Conversational UX Design - overview

A case for Conversational UX Design

With the proliferation of chatbot and conversational agent platforms, from IBM, Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and more, a new design discipline is emerging: Conversational UX Design. While it is easy to create natural language interfaces with these platforms, creating an effective and engaging user experience is still a major challenge. Creating an interaction that works like a human conversation in particular is an even harder problem. While natural language processing techniques have given us powerful tools in analyzing bits of language, they do not tell us how to string together those bits of natural language into a natural conversation.

To appreciate the need for a new kind of design, consider web design for a moment. In 2016, the IBM homepage looked like this...


Whether you like it or not, it is clearly professionally designed. It has a clean look and feel. Attractive fonts and color palette. Colorful hi-res images. It uses standard, familiar elements, such as drop-down menus, a search box, social media icons, the "hamburger" menu and more. Furthermore, you can hire someone to build a user interface like this. "Web Designer" is an established role that is part of a mature discipline.

But it wasn't always this way. Take a look back at the IBM homepage in 1996...

By today's standards, it's a mess. It looks like it was designed by an amateur, and it no doubt was. The only interaction element is the hypertext link. There's no consistent color palette. The layout is sloppy. And the bullets and shadows look like they were created in PowerPoint.

So what's the difference? Over the past 20 years, the discipline of web design emerged. And it happened in large part because visual artists and graphic designers got involved with user interface design. People with formal knowledge of graphic design applied their expertise to the graphical user interface problem, and a new design discipline was born.

Today, conversational interfaces are where web interfaces were in 1996: the technology is now in the hands of the masses, but design standards have not yet emerged around it. And the visual solutions that evolved for graphical interfaces will not help us with conversational interfaces, especially in the case of voice. With conversational interfaces, the user experience consists primarily of the design and sequencing of utterances.

Instead of looking to the visual arts for help, conversation designers should look to the social sciences. Just as formal knowledge of the graphic arts revolutionized graphical user interface design, formal knowledge of human conversation can revolutionize conversational user interface design.

Continue on to learn about different user interaction styles...

Project Members

Dr. Robert J. Moore,
Conversation Analyst, Lead

Raphael Arar,
UX Designer & Researcher

Dr. Margaret H. Szymanski,
Conversation Analyst

Dr. Guang-Jie Ren,