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Chatbots: The Medium Impacts the Message

The Medium of Choice Determines the Presentation of the Message

Cobus Greyling
8 min readAug 28, 2019


I listen to most podcasts available on the topic of Chatbots. One discussion which often surfaces is the way in which the conversation should be presented to the user.

The discussion always pivots on the argument of how natural the conversation should be, and to what extend graphic aids should be introduced. Should we fully rely on NLU or use buttons, quick replies, menus and the like. But…

All of these discussions omit one major aspect: the medium!

When designing, forget about the chatbot as such and focus on the message you want to convey and the mediums available.


The mediums of our time are perhaps more powerful and impactful than any of the mediums of days gone by. Our patterns of social interdependence and the intimate aspects of our personal life are being impacted by the mediums of our age. The messages and the thoughts we exchange are very much still the same. We still signal wealth, health, virtue and so on…but the mediums at our disposal are at the same time powerful outwardly and all-consuming inwardly.

We are more vulnerable to the nature of the media by which we communicate than the content and the meaning of the message. With this, our behavior. publicly and privately. is influenced.

We are more susceptible to be changed by experience and less by understanding.

One could argue the experience is the medium and the understanding is the message.

Daily engagement rate of selected mobile social media apps among Android users in the United States as of August 2019

We simultaneously have a claim to know everything, but still insist on our privacy. We want to defer decisions and have data surface based on intelligence gleaned from our behavior. Again, while still insisting on privacy.

The mediums of our day have negated the concepts of time and space which have been with us for generations. Instantly and continuously we are drowned with concerns of things not remotely related to us or affecting us.

Traditional conversations and voice are ephemeral, evaporating into the atmosphere. Printed media was hard to discover and access. All subject to space and time. Our mediums overruled these notion; space collapsed, time became a line to scroll back and forth on.

We can’t anymore go home and leave the world behind. We don’t want to.

The mediums have extended their tentacles into hour homes, bedrooms, bathrooms, cars…and the message follows in tow. Everything does not have its place and time anymore.

Electric Mediums use to be synchronous; the television, the radio, telephone, conversations.

This notion of new mediums force us into a multi-threaded asynchronous lifestyle were we as the masters feel obliged to service our mediums with our attention. We are converting our attention into multiple threaded, asynchronously streams servicing our mediums.

This is the reason why our mediums are detrimental to our relationships with humans on a physical level, which is single thread synchronous. We choose our mediums over humans; above each other.

All media are extensions of some human cognitive faculty. Mediums are living in our environments, one could say as living services. Not only dependent on our cognition to engage them, but also via ambient orchestration.

As Marshall McLuhan stated in 1964:

…the wheel is an extension of the foot...
…the book is an extension of the eye…
…clothing is an extension of the skin...

And…electric circuitry is an extension of the central nervous system.

Our mediums are alerting and informing our environments. The mobile phone is the remote control of our lives. An extension of our digital world. Chat, messaging, digital conversations become an extension of our relationships. Only an extension, and should not be mistaken as the relationship itself. The extension cannot exist without the point of departure.

Our mediums confers a mythic dimension on us as ordinary individuals. By mythical it is implied exaggerated and idealized.

Our existence (food, clothing, transport, leisure, socializing) becomes augmented and exaggerated through the lens of our mediums. Our experiences seem dull viewed in the light of reality. Hence the necessity for a mythical dimension.

Our technology forces us to live mythically, but we continue to think fragmented, on single separated planes.

Myth demands an audience, and a deep desire to project your environment to this audience. Today, our mediums represent these audiences as followers, likes and shares. Professor McLuhan stated; the environment that man creates becomes his medium of defining his role in it.

AI: 4th Industrial Revolution in Perspective

The fourth industrial revolution can only be truly understood and ramifications projected, through the lens of the previous 3 industrial revolutions.

Without a clear understanding of the previous three industrial revolutions, the fourth cannot be interpreted.

Each of the four industrial revolutions had a catalyst, a key technology activating and enabling the revolution. The technology was key, but eventually became underlying and a mere enabler. Never implemented for its own sake, but used as a catalyst to further the revolution.

Number of artificial intelligence (AI) companies in China in 2018, by province

The First…

The First Industrial Revolution had as its catalyst steam. Industries relied on wind and water power as well as horse and man-power.

The advent of steam engines augmented productivity and technology, and allowed for smaller and better engines. From the high-pressure engine, transport-applications became possible, and steam engines were used in boats, railways, farms and road. Steam engines shows us that changes in industrialization caused changes in many other areas. Steel production soared with the use of steam. Steam was the catalyst; bridges, trade, transport, manufacturing etc. were the result.

The Second…

One of the most influential and far-reaching innovations of the Second Industrial Revolution was the internal combustion engine. Companies do not run around stating, we have internal combustion engines baked in. This is an enabler, which is not even stated. And this enabler created a whole industry and industries around it as concentric circles. We don’t marvel at the internal combustion engine or electricity per say. We use it as tools to create tools, and shape our environments. Electricity is an underlying enabling layer which has become transparent, on which we build.

The Third…

This digital revolution migrated us from mechanical to electronic, from tubes to circuits, from electrical to digital. This marked the beginning of the information age. Often the same message, but via new mediums. Business techniques were transformed, retail. automated teller machines, industrial robots, CGI, video games.

The Fourth…

The sequence of technological revolutions were not over and the emergence of a new universal technology revolution was evident. Decentralized consensus, Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Computing, Robotics and more.

Conversational AI (Natural Language Understanding & Processing) forms a subset of AI. AI is not a means in and of itself. It cannot be considered alone and in isolation. Intrinsically, belonging to itself by its very nature.

Like steam, internal combustion, electricity, digital; AI will become an invisible, matter-of-course, underlying enabling layer for technologies, services and mediums we as yet have to think up.

Share of generational groups who think artificial intelligence will end the world in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2017


Affordance is the environment offered to an user.

The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill. The verb to afford is found in the dictionary, the noun affordance is not. I have made it up. I mean by it something that refers to both the environment and the animal in a way that no existing term does. It implies the complementary of the animal and the environment.

— James J. Gibson

This is Not an Apple, 1964 — Rene Magritte

This is the suitability of the environment to the observer or user, so it depends on the user’s current intentions and capabilities. The notion of intent is crucial to understanding affordance. The same elements in an environment can provide varying affordances to different people.

Humans want to alter and modify their environment, as to change its affordances to better suit them.

In User Interfaces, the interface should have awareness and present each user with suitable and desirable affordances.

By learning the affordances of any medium which is publicly available to all, we enter into a shared practice of society. Affordances are also referred to as action possibilities. Natural Language Understanding interfaces do not have clear action possibilities. The user’s physical capabilities are not isolated, but added to this are goals, beliefs, expectation and past experiences.

WhatsApp with minimal Affordances

Any system has action possibilities, which needs to be discovered in a way. False affordance is an apparent affordance with no effect. Also, think of this as an falsely perceived affordance. Resulting in a negative user experience.

A hidden affordance can lead to surprise and delight, a process of discovery on the user’s side.

Different mediums yield different affordances. For each medium, the affordance granted by that particular medium needs to be leveraged.

Back to the Medium

When working through design considerations of any chatbot, it cannot be done in isolation without considering the medium which will be used to propagate the interface and extent it to users.

Messenger Rich with Affordances

The medium impacts the message, and in some instances the medium is the message. The underlying NLU/NLP/Dialog Flow may remain the same, but the user affordances will vary greatly based on the medium.

Should a medium be used with basic and scant affordances, the design is more reliant on structuring the user’s unstructured natural language. This instance will see a pure NLU approach; or very close to it. When a medium like WhatsApp is used, the affordances are much more that SMS/text. And again, when Facebook Messenger is the medium of choice, a vast array of affordances are available and the medium changes the messages dramatically.



Cobus Greyling

I explore and write about all things at the intersection of AI & language; LLMs/NLP/NLU, Chat/Voicebots, CCAI.