What is conversation design?

Chatbot example

Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming increasingly more important in our daily lives. It often plays an important role and we even hardly notice it. The ads that we see and the videos we get as suggestions are all powered by AI. On top of that, we humans are also starting to interactively communicate with AI via all kinds of conversational interfaces. Around the world, there are millions of technology-powered conversations taking place every day.

But how do these systems actually understand what you are saying? And how do they know what to respond to? Is it magic? Of course not. As you might have already guessed based on this article’s title, it is the power of conversation design that makes these interactions so pleasant, useful, and meaningful. This article gives you a first introduction to what conversation design is.

Conversation design is the practice of making AI assistants more helpful and natural when they talk to humans. It combines an understanding of technology, psychology, and language to create human-centric experiences for chatbots and voice assistants. Conversation design is a booming field with the current rise of conversational interfaces, which are mainly being pushed by Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Samsung Bixby.

Where conversation design comes from

Chatbots and voice assistants have been here for some time already. There used to be silly chatbots on Facebook Messenger and corporate websites that would have a virtual assistant disappointing you after every question you ask them. But with the rapid advancements in natural language processing – a subset of artificial intelligence – chatbots and voice assistants are now able to provide human-like conversations and real value. Today's chatbots and voice assistants can use this natural language to better understand and process a wider variety of input, therefore allowing users to speak more freely.

Next to the technological advancements, the adoption of voice assistants over the last years has been booming. Worldwide there are already more than 2,5 billion capable voice devices and many households already have a smart speaker. This gives brands the perfect opportunity to always be close to their audience. Once they have developed a voice action for the Google Assistant or a skill for Amazon Alexa, they can always be within reach. That’s why brands are rushing to find their position on these new and exciting conversational interfaces.

So technological advancements helped chatbots and voice assistants to become much more intelligent. We also established that consumers increasingly like to interact with conversational interfaces and brands are eager to exploit this. But how do these brands design the best conversations possible? You guessed it. That’s where conversation design comes in.

Why conversation design is so important

Did you ever want to reach out to a company's customer service via their website instead of their phone number? Chances are, you are forced to talk to their chatbot. It usually starts with a friendly greeting.

quotes-jade-green‘Hi, I’m the customer service bot. How can I help you?’
Well, my tv isn’t working anymore and I’d like to know how that is possible.
‘I’m sorry. I’m afraid I don’t understand. Please try again.’
I’m not getting a signal from my tv. What's wrong with my subscription?
‘You would like to buy a new subscription. Is that correct?’

You start to swear at your screen and have to call their customer support anyway, where 32 people are in line before you. We have all been there. This example shows how a bad conversation design can make an already frustrated customer even angrier. This anger is directly pointed at your brand.

So what makes a chatbot different compared to, for example, a support article? Support articles also carry information that should help the user answer any questions he might have. However, articles are merely presenting the content to the user and are not interacting with them by listening and responding as chatbots do. Their content is static and definite. Chatbots, on the other hand, are interactive and have a much more human way of communicating. They greet, listen, and respond. On top of this, they also often have their own name and avatar. Because of all these human-like characteristics, they are often seen as an actual employee of the company. When reading an article doesn’t provide the user any help, he can get frustrated about the lack of documentation. But when the user is not being helped by a chatbot, he often feels that the company is not helping.

As you can see, the potentials that make chatbots so intelligent, helpful, and effective, also shows the importance of well-thought conversation design.

What makes conversation design so challenging

You might think; why not just create a better chatbot. After all, how hard can it be? People are engaging in conversations every day so imitating them using technology can’t be all that hard. Right? Well, there’s a lot more to it than you might think.

The single most important thing to know about the communication between a chatbot or voice assistant and a human is that they both have a different kind of brain. The chatbot or voice assistant has an artificial brain, whereas we have a human brain. These brains are completely different from one another in the way they process information. The artificial brain needs structured data to function properly, while the human brain needs things like empathy, understanding, compliments and encouragement. So when you want to have a successful interaction between a chatbot and a human, we need to make sure that we give both brains what they need to function. This means we need to design in such a way that we unify technology, psychology and language into one process.

The challenge with conversation design is that it requires both technical and creative skills. That’s why it’s important to have a clear workflow that ensures that both ends of the spectrum are covered properly. This is where the conversation designer comes in. He understands both the artificial and the human brain, and he uses language to make them both function. When this is done well, it will create the type of chatbots and voice assistants that you enjoy talking to.

Currently, most AI assistants fail because the teams have too much focus on technology. They obsess over getting the technology to work and they don’t have the skills yet to think about the user experience. Now that organizations are catching up on this, there is a growing demand for conversation designers.

Wrapping it up

Great advancements in both technology and the adoption of devices that support voice assistants have led to an exponential growth in the deployment and use of AI assistants, like chatbots and voice assistants. Unfortunately, many of these experiences aren’t great yet because they are not very user-friendly and leave the user frustrated and hateful towards the brand.

Luckily, conversation design responds to this challenge by creating a field of expertise that focuses on creating a seamless experience between artificial and human communication. It’s quickly growing and as a community, we are learning new things every day. Want to learn more about the skillset a conversation designer needs?