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's hard to deny that it's been professionally designed. The layout has a clear information hierarchy that follows website conventions most users are familiar with. There's a navigation structure at the top of the page, and scanning the page vertically leads one to clear content blocks visually organized by priority. This design is further enhanced by a consistent typeface scale and color palette that adheres to accessibility guidelines to ensure that most, if not all, users can access content despite visual impairments. We also see user interface components like buttons, text inputs and icons that have become commonplace on popular websites. Many of these conventions are in place because there is now an established role for this type of design. Today, you can hire someone to build a user interface like this. The profession "Web Designer" is now part of what makes website design 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 primary interaction method is hypertext. There's no consistent color palette, typographic hierarchy or information architecture. We could even go so far as to say the layout is sloppy. And the bullets and shadows look like they were created in a word processor rather than a design tool.

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

Today, conversational interfaces may be 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 visual design for help, conversation designers should look to the social sciences. Just as formal knowledge of the visual design 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