What is Conversation Design, and How to Design Your Chatbot

Conversation Designers will be the next wave of jobs in digital marketing. Here’s what they do, and how to create a strategic chatbot.

Hillary Frazier

Hillary Frazier

February 01, 2018

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When social media jobs first became “a thing,” around 2010, there weren’t any concrete descriptions. There weren’t social media agencies, social strategist, social media editors, and there certainly weren’t descriptions for those jobs. As one of the earliest community managers, I was a part of the industry evolution and lucky enough to ride it. I went from a community manager to a social media specialist, to a writer of social media, to senior community manager, social media manager, and lately, social media consultant. Now, with chatbots, it feels like we’re right back at that point. Who will write them? Who decides what paths the bots should go down? Who creates the personalities? What happens when they fail? How do we market and advertise them?

Enter Conversation Designers.

So far with chatbots, people are using things like “Conversational UI” “Chatbot Writer” “AI Writer” “AI Interaction Designer.” I’m going to call it what it is — Conversation Designers. The job market has to start somewhere, right?

So what is conversation design?

Personality Building. The crucial aspect that separates a memorable bot from an ineffective one is personality. One thing I’ve noticed with many bot-first companies is that they all sound the same. Why is that? They were written by the developers instead of writers. The conversation, while functional, is very linear with without the surprises a creative writer may include. When a lot of bots fail, they say things like “sorry, I didn’t understand you.” Users get frustrated.

Debt Like WTF (a bot conversation I designed, which was developed by Black Ops) went all in on personality when building their bot, and as a result, their engagement went way up, and they lowered their customer acquisition cost.

With the below example from Black Ops’ client Haven Life, when conversations are designed correctly, the personality shines. Many brands spend months developing their digital personality, and seeing that translate into a chatbot will delight the user and help them get back on track, instead of frustrating them.

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Copywriting. Capturing the personality is a key to creating a bot that’s enjoyable and converts, but being a copywriter that can work in tight spaces is essential in conversation design. Similar to social media copywriting, every word matters. The displays are only so large, and in chatbots, the buttons are even smaller, but there are still opportunities to be creative with GIFs, emojis, and of course, copy.

UX. Where do we go from here? When planning a chatbot, the conversation designer must create and build all of the paths the user could take to reach the end goal (like getting a quote, calling a phone number, buying something). Some users may need more hand holding, some may try their best to get the bot to “fail.” This is like a choose your own adventure book or a video game, not a tv show. It’s nonlinear, and the more flexibility you design into your bot, the more engaging it will be. The more storylines you have for the bot, the more likely a user will want to use it again, like when a player beats a video game.

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Conversation Strategy — for now. I think Conversation Strategists will be the next phase of jobs we’ll see come out of chatbots (like we saw with social strategists breaking away from social media managers). Writing the script is the second piece of the puzzle. First, you need to know what you’re trying to write. Coming up with the concepts, how they evolve over time alongside brand initiatives, and what the specific, measurable goal for a bot is separates the successes and failures. A strategist builds the main conversational flows, determines the feature set for the audience (will we have integrations, will the user be able to type, etc) and determines how we can best reach our bot’s goal through the flows. Additionally, once the bot is out in the wild, the strategist can track feedback on performance against the KPIs, and plan future developments. Right now, designers and strategist are easily one in the same, but I expect to see talent develop in both areas separately.

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How exactly do you design a conversation?

You’re all in on what a conversation designer is, and now you want to get started writing for bots. Right now, there are a few tools you can use to create a non-linear script (like a video game designer would use), but as we’re still early in the space, the tools haven’t developed fully. I’m going to focus on the basics, and leave the execution of it to you, the future conversation designer.

This is an example workflow for how I create my scripts, and I currently use a combination of Google Tools and bot mockups to show a client how the finished product would look.

  1. Outline. Like most stories and papers, starting with an outline will give you a clear picture of everything that needs to be written. Once you’ve created the strategy for your bot, outline all of the flows you will need to reach your end goal. Know that you’ll need an entry point, but also that there are multiple ways to reach 1 question. This will be the “bones” of the bot, and when you begin drafting the copy for each flow, you will likely find new paths that need to be added to the flow to continue the conversation in a natural way.

  2. Flow Map. In addition to an outline, creating a flow map is the best way to see how the conversation connects. Are there points in your bot where a question can be re-asked, or where a user will be redirected to another point in another flow? The more flows you have, the more complicated your map will be, but this is a great way to communicate your conversation strategy to your client, and will serve as your guide as you write your script out.

  3. Script. Once you have the outline and map, you can begin expanding the script. I find it easiest to start with the concrete flows you know will be within the bot (that you should have outlined), and while you’re writing, keep track of any points where the user may get confused, or want to have a different answer than your linear story. These will eventually expand to additional flows.

  4. Main Flows. The main flows are the 1–3 main “tracks” your user can go down to complete the goal of the bot. These will be the most robust parts of your script, and likely intersect at some points. One way to think of it when building your outline is that the main flows represent chapters of the script.

  5. Hello, Goodbye. It may seem simple, but the first impression of your bot is crucial. Especially if you are obtaining users through advertising, when they initiate the bot, the experience should extend from the ad. Also, you will need to create the exit experience. Maybe there isn’t one, maybe you provide contact information or hand off to a human, either way, this needs to be sketched out.

  6. Catch All State. This is that personality play I mentioned earlier. No matter how perfectly you write the script, it will fail. Be it a flaw in the technology, use case you may have not thought of, or the most likely, someone intentionally trying to break your bot. Having a creative solution for saying “oops, we fucked up, let’s try again” is one of the most powerful things a conversation designer can do. Consider what the bot replies, how it tries to put the user back on track, where it would put that user in the flow, and what happens if the bot fails more than once (because it will, trust me).

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Who would make a good conversation designer?

From my experience as a conversation designer, and as someone who hires them, these are the types of people I think would make great conversation designers. Both in experience with the flow of social media conversation, B2B user experiences, and creative writing:

  • Social media managers
  • Copywriters, especially in digital and social
  • Script writers
  • Improv comedians
  • Video game designers and enthusiasts

Are you excited yet? Think you’d totally rock at conversation design, and want to be a part of building the future of conversations? First, immediately email me [email protected]. I want to hear from you, and I maybe want to hire you.