The foundations of Conversation Design - Botmock

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 do you consider a must to create good foundations in this field?

Well, just joining things like this AMA is really good. A key for me has been making connections in the field and continuing to go to conferences and network, always being open to interviewing and asking people questions about our field. I hope everyone knows that we’re all learning collectively all at the same time. So even though there are experts in the field, there’s a lot of learning happening all the time.

As Rebecca said, creating and looking at transcripts are a foundational practice in this field. And I would add to that the skill of listening — just being able to listen to people, even if it’s not people talking to a UI. Listening to people talking in real life, making recordings of conversations “in the wild” and transcribing, is a really good foundation.

Q2: What does the craft of conversational design consist of? Are there parallel fundamentals to be fluent in conversational design? If so, what are they?

I like to stress that conversation design is a type of user experience design, and that design is an iterative process that starts with concepting and moves all the way through post-launch iteration; in that sense, you can take that UX framework and conversation design is a particular focus of that. With that said, there are a few pieces that are unique to conversation design. In my opinion, the pillars of conversational design are the prompts that you write, the flow and conversational pathways that those prompts navigate, and the interaction model between the user and the interface. A well rounded conversational designer needs to be able to produce those artifacts, understand how they all fit together, and how they impact the user’s experience.

For compelling design, we must deeply understand both the interface and the user. For example, we must be conscious of the sound of the conversational experience. We have to visualize the context of the user, what is the person doing? where is their attention? On some tasks, people don’t need to have their attention on the user interface; understanding what the mind is doing while a person is interacting with the UI is very important. Complexity, structure, and variety are also key factors to consider; understanding the complexity of the language that people use when they interact with a system, having knowledge of the needs of a specific community with regards to how they communicate; the variety of pronunciations and style, the prosody of speech. In precise words: a designer needs to have “contextual respect”. Another key element is identity. As designers, we must understand the identity of the character that we are creating as well as the identity of the primary people that we’re designing for.

Like any other type of UX design, conversational design follows the same framework and principles. As designers we research, design, test, and measure. I think the hardest part when I was starting my career in conversation design was understanding the existing nomenclature and language around conversation, so things like learning what grammar is, learning what intent is and what a variation of that intent might be. With that said, the main challenge that we are all facing as a conversational design community is figuring out the best process for designing conversation. For a person aspiring to be a conversational designer, I would just encourage them to start designing and getting comfortable with the unique aspects of designing for conversation. On the process itself there’s still a lot of improvements to be made.

This question made me think about the theoretical foundations of conversation, so when I first started reading up on this, I came across the Maxims of conversation by Herbert Paul Grice. Mr. Grice speaks about four pillars or maxims of conversation. Maxim of Quantity: which emphasizes the brevity in which we want to deliver information. The Maxim of Quality: making sure that we’re really thinking about the trust with our users by being transparent and telling things that are true. The Maxim of Relation: making sure that we actually say things that are relevant to what the conversation is. And lastly, The Maxim of Manner: making sure we’re not being ambiguous or being too brief.

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