The following conversation design experts joined us to answer your questions about how conversation design differs from other fields of design.
Matt Shuford, Conversation Designer @ Lowe’s Home Improvement
Ben McCulloch, Conversation Designer @ Conch Design
Margareth Jabczynski (Maggie), Conversation Designer @ Vodafone
Ilana Meir, Conversation Designer @ Facebook
Ayesha Saleem, Senior Conversation (UX) Designer @ Quicken Loans
Q1 — What do you love most about conversation design compared to what you used to do in previous roles?
Prior to being a conversational designer, I was a software engineer, a UX designer, and a UX researcher, and I enjoyed all those roles very much. With that said, what I love most about my current role of conversational design is that the field is in its infancy. I like how there are so many opportunities for growth.
For me, conversational design satisfies both my left and right brain. My experience in copywriting was all about being creative, about utilizing the right side of the brain, and just coming up with things that nobody’s ever read or heard before.
In conversational design though, whenever you’re building out a conversation flow, you aim to create a beautiful and symmetrical flow, and that satisfies the left side of the brain and lets my prevailing OCD operate freely. So yes, for me, this role is enjoyable and exciting.
Q2 — Should I take an unpaid job for experience?
This is a question that comes up often for freelancers, and it should be broken down in three parts:
- First thing to ask yourself as a potential employee of a company is: Why is there no money available? If the team is being paid, but there’s not enough money for a conversational designer then that might mean that the role is not appreciated and you might not be well respected in that position.
- Another thing to consider is: Are they good at what they do? Do they finish their projects? That way, if you are working for free, you can at least know that you’ll have something worth putting on your portfolio. To know this you have to do some research and that might take some time; when you’re not being paid, spending too much time researching something while not knowing if it will be worth your while can lead to a bitter experience so be mindful about your worth as a person when investing your time unpaid.
- Something to be mindful of is that money is not the only way to get paid. A company might be able to give you software, training or freebies or send you to conferences, and even though these things are not money, they are very useful. An opportunity to gain experience can be very valuable and if the situation is right for the person, it can almost be seen as an investment.
- At the end of the day this is a topic that should be evaluated on a case by case basis. It is really hard to give advice regarding this cause there are so many specific life considerations that have to be taken into account. Those are three things to consider, though.
I agree with Ben: If there’s no money involved for your work, then your position is not being respected. I would advise that before taking an unpaid job, start your own project, and use that to build your portfolio and develop your experience. Taking an unpaid job is almost like accepting that you have nothing to offer, and unless you consciously determine, for whatever reason, that the position is so important that you might work for free, I would strongly advise as to never taking an unpaid job. We all have something to offer, adding value should be compensated. Life is too precious, and working for free will keep you from doing other things that might bring more value to your life.
When taking an unpaid job, we need to precisely understand what we are getting out of the experience. Instead of accepting an internship in a place where they don’t have a clear idea of what you will be doing, look for a place where they have a clear scope about the project and what you are supposed to deliver.
People have figured out that the “intern” position has been used as an excuse for free labor and to cover positions where people should be getting paid for. So, in the U.S, unpaid internships are becoming taboo. When becoming involved with a company that is hiring unpaid interns, keep your eyes and ears alert to what is going on there.
Other elements that are important to evaluate is the financial risk and opportunity cost of taking an unpaid position. How are you going to support yourself if you are working an unpaid 9 to 5? Can you afford it? Are there other ways you can keep your financial stability while learning, advancing, and gaining the experience needed to transition to this field? Build a strategy: unpaid internships is only one of the many ways in and is a way that should be approached with awareness and evaluation.
I want to start by emphasizing something that Ilana mentioned: which is to make sure that there’s a clear scope or outline about what you will be doing at this unpaid position. Beyond that, though, figure out who you are going to shadow and who is going to be your mentor in the company. You want to make sure that the people giving you this opportunity also understand that you are not getting paid for your work, and in turn, they make an effort to ensure that you’re getting the most out of the experience. To be short and precise: make sure that there is a clear scope as to what you will be achieving and make sure they provide good mentors for you to latch on to along the way.
Q3 — What is the biggest difference in your workday as a conversation designer from previous non- conversation design roles?
The biggest difference is having less of a defined role. When I was a UX researcher, I had clear responsibilities and deliverables. Now I feel like my responsibilities overlap with other positions, and although I love the fact that I get to wear multiple hats, at first, it took some adjustment. Currently, I do all the conversation design, and at the same time, I participate in the UX research, the UX design, and even some of the data analytics.
I come from an advertisement background, so one of the more significant differences in my new role is not having to deal with very high stress levels. At Lowe’s, I am part of an engrained team where the project manager, the developer, and UX all work side by side, and I love that feeling. Here we are allowed to develop the product from scratch, continue to reiterate upon it, add enhancements, and see it all the way through. It feels like what I assume it would feel to raise a child. Here we get to see our creation go from its infancy into its maturity. Being attached to a product like that is something that I appreciate very much.
When I was copywriting, there were many times where I would create different versions of the same things but could never get feedback about which one was more effective in communicating. In this field though, we can analyze the feedback from the user, and with that information, determine the competency of the copy and compare the different versions or approaches to communicating something.
Another huge difference is that everything in this field is more technical. Here, I don’t produce as much copy as before, but what I produce is distributed in a more technical environment. As copywriters, many of us have scripted conversations, but, in this field, we are often writing for something that has never been done before. Here, we are suddenly designing a multimodal experience that requires a lot of thinking, analysis, and a new approach to conversation. It is challenging and interesting. In this field, the environment leverages your work.
Q3.1 — Are conversations hardcoded, as in, each possible question a user has, also has pre-programmed answers that are inserted into the design?
In my experience, yes. Especially because most natural language processing technology right now is not very sophisticated. At this moment we have to think about every single possible user scenario and design the conversation to fit within those constraints. Still, there are a few systems and conversational designs out there (check Google Duplex) that are built for hyper-contextualized situations and can generate more or less unscripted speech successfully. But most conversational experiences you’ll interact with like Alexa, Google Assistant, and your average chatbot, are all hardcoded.
Conversational Intelligence Manager is a role that we predict will exist soon, let’s say, in 10 years. This role will be managing conversational intelligence, as well as some pragmatic and conversational structures rather than just the semantic content. But this is not happening yet. At the moment, it is all scripted. There is no black-box AI that would generate what the bots are saying. Right now that’s a myth.
Q4 — How can I get into the voice industry coming from a sound design background?
There are already sound designers working in this space. There are sound designers creating “earcons” and as conversational design starts requiring more layered audio (music, sound effects, and other effects), I expect that more opportunities will be available for people with a background in sound design.
People in the field are receptive. They are interested in what sound designers bring to the table. If as part of your networking you approach conversation designers from an angle of learning from them, then most of them will probably be interested if you know about sound design.
If as a sound designer you know how to mix sound, the various formats, audio workflow, how to record with voice actors, and how to manipulate those files to improve them, then you’re going to be very useful. So yes, even if you have to learn a lot when you come into this field, as a sound designer you can be very relevant and useful.
Q4.1 — What is an earcon?
Earcons are the audio equivalent of an “Icon”. A good example would be the sound that our computers emit when we send a file to the trash can. Even though the sounds of crumpling paper is not the sound that things make when we put them into a trash can, that piece of audio has established itself as the sound bite that we relate to the action of erasing a file from our computer.