What is conversational design? And how can you use it?

16 March 2020 • Digital strategy, UX design

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If asked, most of us would say we have a fairly firm grasp on the definition of design. But what about ‘conversational design’? 

Who exactly is this new kid on the block? What can it do for your business? And most importantly, how can conversational design – or conversation design – make you more profitable?

What exactly is conversation design?

In her recent article ‘What is Conversation Design?’ Margareth Jabczynski offers the following definition:  

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“Conversation Design is a design discipline derived from UX design and copywriting.

“It enables us to use applications and software without the traditional means of a keyboard, mouse and graphical user interface. Instead, we interact by simply using our language. That means while other methods require us to navigate a website or search Google with our hands by typing words or clicking the mouse, with a conversational interface we can just speak.”

Jabczynski goes on to cite the rise of Voice Assistants, for example, Amazon’s Alexa, which you can ask to turn on the lights just by saying ‘Alexa, turn on the lights please.’ And the lights will be switched on.

She points out that this is not in itself a dialogue – more a command that was then actioned. But she continues that industry has observed that language can be employed to allow customers to engage with these products in an increasingly more complex way.

Software can now be configured to respond in written or spoken English, essentially mimicking a natural conversation – or dialogue. 

Jabczynski offers the following example, which cleverly illustrates exactly what a conversational designer does: 

A: Could you please get me a coffee? */ (command from human to human)

B: Yes sure, I can get you a coffee. */ (confirmation of the command)

A: Could you give me money for it? */ (notification of a condition that is a prerequisite to get coffee for A., and request to fulfil the condition)

A: Here it is. 2 Euro should do. */ (completion of a condition)

B: Oh wait, do you want it black or with milk? */ (options on how to fulfil the command)

A: Black like Alice Cooper’s mascara.

Is conversation design the future?

In her article ‘What is Conversation Design, and How to Design Your Chatbot’, Co-Founder and Head of Marketing at Mav, Hilary Black, a self-proclaimed ‘conversation designer’ predicts that “Conversation Designers will be the next wave of jobs in digital marketing.”

See also →  How to harness your existing data to improve your online channels

Emmet Connolly at Intercom agrees, saying “Conversing with a computer has long been a trope of sci-fi, and a goal of many researchers. The reality of how this is actually playing out differs slightly from the predictions of the past. But it has arrived. Conversation has become a user interface.”

How do you design a conversation?

As humans, communicating with each other is instinctive and as technology has developed, so have our expectations about how we use it and what we expect from it.

To replicate this communication convincingly in an interaction between a human and a machine – such as a chat bot – a conversation has to be designed.  

A good conversational designer needs to first understand the topic of the dialogue: is the user looking to reset a password; order a book; switch on a light or set an alarm?

Once this topic has been established, the conversational designer can then map out the various scenarios within the topic, using User Experience or Interaction Design.

So if the topic is switching lights on and off, then the conversational designer must consider multiple scenarios such as switching all lights on (or off); switching only specific lights on (or off); switching lights off in 10 minutes; fading lights up (or down) and so on.

Only then can the designer apply words, as if they are bricks, in order to build up the architecture to the point where it can accommodate all the necessary variables within any given scenario with an agreeable output. 

Consider, for example, the many ways in which just one request might be framed: ‘can you turn on the light?’ ‘Please could you turn on all the lights’ and ‘switch the lights on.’

As an accomplished wordsmith, a good conversational designer needs to skilfully employ UX writing at every turn, in order to seamlessly guide the user through an interface in an intuitive manner.       

What makes effective conversational design?

Hilary Black suggests that personality is the crucial differentiator when it comes to separating out a memorable chat bot from an ineffective one. 

“One thing I’ve noticed with many bot-first companies is that they all sound the same. Why is that? They were written by the developers instead of writers.”

Ruben Babu in his article ‘The conversational designer’s guide to AI assistants’ stresses the importance of a consistent voice, which is on brand, a factor that is particularly important when a team of individuals are all involved in the content creation process. 

Babu suggests that “Just like how UX writers reduce cognitive load by writing succinct, frictionless and user-centric copy for applications, you must write as if your user is having an instant chat with a real human and not a machine.”

See also →  Are you utilising your content to improve your user experience?

Babu also recommends designing for channels, not just screens, using rich media, graphics and interactive elements alongside text. 

Conversational design requires constant updating

One thing which is clear is that conversational design has to be seen as an ongoing process and one which requires constant update and development in response to user experience. 

Consider, for example, the Amazon Alexa. Did you know that if you whisper a command to it now (perhaps because you’re trying to tell it to turn off in your child’s room whilst they sleep) it will detect that you are whispering and respond in a whispering voice? A great example of UX design working effectively in practice. 

However, Amazon arguably still need to work on the reply Alexa gives when you ask it the time, at say 6am. Currently it responds by telling you the time and then adding “hope you’re having a good day!” Which is unlikely, because most people haven’t yet got out of bed. Plus for some people, it’s far too much chat, far too early in the day!

How can conversational design help increase my company’s income? 

Done well, an effective bot can increase customer engagement and decrease customer acquisition cost.

Robert Ravensbergen, in his article, ‘Conversation Design Guide for Beginners’ believes that

“By engaging consumers, surfacing insight and providing things like guidance and recommendations – as well as enhancing how a user communicates with a brand – good conversation design can drive increases of 30% or more in average revenue per user when compared to traditional web experiences.”

Perhaps just as important is an increase in customer satisfaction ratings too. They say that acquiring a new customer can cost up to five times more than keeping an existing customer. So it’s not hard to see the commercial value in pleasing your existing customer base.

Plus, with Google now indexing web sites on the basis of their expertise, authority and trust (E.A.T.), scoring high on customer feedback has never been more important.

If you’d like to discuss ways to implement conversational design on your digital platforms, contact us for a chat.

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