What is conversation design? UX Question #76

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Michael from Toronto asks: What is conversation design?

I love that question. Thanks for asking, Michael. This is UX Question number 76 and I am Ben Judy.

What is conversation design? Well, it’s simply designing the interaction between a human and a machine using spoken or text-based human language.

Think about your last experience with a chatbot or a digital assistant like Apple’s Siri or Google’s Alexa. Conversation design happened behind the scenes to try make that experience feel like you were talking with a helpful person, rather than a machine.

Advancements in artificial intelligence and especially Large Language Models, LLM’s like ChatGPT, have led to even more encounters with conversation design, in new and exciting ways.

Getting conversation design right can be magical. Experiencing a good conversation with a device can delightfully exceed our expectations, especially those of us who grew up with computers that were kinda dumb. When your mental model for interacting with software is that you have to approach the system on its own terms and your input is limited to the options it gives you, being able to converse naturally and be understood is amazing.

Getting conversation design wrong is costly. According to research by Digitas, 73% of Americans would not use a company’s chatbot again after having one bad experience with it. We have very little patience for this kind of design to be done poorly.

What I find fascinating about conversation design as a UX practitioner is that it is so often overlooked. Visual UI design gets so much attention in this career field. I think many people equate user interface design with graphical user interface design, as if GUIs are the only thing we can create.

Sure, organizing text and elements in a visual environment is the lion’s share of contemporary product design, but increasingly, CxD (conversation experience design) is only going to grow in importance as technology to support conversational experiences gets better and becomes more commonplace. Automatic speech recognition was a big technical hurdle for a long time, but that is rapidly becoming a basic feature.

Whereas most UX designers today are focused on buttons and clicks and colors and visual layout—is it possible that UX design of the future is more about words, tone of voice, verbal cues, context clues, and use of everyday language?

If you haven’t taken a close look at conversation design as part of your skill set, now is the time. Start with the links in the description, and start practicing with CxD. If it isn’t part of your job today as a UX designer, it might well be sooner than you think.

Keep asking your questions about UX. Next time, I’ll answer the question: How can I design with purpose rather than urgency?

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