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Your Design is Great, But Who Am I Talking to?

by Toby Trachtman
7 min read
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Conversational Design has become the industry standard for VUI. By crafting “Product Personas”, we can create a unified and engaging voice for our product which fits our users expectations and needs.

Everyone is talking about Conversational Design and how it can be used to design Bots and other conversational interfaces over voice-enabled devices like Alexa, phone, email, SMS and messaging platforms, as well as within apps and websites. Conversational AI is exploding and I say it’s time for UX writers to get ahead of the inevitable curve and start designing ALL of our product interfaces with this technique.

But what ARE conversational design techniques, and how can acting tricks help you master (and dare I say) improve them?

Designing Product Personas:

What if the central technique of Conversational Design is the idea of “Product Personas.”? Instead of just defining the voice of a product as  “funny” or “approachable,” the idea is to build an in-depth character who fully represents your companies’ brand and values. By using various acting techniques, you can really define “who” the user is talking to. Product Personas are invaluable in aligning a team around a single product voice, making your users feel like they are talking to a real person, and fitting your voice to their expected mental model of “who” your product is.

Still not convinced that you need a well defined product voice? This awesome article by Seda Manucharyan has got you covered.

Ok I’m convinced, but how do I make a product persona?

Building Product Personas:

The advantage of a product persona is it lets you ask questions, while writing the copy, like “what would Thomas say in this situation?” This is invaluable when trying to keep a consistent brand voice!

Start with the basics. Think about your brand and assemble a list of 4-6 adjectives, which you think really represent your company values. After you’ve defined your general voice, it’s time to go deeper. Take for example two imaginary sites for finding and booking your next vacation.

On the one hand, we have Meet-The-Locals.com; a site, which not only helps you find the cheapest hostels, it also connects you to people who live in the city and are willing to show you the hidden gems that only the locals know about.

On the other hand, we have 5-Star-International.com; on this site, you’ll also find lodging and people to show you around, but in a very different way. On this site, you’ll be given a curated list of high end hotels and a dedicated tour guide that will show you all the sites.

I’m sure you can agree that the voice for both of these products would have to be very different, so let’s come up with a voice for each.

MTL is fun-loving, curious, and adventurous. They are your peers. The people who use it are looking to travel on the cheap, meet people, and don’t mind roughing it a bit. I could easily imagine the character behind this website, as a young adult in their early 20s who has just come back from “seeing the world” and can’t wait to show it to you. They are your friend and travel buddy.

5SI on the other hand is professional, humble, and high end. They are the master of their craft, loyal to a fault, and know how to make you feel the luxury around you. The image which immediately springs to my mind is a butler who has been serving one family for years (think Alfred, the butler from Batman).

This is a great start but how can we further develop this character? And how does this affect your copy?

(It’s very tempting, so be careful to not make your product persona too “big,” since you don’t want it to take away from the hero of the journey (your users).

Improv and Conversational Design:

Conversation Design (CxD) is the craft of designing an interaction between a person and a digital interface, based on how people would communicate in real life. Both Conversational Design and improv serve as a framework designed to facilitate getting either a scene or a user interaction from point A to point B. By using a “yes and” mindset (an improv technique, also used in design thinking) you can build rapport with your audience and guide them towards the end goal you/they desire. For all intents and purposes, you can think of your interface as a narrator who is telling your user the plot, as it unfolds. Remember, other than the business side of things, your interface has one main job; to help your users find, define, and achieve, their goals. 

Acting tips to add character depth

Start writing your character’s backstory to give them a more lifelike feel. Who are they? What do they do in their free time? What drives them? Make sure it reflects your brand’s values as we’ve defined them above. Once you have that down, it’s time to start script writing. Write a short monologue for your persona, where your created persona talks about something important to them. Hire an actor to perform the monologue in character and save the video as a template to refer back to, whenever you need to ask “what would my product persona say?” Google has a fantastic YouTube series for this – you can find more info here.

Something crucially important is to say everything you’re writing aloud and in your character’s voice. See if it’s working,  by having other people read the text aloud as well. Are they using the same voice? If they get it, and you have defined your character well, then writing the lines becomes a simple matter of pretending to be your product and talking in its voice.

Another technique is to pick a teammate and have a conversation with them, where one of you plays the part of the character (your product persona) and the other, plays the part of a user. If one of you feels that the other isn’t using the character’s voice,  you can use improv games like “change how you said that” or “change the last line you said” to keep you both on track. These games also help you edit your copy, to make small changes with big impact. As product designers and UX writers, running improv workshops is a good idea in general, since there is a rule in improv that UX people would do well to remember: All dialogue must push the interaction forward.

When mapping out a conversation flow, you can always use the “Wizard Of Oz” technique to test it on real users (John F. “Jeff” Kelley).

Go over your user flows and reconstruct them as scripts of what different conversations with your product might look like (like a screenplay!). Think about what the perfect scenario would be and also write scripts for when things (inevitably) go wrong.

All in all, remember that if your product is answering the question of “what” problem do we solve, and the technology answers “how” to solve the problem, then your product voice answers the WHO of who is solving the problem.

By using these techniques to “become your product,” you now have the superpower to build more useful, usable, and delightful products.

BONUS TIP: Now that you’ve gotten a lot of experience with storytelling, think how you can use these tips as a way to sell your ideas and align your team.

What I hope you’ve learned.

  • Pick a team mate and have a conversation with them as the product.
  • Start using improv games to delve deep into the language you use. (games like “change how you said that” or “Change the last line you said”).
  • Conversational design follows the same rules as improv. Use dialogue to get to an end result
  • When mapping out a conversation flow you can always use the “wizard of oz” technique (John F. (“Jeff”) Kelley)
  • Do research into your characters backstory to give them a more lifelike feel
  • Say everything you’re writing aloud (preferably in your character’s voice)
  • Create scripts of what a conversation with your product might look like (like a screenplay)
  • Your product voice is answering the question of WHO is solving the problem
  • Your product should help facilitate conversation between itself and your user (using yes-and)
  • When designing an interface make sure that it helps your users find, define, and achieve, their goals. 
  • After you’ve defined the voice, have an actor read a short monologue (specific to your product) in the products voice. This will serve as a reminder to you and your team off who your product is
  • Think of an interface as a narrater. It is telling you the plot as it unfolds.
  • There is a rule in improv that any dialogue must push the scene forward.
  • Websites/apps are interactive and people use the text as a guide to navigate to their desired goals. 
  • Be very hesitant to make your product’s character too “big” you don’t want it to take away from the hero of the journey (your users)
  • Think about storytelling as a tool to sell your ideas to other stakeholders

Become your product.

post authorToby Trachtman

Toby Trachtman,

Toby Trachtman is a UX Designer who uses his acting skills to empathize with users and solve their problems. When not UXing, he likes to spend time with his wife and their 1.5 year old daughter. He firmly believes that UX and UI are two separate (and equally important) skill sets and that properly executed, experience design can change the world. Due to Covid-19, he is currently looking for his next big challenge. You can find Toby on LinkedIn https://.linkedin.com/in/tobytrachtman/. 


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