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Hundreds of questions were submitted by attendees of Botmock’s AMA about becoming a conversation designer or developer. Five industry experts with backgrounds in design, engineering, and product development answered as many as we could in a live roundtable discussion. If you would like to watch the full recording, you can do so here.


The following CUI experts joined us to answer your questions:

Grace HughesContent Design @ Accenture’s Innovation Hub- The Dock, Dublin

Sachit MishraProduct Manager, Google Assistant

Gabrielle MoskeySenior Voice Experience Designer @ a national insurance company

Matthew PortilloConversational Experience Design, IPsoft Amelia

Brielle Nickoloff Product Manager, Botmock (panel moderator)


In Part I, we covered the following topics:

  • What role can we as designers play in the creation of conversational user interfaces (CUIs)?
  • How did you find yourself working in the field of conversation design?
  • Do I need to learn Python to get into this field? 🐍

Summary

The discipline of conversation design (both voice and chat) requires the ability to pick apart, analyze, and understand patterns of natural human dialogue to recreate the relevant elements. Because of this, many successful conversation designers have a background in fields like linguistics, anthropology, journalism, radio, sociology, UX design, psychology, screenwriting, directing, and acting. Just as a graphic designer would produce wireframes to outline a mobile app (and then hand it off to engineering for implementation), a conversation designer outlines the flow of an entire conversation and then writes content for each response that the system would say or type back to the user. And then hands it off to engineering for implementation.

TL;DR You do not need to know how to code to be a conversation designer.

If you want to be technical, great! Some familiarity with how to build apps or websites (like front or back end development) or with programming languages (like Javascript or Python) may help you communicate with the developers you’ll work with. If you want to become totally proficient at this side of things, no one is stopping you. But there are enough tools available now like Dialogflow, the Alexa Skills Kit, and more UI-forward prototyping tools like Botmock that will abstract away layers of the development process for non-technical designers.

For conversational experiences that need a team of developers to do more heavy lifting on the engineering side, the distinction between conversation designers versus developers has come into focus over the last few years and is gaining momentum. Hiring managers are starting to understand that the core competencies of these two roles differ quite a lot. Designing a conversational experience is a meticulous process and it is a full-time job. The same can be said for programming that conversational experience, as well as conducting the user experience research (UXR) for it, and so on.

Q1: How did you find yourself working in the field of conversation design?

Gabrielle

I have a bit of an unconventional path. I was a drama major and I graduated during the ‘08/’09 recession so ended up teaching ballroom dancing for a while. After that I was a violin salesperson and actually drove a dodge sprinter van across the country, selling violins to violin shops.

Then I got a certificate in graphic design and worked at a retirement community in their marketing office. I’m a really creative person and I wanted to somehow make money, and so I went into [graphic design] thinking that it would be the combination of those two things. But once I got into it I just realized this field wasn’t as creative as I thought it would be — I was usually following a templated design, and what I really wanted to do was communicate and work as a team with my client and say ‘Here, this is the best way I think we can communicate something’. But it ended up being them saying, ‘Hey, I need you to make this, can you make it look pretty, and can you have it to me by…yesterday.”

While I was at that job, someone approached me and said, ‘We’re testing out a website, we wanna see what you think about it.’ And I said, ‘Ok sure, that sounds great,’ and I realized, their [a UX designer or UX researcher’s] whole job is asking people what they thought of stuff and actually caring what the user thinks. Isn’t it nice when we *actually* make products that are actually customer focused? As soon as I figured out UX was a thing, it was done for! I quit my job, I did a Career Foundry mastery course online as fast as I could, over 10 months, while doing a part time job. That’s tricky by the way, the whole quit your job and go to school thing. It’s tough, so don’t do that unless you have a really good plan. 🙂

But things worked out. I did a lot of work on my portfolio website and my LinkedIn presence and was able to get a job where I am now. I think that, yes, it’s true that if you really want to succeed, you can. But it is also so important to freelance. It’s really hard but important to get that first job, so make sure to freelance and offer whatever you know about voice so you can help people. Make your own Alexa skills and chatbots, so that you have that experience and people are willing to take a risk on you. But in general the market right now is really good for hiring conversation designers.

Brielle

In undergrad I double majored in Linguistics and Neuroscience, but I also completed a pre-med tract, fully intending to go to medical school. Looking back, it’s almost like I was trying to keep myself in check, keeping myself in denial about the way I felt so energized when I was studying and working on linguistics-related stuff. I tried so hard to convince myself for four years that a future life as a doctor would actually be fulfilling because I just didn’t think I could ever make money building a career around linguistics.

As graduation approached, I decided I couldn’t keep lying to myself so I started trying to figure out how I could work in a field that was at least somewhat related to my real passion for language. After a bit of research, I decided I’d have to complete some type of coding boot camp so I could work on machine learning or natural language processing technology. I resigned myself to this (knowing that I didn’t necessarily love coding), deciding that I’d be willing to get good at something like coding as long as it could keep me close to what I’m most passionate about. One of the best days of my life was discovering VUI design, after seeing someone post about an open VUI design role LinkedIn. This realization really opened the floodgates: that I could work on speech and language technology by applying a design or UX lens, and not necessarily a programming or developer lens. I spent every waking moment after that trying to figure out what could make me a competitive voice UX design candidate by writing articles, developing a VUX portfolio, and prototyping voice experiences. I joined my first team a few months later as a VUI designer.

Matt

I studied rhetoric and writing in university, and my minor was Spanish. My last career before entering this field was public relations, doing content writing full-time for a small agency here in NY, and some freelancing on the side. Before that I was volunteering at a nonprofit in Guatemala City, doing some communications, fundraising, and program management. Fast forward to 2017; I was working for the PR agency here in NY when I get a LinkedIn message from a recruiter at IPsoft. She explained what the company does and said they’re looking for someone with a background in writing, communications, and someone who’s also bilingual in Spanish. I was like, ‘What in the world, what kind of position is this?’ Just only a year before I had been pounding the pavement looking for work after just having moved to NYC, so this was kind of stunning to me. That role happened to be an open conversation design role (the one I’m currently in.) Just like Grace said, your path doesn’t really make sense when you’re looking forward, but it does make some sense when you’re looking back.

Grace

That quote from Steve Jobs comes to mind, ‘your life and your career only make sense when you look back’. I did lots of different things that somehow led to content design, and now conversation design. I studied the humanities; English, French, and journalism, then went into advertising and spent a couple of years as a copywriter. After that I moved into content design as part of Fjord, which is also part of the Accenture family. So for me, it really wasn’t by design that I learned about and got involved with conversation design.

Where I work now [at the Dock] we’ve got software engineers, data scientists, and designers working together. Regarding my first job as a conversation designer; there was a team within the Dock that were creating a VUI at one point. Initially that team wanted me to just tell the story about their process and create a presentation for a tech conf we were going to. But I decided, no, it’d be a lot more fun to get involved in creating this experience, and I realized how interesting and fascinating it is to work in a space where words are the interface. So for me, it’s really interesting to bring my experience as a copywriter, as a content designer to bear in this discipline. It’s such a collaborative process. It’s really about understanding how we can flex the conversation, how we can design it within the constraints of the technology but also leverage the new potential that this technology brings.

Our initial research on that team led us to Conversation Analysis, which is a field in linguistics and sociology. We specifically looked a lot at Elisabeth Stokoe’s work. She brings to light all the rules and conventions and frameworks that make up conversations we have with people every day. All of those hacks and all those methods we use to keep conversations on track that we don’t even realize we’re doing. We think conversation is simple because it’s so natural and intuitive, because we do it all day, every day, some of us more than others. 😉 But it’s actually such a rich, nuanced, complex thing, so it shouldn’t be surprising that translating natural dialogue into a programmatic interface is actually a really difficult thing to do.

Sachit

I have a CS degree but I started college as a Business major on a pre-med track and with a minor in Linguistics. Out of college I went into engineering roles and luckily at Google I got placed on the Google Assistant team. That’s how I found my way into the voice space, which I feel really grateful for. If you want to build conversational experiences it is beneficial to have programming experience, specifically in Javascript for VUIs — it seems to be the go-to language for the majority of devs in the space. You don’t need a PhD in machine learning or NLP. But it would also be beneficial to become proficient at some of the great CUI design tools out there like Botmock and others. These tools abstract away some of the underlying AI aspects and let you just build at the application level, similar to building a web or mobile app. But when it comes to building and deploying these experiences, the tooling (like Dialogflow) can only get you so far. At a certain point, to do things like advanced error handling or calling to a database or API, someone needs to write code at some point to get those done. That’s where I’d say the importance of technical knowledge or know-how comes in. Certainly though in the design process, thinking through the flows, evaluating use cases, and the UX research process, there’s no code required for any of that. The tooling at this point makes it so there’s no reason to know how to code to prototype and build something simple. It’s when a team starts implementing advanced functions that someone (not necessarily the designer) does need to write code.

Q2: What role can we as designers play in the creation of conversational user interfaces (CUIs)?

 

Gabrielle

Designing a VUI versus a GUI (graphical user interface) requires very different processes, but many conversational experiences will require some combination of both. Whenever you are interacting with a voice interface like Alexa or Google Assistant, there may still be a visual component to that interaction [like cards that pop up on a user’s phone, a link that gets sent to their phone, images that show up on smart speakers that have screens, etc.]. Graphic designers have a big role to play in the VUI design process, and their main objective is to make sure that the visual affordances successfully support the invisible, verbal exchanges.

Grace

Designers bring a human-centered approach to any type of technology. As a content designer, our goal is to provide people with the info they need at the right time and in the most efficient way. In her book Content Design Sarah Richards explains that content design is very much about thinking about the details of how users first take in the information, how they read and how they process that information. She goes on to explain that once we understand how those processes work, we can use that data to create content accordingly. With that said, when it comes to the design of conversational interfaces, it gets a lot trickier because several other factors have to be considered. In voice design, there are other senses involved when a user takes in information (hearing) and other modes of input that we’ve never really worked with before as designers (speech). The way a user takes in this information and reacts to it is much different than in a GUI.

When we design for voice, we have to think about the natural flow of conversation and make sure that the information holds universal meaning regardless of any user’s educational background, culture, and conversational style. Taking these factors into consideration will help standardize the way users interact with, react to, and respond to the information presented to them. Designing with that mindset helps us keep in mind the unique affordances of any type of conversational interface [text or voice]. It sets us up to successfully create an experience that’s delightful and valuable to multiple types of users. As Gabrielle mentioned, we also need to be considering how to combine voice, text, and graphical feedback within multimodal experiences to increase accessibility for a wide range of users.

In this way, conversation design is an exciting new frontier for content designers.

Sachit

I’ll give my answer in the context of other roles I’ve had in this space, which are engineering and product management. Engineering is literally writing the code that makes these experiences possible, while a PM is more cross-functional, working with marketing, design, engineering. The product manager is responsible for the end-to-end experience, all the way from a user discovering a voice app, to helping that user achieve something with it. From those two roles, engineering and product, here’s what I can say confidently about voice and conversation design and chatbots: we have no idea what we’re doing. And what that means is that product owners and engineers really crave design guidance from our design team. This is true all the way from concept stage through implementation.

Specifically what’s really useful is when designers are able to offer constructive guidance based on real data. So, is the design guidance going to improve the retention rate? Are users going to come back more often? Is it going to decrease the drop off rate (how often users exit or cancel out the experience). It’s incredibly helpful when designers can offer tips on the individual prompt, or the flow’s architecture, or what the experience literally says back to the user, and then after implementing changes, we actually get to see a verifiable difference in the way that users are engaging with the experience. When designers can offer that sort of guidance it’s the most amazing win for everyone on the product team.

Matt

Our chief role as designers is to advocate for usability and adoption; this is our north star. Of course we also think about conversational UIs in terms of technical feasibility, value for the business case, the problem it fixes, reducing cost and bringing in revenue.

Our responsibility as designers is to put a great deal of importance in thinking about the users. In that regard, we work from a unique position in which we always advocate for the user experience. As conversational designers we have to make sure that the users can intuitively and efficiently find the information they are looking for.


The Botmock team is excited that more of our community members are involved than ever before. There will be more panelists and attendees from diverse backgrounds contributing to these events in the future, so keep an eye out!


This article is an expansion of the first topic covered in Botmock’s first conversation design and development AMA session. You can also read read recaps of the other two sections, Measuring the Success of Conversational UIs and The Technical Elements of Conversation Design.

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