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Why Every UX Designer Should Study Conversation Design

by Jurgen Gravestein
5 min read
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We’ve hit a turning point, or tipping point if you will, in the history of technology. It’s changing the way we design digital products and services forever, and if you think that I’m being hyperbolic, don’t take my word for it.

Listen to what the “king of usability” and cofounder of the Nielsen Norman Group Jakob Nielsen has to say about it:

“UX folks are trapped in complacency while the AI techquake radically shakes up the computing landscape. We witnessed similar complacency during the dot-com revolution. It is high time we shake off inertia, embrace AI design, and prevent engineers from monopolizing the new UI paradigm.”

The new paradigm being generative AI, of course.

For the first time in history, users of technology can now talk in natural language to the computer and simply get stuff done. They don’t have to be programmers, they don’t have to know the command line. It means the technology of today and tomorrow is going to be increasingly conversational. And Nielsen is asking UX designers to wake up to this reality.

So, are you a UX designer looking to jump-start your next career advancement? Maybe it’s time you learn more about conversation design.

Language is the new interface

It’s been estimated that around 70,000 years ago, Homo Sapiens began uttering the first vocal sounds. It started with clicks and small vocalizations. Then came words, sentences, stories — a process that took us another 50,000 years. Talking became the main mode of communication for our species and from the moment we started talking, we never stopped.

This perfectly explains the rising popularity of chatbots, AI assistants, and conversational interfaces in this day and age. We were literally born to talk. As we speak, millions of people talk every day with computers that mimic human-like interaction at a level close to being on par with real human beings: a monumental achievement that shows how far we’ve come as a species.

But with great power comes equally great responsibility. With language being the new interface, it is of utmost importance that the people who design and build these products understand its inner workings. That’s where conversation design comes in.

Like fish in the water

A teacher once told me that you can only break the rules if you know them — it’s a bit like that with conversation design as well. If you can’t deconstruct a conversation, and understand its working parts, how are you expected to design elegant and meaningful experiences?

Because we’re experts at talking, we feel like fish in the water, it comes so naturally to us that we don’t even have to think about it. We’re experts at it because we don’t think about it.

However, there are many unspoken rules that govern our daily exchanges, whether it’s at the coffee shop, during a Zoom meeting, or just having a casual conversation with a friend.

As it turns out we work really hard to make our conversation work and one of the first to articulate these rules was Herbert Paul Grice, a British philosopher of language. He called them ‘conversational implicatures’, which describe how people during conversation work out all kinds of things from the way something is said rather than the content, the actual words themselves.

On top of that, Grice introduced what he called the ‘cooperative principle’ in a groundbreaking 1975 article titled Logic and Conversation. It builds on the assumption that participants in a conversation engage in a back-and-forth that is characterized by unconscious but meaningful cooperation. Generally, we cooperate by saying enough to get our point across, being truthful, being relevant, and communicating as clearly as possible.

In other words, the cooperative principle describes how people achieve effective communication in everyday situations and explains why conversations tend to succeed rather than fail: they imply a joint effort.

The cooperative principle is considered to be a key concept in conversation design.

The most intimate of interfaces

Language is deeply multifaceted and therefore requires a multidisciplinary design approach that combines knowledge of language, technology, and human psychology.

The psychological dimension is often overlooked, and underestimated too. If there’s one thing you need to understand is that as humans we view the world through a uniquely human lens: a concept commonly referred to as ‘anthropomorphism’.

This is why we see faces in the sky and like Disney characters so much. Research has shown that when we hear a voice, just the voice, we automatically assign a personality to it — regardless if that voice is artificial or not. In a matter of seconds, we make assumptions about what the person is like, whether they’re kind, likable, or trustworthy. And again, it’s a completely involuntary, unconscious process that is deeply rooted in our evolution as a species.

As a consequence, we must recognize that when designing for conversational experiences, there is no such thing as ‘no personality’ because if language is the interface, a persona is implied.

You can see this with Microsoft’s Bing (or ‘Sydney’), Google’s Bard, and even with ChatGPT (even though OpenAI tried really hard to not give it any personality at all).

The sheer power of personality reveals the intimate nature of this technology. People may experience feelings of personal connection, and build a relationship with it, even though, rationally, they understand that these digital avatars cannot truly reciprocate. And if you don’t believe me, currently, it’s being used to revive loved ones from the dead and create AI doppelgangers of influencers so fans can interact with them 24/7.

If it feels real, what’s the difference?

A window of opportunity

Understanding what makes this technology so revolutionary is paramount if you want to keep up with the time.

Like everything else, it all comes down to making responsible design choices. And we need people who understand people to make those choices.

Although no one can predict the pace of innovation, it is highly probable if not certain that generative AI is going to drive the development of digital products and services for decades to come. It has opened a window of opportunity comparable to the invention of the Web, and again if you think I’m being hyperbolic here, those are Jakob Nielsen’s words, not mine.

If UX designers fail to grab this moment, he urges, it’ll be engineers shaping the future as businesses worldwide are marching forth, eager to implement AI applications that promise to yield major returns.

Nielsen ends his piece, in style, with a powerful analogy:

“… in the face of momentous tech revolutions, either you’re the windshield or you’re the bug. Visualize a high-speed car confronting an insect on the road, a metaphor for technology-induced changes. Be the windshield, mastering AI and its applications. If not, prepare to be the bug — outdated and squashed by AI-driven competitors.”

If there ever was a time to jump in, it’s now.

post authorJurgen Gravestein

Jurgen Gravestein, Jurgen Gravestein is a writer and conversation designer. He was employee no. 1 at Conversation Design Institute and now works for the strategy and delivery branch CDI Services helping companies drive business value with conversational AI. Feel free to subscribe to his newsletter Teaching computers how to talk.

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Ideas In Brief
  • The article discusses the significance of incorporating conversation design into UX design, emphasizing the growing role of generative AI in shaping digital products and services.

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