to share, but I’m going to do that in a separate post. I totally missed out on one of the big trends from this year’s conference: bots. But, luckily, our colleague Nick Saffan did not. I think we should bring him in to hear more about bots and how to build them.

Hare: Yes! Cue the special guest music. Hi, Nick!

Saffan: Hey, everyone!

Hare: Welcome! So you got to build a bot at ONA? I’m picturing you in a workshop with springs and bolts and stuff, but that’s totally wrong, isn’t it? Tell us more.

Saffan: So basically we all sat in a circle and talked to ourselves. We used a piece of software called Dexter that allows us to create a script of sorts that has triggered responses based on keywords or phrases. My first bot creates different versions of the Bob’s Burgers menu gag based on how you talk to it.

LaForme: Nick, did you know anything about coding or bots going into this? Or did you get the sense that you don’t need special knowledge to make a bot with Dexter?

Saffan: I know a little coding. But the best part about Dexter is that it’s done entirely with simple language! You can make a basic bot with no coding required.

LaForme: I’d ask you what Bob’s Burgers is next but I don’t think that’s relevant to the conversation. But tell us about what your bot does and how it works. Do users have to type in a specific phrase for a response? Are there instructions somewhere? 

Hare: I’ve actually heard of Bob’s Burgers! It’s a show. But yes, start at the beginning. How does this work?

Saffan: When I built the bot I tried to anticipate the questions that someone would ask if they didn’t know anything about Bob’s Burgers or how bots work. So saying hi/hey/hello will trigger an introduction from the bot and asking for help will lead to it trying to give you prompts on things it can answer. 

So the way Dexter understands conversations is through + and -. Pluses are questions that you are expecting users to ask. Minuses are how you want the bot to respond. You can have as many different responses as you want for each question, but for efficiency it’s probably best to limit the number of different ways questions can be asked.

Hare: This is really interesting. How do you see journalists and newsrooms using this?

LaForme: Obviously by translating all of their content through the lens of Bob from Bob’s Burgers (is there someone named Bob on Bob’s Burgers? I assume so).

Saffan: Well there have been a few studies showing how people are more trustworthy when told news conversationally. Also, the ability to wire something like this up to voice assistants like Google and Alexa is pretty interesting. You could be like, “Alexa can you read me Ren’s newsletter this week?” Having the ability to track the questions your audience asks about your story could be useful.

LaForme: Is that all stuff you can do right through Dexter? I’d love to hear more about the tool itself. We know it’s easy to use, but is it free? How do you get your bot from Dexter to something like Facebook Messenger? 

Saffan: Yes. Dexter is free to use until you get over 100 unique monthly users. The sample bots and tutorials were extremely helpful! I was able to get my first bot running and connected to Facebook in about an hour. Connecting with Facebook was a little more intensive (you need to check a box to become a Facebook developer) but they have an extremely easy-to-follow tutorial that walks you through the steps for Slack, Facebook, SMS and Twitter.

Hare: Can we see this bot somewhere?

Saffan: Absolutely! You can chat with my new bot Nelson at (727) 312-0773. Text him hello to get started! 

Hare: Awesome. We’ll mess around with it and if you do, let Nick know what you think! 

LaForme: I’m going to go build a snarky news bot. It’s not going to be friendly. 

Editor's note: This is the latest in a series of articles that highlight digital tools for journalists. You can read the others here. Got a tool we should talk about? Let Ren know!

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