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Hundreds of questions were submitted by attendees of Botmock’s AMA about becoming a conversation designer. Five industry experts with backgrounds in conversation design answered as many as we could in a live roundtable discussion. To register for future (free!) AMA sessions and watch the full recording of this session, you can do so here.

Q1: What degrees would best prepare you for a career in conversational design?

Mary:
I think to prepare for a career in conversation design, there are many aspects of the design that need specialists. There’s more than one path for sure: linguistics, sound design, others.
Linguistics is a very large field, You need people who understand phonology. You need people who understand sociolinguistics. And so on. Many different linguistic specialties could apply. Because I have a master’s in linguistics, I’m biased. But other majors, such as cognitive psychology, I hear are good. And of course, studying design itself is really important in this field.
Before I entered design, I was an English as a Second Language teacher, and I would say teaching is also a really useful field to prepare for a career in design. Also, teaching writing and rhetoric are good foundations for conversation design. Both writing and teaching are forms of design.
My first design job was at a startup called VocalPoint. Originally I was hired to do phonetic transcriptions for speech recognition dictionaries. But I transitioned quickly into the design. We had a voice browser and a multimodal browser, and it was really cool. It was a great startup.

Rebecca:
I have an undergrad degree in chemistry and a Master of Fine Arts in fiction writing. So I would say that if you’re passionate about this field and you are a curious person who loves language, you can probably find a way into this industry. I got into this field because I sat next to the founder of a startup on an airplane and we just started talking about crossword puzzles. After a while, he told me about his startup and explained to me that they were looking for a writer that would have an analytical brain because they were doing something new that involved conversational training games for healthcare. So yeah, that’s how I got into the field; I worked at that company, shadow health, for five years. I think my last career before that, I was just like working at a restaurant. So I’d say if you’re interested in this field, you can find a way.

Q2: How does one transition from being a student to paid jobs in this field?

Brielle:
As a student, you notice how academics gain their authority by spending a lot of time researching something or becoming an expert; usually in academia, expertise is associated with the amount of time that you spend doing something. In contrast, in the fast-evolving state of this field, things are changing so rapidly that the experts are the people who have the passion to work hard, stay on top of what is happening, and engage with the community. Currently, we are all learning together, so if you have the motivation to get good at it and you are engaging with your peers, people will start listening to what you have to say and open the space for your opinions and ideas.

Rebecca:
There’s so much material out there for self-teaching. So if you’re good at self-teaching, just read everything you can get your hands on; follow Cathy Pearl on Twitter, follow Women In Voice. When I was sort of a siloed UI designer, those were some of the places where I got a lot of foundational resources and information.
I think courses are great, and reading about conversational design is going to teach you concepts and vocabulary, but until you’re actually designing, doing user testing, and going through those cycles of iterating on a product, you’re not going to have what employers are looking for. Employers are looking at how you solve problems in these conversational spaces and interfaces, so your first goal should be to get your hands on a project. So if you’re just getting started, I would try to find a startup and see if they are looking for someone who can wear a lot of hats, who is willing to learn and wants to get into a project that way. I would encourage people to find a startup that is open to enthusiastic beginners who are thirsty and want to work.

Celine:
Adaptability is a very important skill to start in this field; we have to be okay with change, embrace it, and be comfortable with it. Another attitude that is very important is being proactive and not being afraid to admit that we don’t know something. When facing an unknown we have to move forward and figure out who knows it and talk to people about it. If you are present and working you will get the opportunities to learn. For example, one of the biggest breaks I got, in the beginning, was because we ended up hiring a third party conversational designer and they took us through the entire process. Seeing the process from start to finish helped me tremendously in getting a feel for what the steps were. When this opportunity came about I took the plunge and learned as much as I could. After seeing the process I took what I learned and figured out how the process fitted for me, my users, and the product I was designing. I started from that accidental lesson and adapted the process to fit my project’s needs.

Mary:
For my first design job, I applied for a Voice User Interface Design Guru position. And I had never designed before. I didn’t even know what a “user interface” was. The company hired me, but not as a guru! I think it’s really important to read job descriptions. The position may not be called “conversation design.” Take a look at the description, see if you match a third of it, then go after it. Networking is also really important; going out and meeting people, going to conferences, all these things that the other panelists have said — a hundred percent I agree. It’s important to be brave and not give up. One-on-ones are also great; doing informational interviews is really useful. All of these things are good, as is joining groups that support new designers. IxDA is an organization I always recommend.

Brielle:
Regarding job listing descriptions; I have seen 40 to 50 different ways that companies express the need for a conversational designer. This situation has made things especially complicated for people who are used to hacking the resume or job application game by using keywords as a means to find a job or be found by a potential employer. Right now is not so much about going straight to companies or organizations, but instead finding real people that are in these roles to learn more about their team’s work.

Q3: In an interview, what sorts of skills can I showcase to make myself a competitive candidate?

Brooke:
At this moment we’re seeing a lot of multimodal experiences coming down the pipeline, so it is going to be important for conversation designers to be fluent in the principles of conversation design as well as being able to work with visual designers and developers. It will be beneficial to be knowledgeable about visual interface design, gestural design, touch interfaces, and things like that. It seems like the future is all about merging conversational design with all these different disciplines to create more immersive experiences. It is also very important for a candidate to be aware of the ethics and principles that need to be taken into consideration as we develop smarter interfaces. As interfaces become more intelligent, they also have a higher capacity to measure information about the user. For example, this is relevant in cases like data tracking, where we are personalizing intimate experiences as we occupy the space in people’s homes, cars, and work. Having some kind of perspective and concern around those ethical conundrums is very important.

Celine:
I think that being able to think outside the box is very important. Since not everything has been thought out yet, when we encounter a problem without a solution to be found, we have to experiment and try to bring solutions from outside of conversational design and let creativity come into play. For me, being able to quickly test for alternatives solutions and ideas is one of my biggest skills; it has come in handy many times.

Mary:
Good design practice is always going to stay the same. But the technology is changing really quickly under our feet. Try to stay up on the technology, and understand the technological constraints.

Rebecca:
I think the skill sets are changing because people’s understanding of this field is also changing. When I first came into this field, everyone was talking about best practices. When I was a consultant, a lot of companies came to me and said: just give us a couple of workshops on best practices. I believe the field is growing, changing, and understanding that best practices are kind of not a thing when you’re considering the context. Designers need to have an understanding of certain foundational principles of conversational design, but beyond that, designers need to understand the impact of the design decisions they make. A designer needs to be able to debate the pros and cons of every decision and be able to correctly interpret the data on hand to support that decision. So it’s never an issue of relying on best practices and following them every time. Its understanding that decisions will be driven by the specific constraints of the desired interface and using the data to find the best pathway for solving something. So the skill set is looking at your constraints and looking at your data and using those to make really good decisions that serve the user.