The following conversation design experts joined us to answer your questions about the day-to-day of a conversation designer.
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 are some top skills that conversational designers need to have? What are the top three skills that are most valuable to a successful career?
There is an underlying architecture to a conversation, so a great skill to have is being able to understand how to create a good architecture of information that will result in effective communication. It is also important to understand the design process. As a conversational designer, you are going to be part of a team whose goal is to move a product forward through its stages of development.
But, I want totake the opportunity to speak about more subtle skills that sometimes are not talked about or taught. Soft skills are fundamental. As a conversational designer, you are going to collaborate with many people, and building good relationships with all of them is very important. Good product development requires open channels of communication. It takes a team to build something great. Keep learning, never think that you know everything, be willing to be wrong, stay flexible, and promote a space where people can express themselves freely without fear of having to be right every time they speak.
Being a reasonable person has served me well. It is important to do our best to understand all the people in a room. If you find yourself in a situation where you are getting tensed up, think about why you’re getting tensed up, relax, and then respond to the situation.
At this moment, things are changing daily in this field. Having an attitude of being willing to be wrong and to never stop learning is paramount to keep up with all the updates and constant changes. Being wrong opens the door to learning something new. There is no space to be dogmatic in this field.
This is a good moment to build intuition, and you’re going to be wrong when you build intuition. But, building that intuition will help you in being right more often down the line.
As conversational designers, we need to have empathy for the user. We design for the user, and we have to defend them above anything else. Sometimes, with developers, you have to take a stand based on that perspective and explain why there is a reason for certain design choices.
Another skill that is good to have is being able to express the same thing in many different ways. You should have ten synonyms at hand, just like that.
Ideally, you want to have an understanding of how humans behave. For people who are more social and conversational, this tends to come easier. Developers, who sometimes spend more time with computers than people, they have a harder time understanding the way humans communicate, and that is where your skills as a designer come into play. I know I’m generalizing but yes, for me, a developer becoming a conversational designer is quite unexpected, developers tend to be less talkative.
I want to emphasize soft skills. Soft skills go beyond conversational design and into every potential career that you could have out there. For example, a great soft skill is to be curious, to be like a sponge, and take it all in with a mindset of never stop learning.
When it comes to conversational design specifically, don’t just focus on the UX side of things. If you have thirty minutes on an hour, take the time and sit down with your developer and understand, at a higher level, what is that they are doing and the decisions that they are making. Do the same with project management, spend time with them, and understand the roadblocks, the obstacles they face, and the pressure they are under. Understanding everyone’s process will give you a clearer direction as to what is the path of success for the team.
The ability to be wrong and accept it is the same as having a sense of humility. No one knows everything. There is always going to be a point where somebody shows you something that proves what you thought to be wrong, and your ability to accept that and move forward is vital for creating something great. Being open to having that friction always makes the work better.
The third thing I thought about is less of a skill and more of a task. I believe that it is important to self evaluate our level of happiness and inspiration about what we are doing. Beyond being good at a particular role, ask yourself if you are happy with it. Every six months or so, do a self-evaluation and check if you feel valued and happy within the company, the team, and with yourself about what you’re doing.
Creating a safe space for collaboration is vital for success. It is imperative to be able to ask for help. I struggle with this one, so I make sure to stay aware of that. Identifying when someone knows more than you about something and asking them for help or advice has helped me tremendously in my career.
Q2 — If someone is a chatbot conversation designer, not a builder, where can they find building partners?
I always found that there are already people that you can work with on a team that are maybe a bit more technical minded. I would say, you can find these people on the job, or in meetups, on AMA’s, and in the #voicelunch with Karol Stryja and Michal Stanislawek. You’ll find them on LinkedIn. I think it’s easier still at the moment to find someone who is more technical than the other way around — someone who’s more into writing and stuff.
I’m going to direct my answer to students. To start, never underestimate the power of your professors and the ability to network with other students who might be like-minded.
In the creative field, and hence in conversation design, building and having a portfolio is very important. But how do we create that portfolio? As a designer, you can put together some flows and make it all sound great, but to build it, you need a partner. As a designer looking for a developer, find comfort in knowing that your dev is also out there looking for you and beyond networking, remember that a meeting point is your professors.
Q3 — How valued is a digital or traditional copywriting background for getting hired?
I spent many years in copywriting and advertising, so, when I think about my transition, I can’t think of a better industry to have prepared me for conversation design than my past field. When you think about building a conversation, you are putting yourself in the position of anticipating what the user is going to want or need, which is what we do in advertisement. As in advertisement, in conversational design, you are anticipating a reaction while, at the same time, you are trying to create the most enjoyable experience for the user.
With our bots and conversation designs at Lowes, we are trying to anticipate what the user will say and ask. Here we have to think about what product they want, which department we should send them to and do this in the most seamless way possible. So I like to think that in my past jobs, I was always designing conversations even if I didn’t know it.
As copywriters, we have always been writing for people. I like to think that writing human language is like coding for humans; code is just another word for language. If you are a writer or just a person who likes to talk to other people, that’s also a great baseline to start from.
Still, beyond having an extensive portfolio as a copywriter or UX writer, it is very important that you can write simply. In conversational design, we want to be understood by as many people as possible, so we have to avoid writing from a specific point of view. For successful conversational design, we have to think short, precise, and direct.
I do not come from a copywriting background, and in my first months working in this field that was a big gap of knowledge for which I had to improve. In those months, I had to figure out how to write concisely, write to be able to gain trust, and write to communicate effectively.
Having a solid copywriting base is very important but often overlooked. If you’re an aspiring conversation designer or just getting started as a conversation designer, pay attention to learning and catching up on your copywriting skills. In the beginning, I had to spend an extra amount of time just getting better at that.
When I started out, I often struggled with wanting my words to sound a certain way and not being able to make it happen. I realized then that it was called design for a reason. In conversational design, sometimes you have to iterate several times until you get the feel that you want.
In conversational design, you have to pick your words very carefully. The specific wording of the “same” question will encourage different responses. The wording also needs to be chosen based on the cultural understanding of your audience and the personality that you want to portray for the brand that you are working for.
A question that I get often is: Can I still be a conversation designer working in an English speaking market if my first language isn’t English?
My answer is yes, beyond English being your first or second language, maybe the most important skill for good conversational design has to do with creating a good information architecture. You can always ask a coworker to proofread something; working with all of your cross-functional partners is a part of the design work. So, if your writing is not perfect, work on it but don’t worry, you can still be a successful designer as you become better at the other skills.