Have you ever wondered how Siri, Google Home, and Alexa know precisely what to say and how to say it? It all starts with conversational design.
Conversational (or conversation) design is the process of planning the dialogue that takes place between a human user and a computer-generated partner. It might happen on a voice-only device like a smart home speaker or various touch-enabled devices like phones, tablets, computers, and smart displays.
Basically, it involves teaching a machine, such as a chatbot or voice assistant, to converse as naturally as possible with a human. This can be a little tricky because computers can’t understand the many non-verbal nuances of human conversation like:
- Eye contact (or lack of it)
- Body language
- Facial expression
- Physical touch
It’s important to consider how these things play into a conversation and how we can accommodate for them when teaching computers how to talk to humans. That’s where the conversational designer comes in.
What are the steps in conversational design?
You should always consider conversational design from the beginning of the design process. The fact is, if the conversation goes south, the user likely won’t try again, so you want to get it right the first time.
Conversational design isn’t a linear process, but a typical design workflow might look something like this:
Before you get started, you’ll need to be clear on your company’s voice and tone, messages, and goals to develop a personality that reflects all of those accurately. You’ll also need to understand your ideal user’s goals and create an audience persona. Consider age, gender, tech-savviness, and other relevant demographics. What are they looking for? What problems are they trying to solve? How can you help them get what they want? The answers to these questions will help you map out the steps they need to follow to achieve their goals.
Once you’ve decided on the project's scope, you’ll determine what topics you’ll cover. Then, before diving into the design, you’ll need to write sample scripts. Take time to read them aloud with others to catch possible errors, missing information, and potential disruptions in the flow. Remember to plan out the different “branches”—i.e., what happens if the user answers one way or another (e.g., yes vs. no, Continue with order vs. Cancel order, etc.).
Test your prototype with actual users throughout the process. Look for signs of confusion or frustration. Pay attention to unexpected human responses or places in the conversation that sound unnatural.
Scale your design to function with multi-modal devices, such as smartphones, tablets, and smart display units, adding visual information to complement the voice conversation. You’ll also craft repair sequences and error messages to address communication breakdowns and try to get the conversation back on track.
Continue user testing after implementation and every time you add new features.
Best practices for conversational design
While conversations should simulate human-to-human interactions, we’re not trying to fool people into believing they are talking to another person. That said, when a conversation is successful, users will get a personalized experience, feel comfortable with the interaction, and achieve their goals.
Moreover, successful conversational design can open your product up in terms of accessibility, making it available to users who otherwise wouldn’t be able to use it, such as people who are blind or have motor impairments that make it difficult for them to type or use a physical device.
There are several ways to ensure a successful conversation experience:
- Always start with voice – Your user may be communicating on a hands-free device like a smart speaker, so begin with this in mind. You’ll be able to add in other elements to accommodate swipes, taps, and clicks later.
- Speak the way humans speak – Responses should be clear and concise, use natural language, and avoid technical jargon. Depending on the brand, humor and slang may be appropriate.
- Apply the cooperative principle – Remember that frictionless, easy communication happens when both sides are willing to be helpful and cooperative.
Consider these examples:
- Do you know where the library is?
- Can you get me a cup of coffee?
In both of these conversations, the asker expects a little more than the responder provides. A well-designed response gives the user what they were looking for or moves the conversation forward.
- Keep track of context – If the conversation becomes ambiguous, knowing the history can help to fill in the blanks.
- Make sure your persona can refer to items it shows the user – If using touch-enabled devices, users might refer to things they see on the screen, such as “the last one” or “the blue one.”
- Mix things up – Vary the language you use for common phrases. For example, use “Good morning” or “Hi there” in different situations.
Who’s responsible for conversational UX?
Conversation designer is a relatively new role in the field of UX design, filled by people of various backgrounds, including linguistics, psychology, speech and language pathology, UX design, and copywriting.
The UX design team may still be responsible for conversation in smaller companies, but larger companies often have a conversational design team. You may also hear different names for the role, including conversational UX designers, voice user interface (VUI) designers, chatbot conversational designers, and chatbot writers.
Conversation designers need to be able to:
- Understand the flow of conversation between two people
- Mediate between user goals and brand goals
- Design predictable conversation models that flow naturally
- Anticipate challenges and communication breakdowns
- Interact with design and development teams
Essentially, a conversational designer’s job is to create an excellent, intuitive conversational experience for the user, whether they’re asking about the weather, ordering a new pair of shoes, or reserving tickets for a show.