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Conversational Design — applying it to all types of interfaces.

by Danny McCabe
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What is this thing we call conversation?

Most dictionaries define conversation as an informal and verbal interchange of thoughts and ideas using language. I’d like to be bold though and suggest that conversations occur in various ways besides verbally. They can also happen during thoughts and actions. A more general definition might be, where language is used to facilitate back-and-forth communication between two or more parties. With this more general definition we can now include non-verbal use of language, and parties other than humans, in a conversation. Have you ever had a conversation with yourself in your mind? “Don’t eat the pizza! Nah, just eat the pizza, it smells delicious! Yeah, but you’ll regret it. Pfft, I’m eating it!”. The old angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other idea. There is a back and forth of language-based thoughts happening in the mind between the angel and the devil!


Image via Walt Disney Pictures

The importance of language.

For many of us we not only use language to talk, we also think (and even dream) in the language we’re most fluent in. Language provides us with a means to define and comprehend what exists around us. It also helps us understand how we act, how we feel, and how we think. And of course, it provides us with a means for communicating with other people, pets, and computers (when they don’t do what you want them to). Language does a lot!

Language, communication, action!

First and foremost, communication is the key reason for language existing in the first place. And generally, we are exposed to this practice of communicating our entire lives, starting the day we are born. It’s no wonder then why it can be difficult to engage with someone or something that doesn’t follow the kind of communication we are used to using. For example, if you wanted to frustrate or confuse someone during a conversation you might randomly scatter the word “Honda” throughout the conversation. I’ve been there, it’s annoying! And it’s annoying because it simply doesn’t make any grammatical sense.

  • Phoney McPhone: “Well, this is the one you look at the most..”
  • John Human: “Cool, I’ll look at that then.”
  • Phoney McPhone: “Here are ten folders containing apps. Go look.”
  • John Human: “Here we go again. Let’s play ‘find the app’ game.”
  • Phoney McPhone: “…” [blank screen]
  • John Human: “Hello? Are you there? Are you loading?”
  • Phoney McPhone: “…” [blank screen]
  • John Human: “Ahh, are you broken?”
  • Phoney McPhone: “Here’s all your content!”
  • John Human: “Ok, not sure what all that silence was about. But whatevs, moving on.”
  • Phoney McPhone: “Hang on, I’m just loading.” [show loading gif]
  • John Human: “No problem, I can wait.”
  • Phoney McPhone: “Here’s all your content!”
  • John Human: “Nice, pizzas 25% off today!.” [sees a tantalising advert]

Conversations are a dish best shared.

When with friends, do you typically talk with them, or to them? The best conversations in my experience happen when people talk with each other, when both parties care about each other enough to listen at least as much as they talk. I’m of the opinion that conversations between a user and a system interface are no different in that both parties needs to engage well with the other.

Fragmented approaches

Sanity-checking existing designs.

One of the ways that I currently use conversational design is when I’m auditing, or sanity-checking, existing interface designs. It works especially well when there are tight time and money constraints in place. What I do first is to look at the user goals and then at the provisions in the interface to help the user achieve their goal. Once I have this information I translate the user’s and system’s interaction into a written english conversation. To understand what the system is saying I look at the content and interactive elements its presenting to the user. To understand what the user might be saying in their minds during the interaction I look at what they are being presented with or asked to do, then I choose a response that is natural and reasonable. This last step is quite subjective as what I deem natural and reasonable might differ from someone else. This is why it’s a step best done with others, and with consideration given to user research including any user personas you have available to you.

Giving your service a voice of its own.

Ok, you’ve just designed an interface that converses naturally with your user, and it looks pretty swanky too. Sweet! You’ve even given it a name! Let’s say, Samantha. Samantha needs a personality, she needs a voice of her own. Establishing a voice provides consistency, and affects the emotional response we have when conversing. Giving ‘Samantha’ a personality increases the likelihood that the user will connect with ‘her’.


Image via yourtv.com.au

Natural: the new sexy?

How many times have you heard from a manager or a client that they’d like you to design an interface that looks ‘sleek’ or ‘sexy’. How many UX designers are often treated like graphic designers who can also make wireframes? I know from experience, and from many UX designers I’ve spoken with that this still happens a lot. What if though, instead of just pursuing great looking interfaces, we favoured interfaces that are great to have a conversation with? I think it’s fair to say that all good conversations occur naturally, and in a way we can easily respond to.

One design to rule them all.

What this article is focussed upon is the idea that behind every good interface, regardless of the type, is a good conversation. If this is true then it stands to reason that if we design the conversation first we can apply it to any kind of interface. By doing this we can more easily unify and combine the experiences of voice UIs and visual UIs. One might call this a conversation-first approach to design. At the moment there are tools to design for voice UIs and separate tools to design for visual UIs. Such a separation of tools, though, makes it difficult to provide any kind of unified experience. Some visual UI tools do incorporate voice design capability (Adobe XD), but it seems more like an add-on than a paradigm shift towards encouraging interface designers to take a more conversational approach to visuals as well as voice. A tool that facilitated a conversation-first approach would be great for not only unifying voice and visual UIs, but also for incorporating more UIs into the mix, like sensory and even physical UIs.

A new UX skill-set.

As we [hopefully] approach a successful widespread commercialisation of Augmented Reality that doesn’t make you look like a kitchen appliance, UX designers may soon be faced with a whole new set of design challenges to face. 3D objects, animations, shaders, sounds, and gamification will all require UX designers to engage in new thinking, training and tools. And conversational design, however it evolves, is no different. Luckily, there already exists a wonderful field of expertise called narrative design. Narrative design describes various different ways to structure stories and incorporate drama into a narrative. Maybe you want to design an interface that encourages the user to complete daily tasks. You might want to perform what’s called an escalation in order to make the user more excited about achieving their daily goals. An example of escalation might look like this:

  • John Human: “Cool. Btw, I just made some more progress.” [log progress]
  • Appy McAppFace: “You’ve almost completed this task.” [show progress bar a bit further along]
  • John Human: “Noted. I might finish that tomorrow.” [continue binge-watching favourite TV show]
  • John Human: “Cool. Btw, I just made some more progress.” [log progress]
  • Appy McAppFace: “Nice one! You’re so close to completing this one! You’re almost there!” [show progress bar animating and pulsing towards completion]
  • John Human: “I’m so close! I gotta finish this!” [do ‘the thing’ to complete the goal]

Rounding up

Hopefully, these ideas surrounding conversation-first design have been interesting and useful. I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments. Also, here is a summary of some of the key take-aways from above:

  • Take a conversation-first approach to design.
  • Create a system persona.
  • Establishing a style guide for a system’s voice.
  • Learn about narrative design principles, or better still, get a narrative designer on the team.
  • Create new tools that help move design towards more natural conversations.
  • Keep the conversations natural.
  • Be the curator of relationships between user and system.
post authorDanny McCabe

Danny McCabe,

Danny is a UX Lead, game developer, and software engineer with over 15 years experience working in various industries. He has presented at UX Australia, and has previously taught UX to designers in Melbourne, Australia for 1.5 years. Currently he is interested in helping foster Citizen Science initiatives in the Melbourne game development space, with the goal of integrating gaming with science research.

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