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Are Digital Assistants and Chatbots the Same Thing?

Erin Ollila
March 11, 2021

3 minute read

When you were last messaging with a brand online, it’s likely you were communicating with some type of AI-influenced computer program, not an actual human. Perhaps you’ve heard of digital assistants, but do you know exactly what they are? Are they the same as chatbots? Here, we’ll explain digital assistants and where you might encounter them.

What are digital assistants?

A digital assistant is a computer program that uses artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning, and natural language processing and understanding to have a conversation with the people who use it. Now this isn’t just any ol’ conversation. Digital assistants can have advanced discussions, usually over the internet, and provide truly personalized experiences.

During the conversation, digital assistants have the ability to pull historical information, such as known demographics, purchasing patterns, or browsing history, to answer the end user’s questions or even share predictions. Some complex digital assistants can even start conversations to provide valuable information and suggestions to the end user.

Are digital assistants and chatbots the same?

Chatbots and digital assistants are similar in a few ways, so it’s easy to see why some people think they’re the same. The most obvious similarity: They’re both computer programs that simulate a conversation with an end user.

You may access a chatbot while connecting with a brand or business for a simplified request. For example, suppose you’re looking to return an item purchased online. In that case, the retailer may employ chatbots to begin the process by asking a series of simple questions and moving you along depending on your answers.

Digital assistants, on the other hand, can be considered advanced chatbots with enhanced capabilities. For example, a digital assistant may process a return but also suggest similar items that may be more to the customer’s liking. To accomplish the return, product recommendations, and purchasing, the digital assistant needs access to multiple sources (browsing history, customer demographics like clothing size, and stored billing information). Ordinary chatbots don’t have this ability.

The many uses of digital assistants

The previous example is just one way consumers can use a digital assistant for customer service, but there are many other ways consumers can use them. For personal use, shoppers can use digital assistants for more complex requests, such as placing a new food order for a favorite meal selection to be delivered at a preferred time and date. Travelers can request seat changes for upcoming flights. There are vast opportunities for advanced digital assistant personal use.

In the professional landscape, contact centers can employ digital assistants to help customers and assist reps in providing a better experience. But digital assistants aren’t just for call centers. Many different types of employers can use them for employee management or employee experience. Digital assistants can help employees manage their benefits, such as checking their paid time off balances and requesting days off without a paper trail or a complicated HR-system. Gartner predicts that digital assistant usage will grow even more over time. They share, “by 2023, 25% of employee interactions with applications will be via voice, up from under 3% in 2019.”

Now, you might be thinking, “Can’t chatbots also be used in call centers or by other types of employers?” Yes! They absolutely can. Chatbots are great for handling simple tasks, and they have their place in both personal and professional use. Digital assistants are just a bit more advanced. For those considering this kind of technology, simply assess your needs and determine the best fit. The possibilities are endless.

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Erin Ollila
Erin Ollila believes in the power of words and how a message can inform – and even transform – its intended audience. After a 12+ year career in human resources, she's jumped headfirst into digital strategy. Erin is a geek for SEO and all things social media.
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