Conversation design and where it came from

Chat Mode Team
Chat Mode Team

Conversation design. What is it?

Conversation design is really just a design language based on human conversations.

It’s always been a thing

Conversation design isn’t necessarily a new thing. We’ve been “designing” conversations from an early age. Well before we learned to use keyboards, or even talk, for that matter. Throughout history, our body language, basic verbal communication, and cave paintings quickly evolved with time and technology.

Effective, enjoyable communication didn’t stem from us liking the sound of our own voice. It comes from an evolutionary need to cooperate. To belong. To transform our collective thinking and be understood (a much more peaceful alternative to force).

Throughout the years, technology enabled new ways to have conversations. Written letters and mail service helped minimize the hurdle of distance, and phones made nearly irrelevant. And more recently high speed internet, smart phones, and modern computers introduced all new possibilities of interaction. Between people and businesses alike.

Now, as technology’s increasing ability to meet users’ high expectations converges with the enterprise’s declining ability to keep up, actionable best practices and future-thinking investments are critical.

With conversation design (for conversational interfaces), this means a few crucial success factors. One of them is writing natural dialogue, like a person would really talk. 

Luckily, we’re more familiar with conversations than just about anything else. So, we should be experts at writing like we talk, right?

Nope. While we can hold an efficient conversation in-person without without a problem, most of us are pretty bad at writing like we talk.

Well then… what happened?

We got lost along the way

From a young age, you start talking. Soon, you gain a primitive understanding of what others are saying. Then, you learn the basics of grammar and conversation structure. The craziest part? You learn most if it yourself. Nobody had to teach you.

Fast-forward a bit, and you’re a fluent conversationalist. You find your own tone of voice that reflects your personality before being taught how to write it all down.

Then, everything changes.

You’re forced to learn the “correct” way to write. Proper sentence structure. Advanced vocabulary.

What used to be a free-flowing, spontaneous expression of your internal dialogue became restricted equations for passing exams. This makes writing less fun, and a lot more boring.

But the creative captivity doesn’t end there. 

You become a professional and enter the world of business writing. A new era of formality. You rewrite your emails to perfection, triple scan job applications, and basically filter your personality out of your writing. You’re left with a dull, boring set of words that don’t really sound like anyone anymore. And outside of restrictive workplaces, this sort of writing falls flat. It isn’t engaging or memorable. People will only read it if they have to. It just isn’t natural or fun to read.

It sounds crazy saying it out loud, but the more you write, the worse you get at sounding like the “real” you.

While re-learning how to write like we actually talk is just one part of conversation design, it’s an important one. Conversation design also requires understanding the limitations and strengths of a conversational interface, as well as meeting our psychological needs (empathy, efficiency, persuasion, etc.).

Do people want conversational experiences?

It’s true. Customers want speed, efficiency, and control. Now more than ever. Even a few extra milliseconds of loading time can have negative effects on bounce rate. So why would they care about natural experiences?

First, because they’re easy and intuitive. Take shopping for example. Despite how natural it may seem to us now, browsing and buying with mouse and keyboard takes learning. It takes behavior change from what you’re used to from youth. Instead of visiting a clothing store in person, finding a rep, and asking

“which coat would you recommend for a formal outdoor wedding?”

you’re forced to do something much different.

You land on a website, learn to navigate the company’s best guess at an intuitive menu. Then you spend countless points, clicks, filters, and backtracks making sure you find the best match.

With digital conversations (and great conversation design) you’re more empowered, and the learning curve is almost non-existent. Imagine if personalized shopping at a new online store was as easy as texting a friend. At this point, graphical interfaces become irrelevant.

Second, conversational experiences are enjoyable. In the spirit of competition and taking the “safe” route, it’s easy to forget the importance in delighting the customer. Your consumers are being talked at by thousands of brands a day. Most echoing a variation of “I’m slightly different from the rest.” And outdated copywriting techniques that worked for print advertising and television just don’t work like they used to. Because we’re afraid of going too far outside of the mold. AKA, scared of talking to customers like a friend would.

The problem is, this is exactly how people want to be talked too. A few examples of type of enjoyable experiences consumers are longing for:

  • Easy to talk to
  • Memorable
  • Interesting, unique, humorous, and surprisingly friendly.
  • Empathetic, understanding, and personalized. Making them feel heard
  • Authentic

Good conversation design is as familiar as texting a friend.

Business benefits

You’re most persuasive when you’re in a conversation. Think… conversation design is all around you. You’re having sales conversations all day. Convincing a colleague to go to your favorite restaurant over lunch. Asking for small favors around the house. The list goes on and on.

Also, in sales, what has the highest closing rate? Email drips? Facebook ads? Cold calls?

Nope. It’s in-person selling and word of mouth. And the craziest thing is it existed long before technology, and it still has the best chance to close the deal.

Think back… when’s the last time you saw an advertisement, chatted with customer service, or read an article and thought “wow, they really ‘get’ me”? Conversation design helps you:

  • Stand out from others
  • Build trust
  • Increase engagement
  • Increase memorability
  • Promote word of mouth

So, conversation design is important. But what about when conversation design goes wrong?

Why bad conversation design has the opposite effect

Conversation design done well is beautiful, enjoyable, and highly valuable. But bad conversation design, even with good intentions, can have the opposite effect.

The origin of the word conversation literally means to “be familiar with”. So conversation design is essentially creating familiarity. Our brains strive for familiarity in everything we do. Even the most adventurous among us have a subconscious bias towards the familiar. Why? Well, in short, because our brains crave safety and things that’ve worked in the past.

The Uncanny Valley

Since we prefer familiarity, conversation design should make things sound human, right? Not exactly.

At least, not yet.

A popular theory called the Uncanny Valley suggests robotic interfaces(?) are less likable if they’re humanlike but still seem a bit “off”. Take the movie “Her” for example. The main character falls in love with an operating system that talks just like a real human. The relationship builds until it’s revealed the OS is also talking to tons of other people in the same fashion. This ruins their relationship, sending the OS into the depths of the Uncanny Valley.

Conversation design is responsible for finding the sweet spot. And it starts with an understanding of what the “perfect” balance is. It’s a heated debate in conversation design. Should your chatbot act human? Should your Alexa skill be upfront about what it can or can’t do? Without a firm understanding of conversation design best practices, a lot is left up to opinion.

And we’ve seen how reliable our own opinions can be.

Why/where to start now

In the new user-driven economy, conversations are taking over. An increasing percentage of consumers want direct messaging communication with brands. Voice speakers are being bought adoped than smartphones. Messaging apps have overtaken social media apps. This paradigm shift means you need to keep up. So, where should you start? What can you do today to get a better grasp on conversation design?

For one, it’s helpful to familiarize yourself with the various conversational interfaces you may build on. Learn how to leverage their unique strengths and respect their limitations. Learn the basics terminology of conversation design (e.g. intents, NLP).

A good next step to understanding conversation design is gauging how conversational you currently write. Here’s a litmus test…

Next time you write an email, blog post, or advertisement, imagine your intended audience is a friend in the room with you. Then read your message out loud and ask…

“Does this sound like the real me? Would I really talk to them this way? Would I feel comfortable saying this?”

If you’re reading most online copy, the answer isn’t a confident “yes”.

Not to worry! Few people understand what good conversation design requires. Regardless, it’s important to start equipping your organization with the conversation design tools it needs. Especially in the way you market and sell to consumers.

Otherwise, your waves of overly-formal words will get lost in the sea of monotony, crashing against your customer’s hardening ship as they sail towards lighthouses willing to make them feel valued.

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