The ‘Botdocumentary’: The Art of Telling the Story Otherwise

What will e-commerce look like ten years from now? That was the starting premise for Arte and the National Film Board (NFB) to create Alfred Premium, a bot that converses with users on Messenger and has them discover the behind-the-scenes workings of online shopping. It’s a new approach that both organizations have adopted to push the boundaries of the interactive genre.

The idea of exploring the maze of digital transactions originally came from Joël Ronez, former head of Arte France’s web division who is today in charge of Binge Audio’s French podcast network.

“The intent was actually to cover the entire buying process, from visiting websites to the user and ad reviews that are presented to consumers with the assistance of algorithms developed by Google, Amazon and Facebook among others,” explains Martin Viau, the NFB’s technical director who also served as this project’s producer.

“We also sought to understand how new technologies affect our lives as consumers and what it will mean in 10 to 15 years from now for a consumer to make fully automated transactions,” adds Marie-Ève Babineau, production manager at the NFB, who began working on the project more than one year ago. “The hypothesis put forward was that, over time, consumers would lose control over their purchases.”

Alfred Premium took close to four years to produce and required the participation of several NFB and Arte creation and production teams. In fact, both organizations have been parties to a coproduction agreement for several years now and alternate their roles when it comes to implementing new projects. “Arte started this project but our respective teams always complete things together as each project advances,” points out Martin Viau.

An atypical format for an atypical process

Although the story could have very well been told in a linear way, the teams at Arte and the NFB instead opted for the chatbot, i.e., a new interactive format that had not been used very often before.

A variety of avenues had been explored during brainstorming sessions to determine the right format, but they all ended up being put aside. That’s the case of one of them which consisted of creating a browser plug-in to guide the user’s buying process from start to finish. “We were somewhat inspired by an existing plug-in for Chrome. When you’re shopping for an item on Amazon, the plug-in redirects you to bricks-and-mortar shops that are located near you and that sell the same item,” he points out.

After having left the idea develop for a few weeks, the teams arrived at the conclusion that the necessity of installing a browser plug-in would probably discourage half of all people from experimenting with it.

That is when the idea of the chatbot became the obvious way to go. Apart from a fictional experience in which users converse with a robot personifying Hemingway on Messenger, the teams had few examples on which to base themselves other than the robots designed for commercial products.

What also set the creation process behind Alfred Premium apart from other productions’ processes are the various trades that were represented at the table during the creative workshops. “These trades often cohabit, but they rarely have the opportunity to create together,” points out Martin Viau. “We learned a lot by working with them.”

That is how a journalist rigorously conducted research to gain more extensive information on each of the six main axes that the NFB and Arte wanted to work on: the digital transaction, the quest for performance, the vortex of user reviews, people’s digital identities, the endless purchase tunnel and the automation of transactions. Data representation specialists as well as user experience and e-commerce experts also contributed to the project.

“Sometimes, the authors themselves lead their projects from A to Z and our contribution consists more of helping them to develop them. But this time around, it was truly a producers’ project. We went out to find the right people to help us talk about it,” explains Marie-Ève Babineau.

Emotions and robots: the anthropomorphism trap

Creating the Messenger robot was a multi-step process that required more than one year’s work.

Pierre Corbinais, a French scriptwriter with experience in video games, wrote the ‘conversational story’ for Alfred Premium. He used an interactive software application to propose a tree-structure scenario.

It operates somewhat like a choose your own adventure story. Thus, an answer to one of the robot’s questions develops other paths, but all of the paths inevitably lead to the same ending.

The scenario was then adapted to different markets. “The Quebec version was written by Catherine Éthier seeing as her style was considered a perfect match with the robot’s humorous tone,” mentions Marie-Ève Babineau. Besides the humorous tone, how can emotions be evoked using a chatbot as if a more linear documentary format was being used?

“That’s somewhat how we fell into the anthropomorphism trap,” explains Martin Viau. “A French video game creator had written an initial version in which the robot had a personality but we were not very comfortable with the idea of going in that direction.”

According to his claim, that was a good decision seeing as most users were emotionally moved if they experimented with Alfred Premium until the end. “They felt not only impatience, but also concern at a given moment when they began to doubt that the robot would actually make a purchase.”

“Have you seen the latest ‘botdoc’?”

Beyond the more atypical creative process, the public discoverability of such a format certainly represented a challenge.

Indeed, how could people be encouraged to live the experience? That is where the linear format came to the rescue. Short videos that were sober and efficient were posted on Facebook to attract attention to the Messenger conversation. Otherwise, the usual channels such as both organizations’ newsletters and respective platforms were used. A website was also created for the sake of accessibility.

Despite all that, the experience ended up producing rather disappointing viewing statistics compared to other successful NFB interactive productions such as Fort McMoney. According to Martin Viau, this situation is attributable to its atypical format.

Indeed, certain visitors did not make it all the way to the end. “It was somewhat difficult to make them understand that they could engage in the experience, pause it when they pleased and resume it when they had more time.”

The NFB believed that the fact of proposing the experience on a platform used by a majority of people would make it more accessible to a broader public. However, they realized that users were not necessarily on Facebook and Messenger to discuss with a service. In France, the public was somewhat more receptive.

Despite the results, the game was worth the effort, he claims, simply in terms of what they learned about using technology to produce documentaries.

“Moreover, it’s one of our interactive studio’s missions with the NFB, to explore new formats and see what we can get out of them,” states Martin Viau.

Alfred Premium continues on Messenger to this day and the results could therefore be different a few months from now.

The team is getting ready to launch a connected speaker version in an attempt to push the experience even further.

Credits: An original idea of Joël Ronez, created in collaboration with Pierre Corbinais and Émilie F. Grenier. Quebec adaptation by Catherine Éthier. An ARTE France and NFB coproduction. See the full credits.

Catherine Martellini
Multi-platform content creator, editor and journalist, Catherine Martellini has collaborated on numerous media and cultural publications. More recently, she has been a special contributor to Le Devoir and Infopresse, a media specializing in communication, marketing, digital and leadership, where she also worked as editor-in-chief.
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