You've heard about this chatbot trend and thought 'wow, I need to get in on this'.
You open your Mac at the speed of sound, ignore the 37 pending emails (one day inbox zero, one day), and fire off Google.
"Chatbot builder", you type.
Boom, options. Left, right, and centre you are presented with free building apps. These apps will let you build amazing bots by drag and dropping beautifully designed little squares.
But wait. Should you do it? Should you actually develop a chatbot for your business or company using a free builder from the web?
As a leading chatbot development company, you can image we have a pretty strong stance on this topic.
In this article, I want to go over eight reasons not to use free/DIY chatbot builders. I will also share a few situations when they could potentially come in handy.
1. A DIY chatbot builder limits your optionsMost of the people I speak with are marketers or people close to the marketing department of the company they work for. These guys don't mess around - they have ideas out the wazoo.
The beauty of building custom chatbots with ubisend is we virtually have no limits in what we can achieve for our clients. When they come up with crazy ideas, we say bring it - and just do it.
The issue you will run into when using a DIY chatbot builder, particularly as a marketer or a creative person, is being limited in the things you can do. You essentially rely on the functionalities the platform gives you access to - that's it!
Your chatbot needs a HubSpot integration that stores the leads coming through your Telegram bot? Not possible.
Your chatbot needs to ubiquitously work across multiple channels at the same time? I'm afraid not.
Your chatbot needs intense and automated AI training? Not a chance.
2. Limited artificial intelligence functionalitiesOne of the best and most fun aspects of the chatbot trend is the artificial intelligence (AI).
Having a program interact with its human users and recognise what they are saying is amazing, and it is a big part of the experience of using a chatbot.
Although I recognise the extreme usefulness of flow-driven chatbots, I still believe 'real' chatbots should have at least some degree of AI integrated.
The issue with DIY chatbot platforms is the limitation in the complexity of AI offered. If you try to build a bot with any significant artificial intelligence using one of the free platforms, you will very quickly run into a wall.
There is a very simple reason for this limitation. Artificial intelligence is complex (extremely complex). Building a chatbot that learns is hard (extremely hard). Offering this sort of service for free is, at the moment of writing this article, simply impossible.
3. Lack of meaningful support and guidance
This is always the issue when using free products or free platform. Getting helpful and timely support from the team behind a free product is often a nightmare, if not impossible, and free chatbot building platforms are no exception.
More important than that, though, is the lack of guidance.
The chatbot industry is still very new. If you are new to this world, you most likely have no clue as to what is possible, impossible, hard to do but could be done with a little bit of extra work, and so on.
Although the communities around the free platforms are growing, they often lack the professional insights of having built their share of custom chatbots for enterprise-level clients.
If you were to seek guidance about a specific project you have in mind, you would be hard pressed to find someone with the depth of knowledge and experience to help you in any meaningful way.
4. No access to your chatbot's source code
We are going a bit technical at this point, but it is very important.
Using a third-party platform to build your chatbot means you will never have access to the source code of what you are building. It's like building a WordPress website, but worse - at least you have access to the WordPress files.
Now, this may or may not mean anything to you. You could very well think 'this is fine, what would I do with a bunch of crazy lines of code, I'm not a developer, I just need it to work'.
Sure, but not having access to your code means more than that.
It means you have no ownership of your chatbot. It means you have no way of editing it freely (i.e. beyond the functionalities offered by the platform you are using). It means you cannot take it away to another platform, you would have to start from scratch. It means you have actually no idea how the data going in and out of your bot is being treated.
That is a lot of unknowns.
5. Editing your work is a struggle
We touched on this slightly in the previous section, I believe it is important to go deeper.
Building a chatbot, even with drag and drop blocks of functionalities, is no easy task. You are bound to make a mistake at one point or another, and that's fine - these things happen.
The issue, however, comes when you try to fix these mistakes. Most of the time it is really hard to fix your mistakes without breaking the whole thing you've just spent 30 hours building.
There are multiple reasons for that.
The first one is simple: you are not a professional chatbot developer. You have most likely made a rookie mistake somewhere which snowballed across your entire build. Yikes.
The second is the limited editing functionalities of the building app you've chosen. Some of them really don't make it easy to edit your work. They are not made to build complex (or even slightly advanced) chatbots, and therefore whenever you try to go back and change something they simply break. Double-yikes.
The third is, once again, due to the lack of source code access. If you had access to the source code of your bot, there is a chance you could easily edit a function here or there (if you know what you're doing) or commission someone to look at it and fix it for you without having to rebuild the whole thing.
6. They own your data. All of it.
There is no easy way to say this: whatever you build using a free DIY chatbot builder is theirs. You have zero control of what they will do with your personal data (as the builder) nor your users' data.
This includes the usual suspects (first name, last name, email address, Facebook profile picture, etc.) and most likely much more than that. The truth is most free chatbot builders are not explicit about the data they collect from you and your chatbot's users.
Going through a free builder, you knowingly share your personal information but also knowingly agree for the platform to collect information on your chatbot's users - which they may not have agreed with had they known.
Finally, even if you were to get approval from each and every one of your chatbot users, there is no easy way for you to export all the data you collect through your chatbot.
Say you were building a recipe chatbot that collects its users' favourite ingredients and flings back a neat recipe for them to try at home. Your chatbot takes off and you'd like to export all the information (user name and the corresponding favourite ingredients) for external use.
Nope. No chance.
7. What happens when the platform goes down?
Using a third-party platform is relying on their uptime, and not having a say.
As a chatbot building company, we have extremely tight service-level agreements. We commit to maximal uptime with our customers. Not only that, we also commit to a compensation should we fail to keep our promise (which, FYI, has never happened).
What about a free chatbot builder? They most likely have some sort of uptime promise, but nothing concrete. Even if they did, you would definitely not get compensated should they ever go down for three hours because George in accounting tripped on a wire and turned the whole thing off.
Building a chatbot for a business on a free platform and blindly relying on them to keep their service up and running at all time is a risk.
8. What if the platform really goes down?
Ok, so, we've just talked about your chatbot platform going down for a few hours (damn it, George). You've lost uptime, you've upset a few users, you've confused some others.
Now for the apocalyptic finale: the platform you built your precious chatbot on goes down. Completely. Hasta la vista, baby.
This is pretty much an accumulation of all the issues we've just talked about. If the platform completely shuts down, you lose:
- a functioning chatbot.
- each and every part of your chatbot's code.
- all the data you have gathered on your users.
- any sort of eventual compensation on down time.
- all the precious time you spent on this project.
- at least a few hairs from angrily tearing them out.
It is the ultimate risk.
As the platform goes down (or shuts down your chatbot for some reason. Oh yeah, I didn't touch on that point. They can shut you down whenever they please, without warning, for whatever reason. Scary, isn't it?), you lose everything you have been working on.
Is a free chatbot builder good for anything?
Alright, I have just spent a lot of time and keyboard strokes bashing on DIY chatbot platforms. I want you to be aware of the risks you put yourself, your users, and your company in when using these services.
Does that mean they are completely bad and should be avoided at all cost? No, not necessarily. I do believe they should be avoided if you are building a chatbot you truly intend on releasing, using, and marketing.
Free chatbot builders can, however, be good for:
Chatbots are fun. Building chatbots for free can be a tonne of fun. You could spin up a quick Facebook page, open a free builder, and create the silliest chatbot for you and your friends.
These platforms can help you discover the new and exciting world of conversational automation. Now that you have read this article, you are also aware of the data concerns so as long as you are happy with that, go for it!
Testing the waters
Every idea needs testing, even chatbot ideas.
A free platform can help you build a somewhat functioning prototype of your idea before you commit to building (or commissioning the build of) a proper chatbot.
If this is what you end up doing, make sure you
1. Alert all your users about the data and privacy policies of the platform you've used to build the chatbot.
2. Manually gather every data point you really want to keep once your test is over.
Remember, it is virtually impossible to export a chatbot (or any of its data) from one of these DIY platforms, so you will have to do that manually.
As you can see, DIY platforms bring a lot of issues and uncertainties. This is why we believe in building custom chatbots and retaining full control of our work is of the utmost importance for ourselves and for our clients.
Although these builders can be used for fun or limited testing, I hope the eight reasons listed above have dissuaded you to embark on using a free chatbot builder for anything professional or work related.