Eight Principles of Conversational Design
Using human conversation patterns to design more natural digital interactions
We increasingly rely on digital systems to either mediate or replace human communications. But often, these experiences feel clunky and impersonal, or even scammy and deceptive.
Asking Alexa to add something to my shopping cart is a breeze:
“Hey Alexa, add bananas to my shopping list.”
“Okay, I’ve added bananas to your shopping list.”
But if I want to add 10 things to my list, I have to ask Alexa again to add each individual item.
“Alexa, add peanut butter to my shopping list.”
“Okay, I’ve added peanut butter to your shopping list.”
“Alexa, add strawberry jam to my shopping list.”
“Okay, I’ve added strawberry jam to your shopping list.”
“Alexa, add whole wheat bread to my shopping list.”
Alexa’s limited recall means I have to repeatedly call her name and tell her the context again, which results in a very unnatural conversation and makes me wonder if it would have been quicker just to write down the list myself.
While voice interactions and other digital interfaces often use cutting edge technology, if the design is too constrained by the application logic, it can strain the experience of the humans that use them. The key to designing interactions that feel more human is to follow the core principles of human interactions and conversations.
Systems are ubiquitous, and we rely on them to do to more and more. Having multiple interfaces and systems to interact with (voice, text, website, on location) makes it more complicated to exchange value. Regular context-switching means interfaces need to be as simple, intuitive, and as similar as possible, to avoid a disjointed experience for customers.
The challenge for designers is to make interactions with digital systems feel less robotic and more personal, creating systems that succeed on human terms.
The key to designing interactions that feel more human is to follow the core principles of human interactions and conversations.
Read on for some key principles to keep in mind when designing interactions.
What is conversational design?
The concept of conversational design is about looking at human conversation as a model for all interactions with digital systems. Using the principles of what makes everyday human interactions productive, it’s possible to create a better and more natural dialogue with systems.
Conversation is how humans interact with one another — any two strangers who speak the same language can have a conversation using this familiar interface.
Even if it’s occasionally awkward, or you don’t fully understand all the inner workings of another person, there is enough shared understanding about what’s expected in a conversation to efficiently communicate. The goal of conversational design is to learn from human conversations to make digital systems easy and intuitive to use.
Principles for conversational design go beyond voice assistants and chatbots — UI, web design, and even print design can all can be more conversational. Intentional language choices can make digital interactions feel like they’ve been designed for humans, by humans.
“We’re fast moving past ‘computer literacy.’ It’s on us to ensure all systems speak human fluently.” — Erika Hall
Eight principles of conversational design
Basic principles of human conversation — such as providing enough information that’s honest and relevant, brief and polite — can be carried over to designing interactions with systems.
Developing empathy for human experiences through user research and listening is essential to learning how to design interactions that serve people better.
In Hall’s excellent book on the topic, Conversational Design introduces the following set of conversational design principles to create more human-centered interactions in any type of interface.
The core underlying principle of conversation is cooperation, the shared purpose that helps people understand each other across verbal gaps. In other words, for a conversation to work, everyone participating must do their part.
For example, if someone asks you for directions, there’s a mutual agreement suggested by common courtesy for you to provide useful and relevant information, and not to deceive them or tell them a long-winded story that has nothing to do with their question.
When users feel like they have to put in a lot of work to carry a conversation, they can feel like the system is not on their side, and is even making things harder for them. Systems that require special knowledge or “computer literacy” place a burden on customers to figure out how they work.
Cooperative systems actively support the user and require less effort to interact with, mirroring the natural give-and-take flow of human conversation to make the exchange easier and more intuitive.
Having a clear goal in mind is a core principle of interaction design. People have goals when they interact with digital systems, services, and products — whether it’s checking a bank account balance, asking for help, comparing vacation spots, or looking up an unfamiliar word.
User goals and needs should be explored via user research as part of the holistic design process, and they’re key to designing a successful interaction. If you don’t know what your users are trying to do, how will you know when they’ve done it successfully?
A successful interaction helps both parties — customers and organizations — meet their goals.
The equivalent of “reading a room” to guide a conversation, the more context-aware a system is, the more conversational it can be.
When you’re searching for hotel rooms available tonight in Seattle on your phone, for example, you don’t want to see rooms available in Boston, or deals on hotels+flight+rental car packages — it’s clear that you are already in Seattle and need a place to sleep.
Overly automated messages or recommendations that don’t add value to your users can be damaging to the overall experience. The more a system can respond to contextual cues, the better it will be at having what seems like a natural conversation and not leaving users feeling stranded.
While devices can automatically provide information such as a user’s location and time zone, additional insight into what users need and expect throughout the different phases of their interactions helps inform solutions that feel like they’ve been designed for humans.
4. Quick and clear
Get to the point. Time is precious. Speed is everything.
When it’s built on an understanding of your customers’ goals and context, thoughtful conversation design can help people make decisions with less friction and get their interaction over with quickly and efficiently.
Save your users time and mental exertion by being succinct and unambiguous. Use plain language and guide users in a logical sequence, considering their likely interactions. Highly technical language or ambiguous error messages will leave people confused and unsure of what to do next.
It’s lazy to default to application logic without considering the human interaction with the system and having enough empathy to design a better experience.
In a conversation, each party takes turns listening and responding appropriately. Ideally, these are relatively brief and even turns in the exchange, though some topics require a longer explanation. To avoid feeling one-sided, functional conversations should avoid long monologues on the part of the system and make it clear whose turn it is at every moment.
Just as a good storyteller can keep an audience engaged for a long time without being rude, responding to contextual cues and requesting or providing the right information at the right time helps system interactions feel more intuitive. Validating that input is correct before moving forward also helps keep the conversation moving along smoothly — especially if undoing an action will cause the user additional time or pain to correct.
Google Search is a great example of a natural, turn-taking interaction — you enter your query and receive pages of relevant results almost instantly. The predictive search functionality recommends similar queries based on previous searches, so you often don’t even have to type the full query. Each new search gives you a batch of new results, and there’s little perceived downside to running multiple searches. This ease of interaction has helped Google Search become the standard for information exchange today.
Successful interactions feel truthful, offer clear and verifiable information, and prevent confusion. Being truthful in conversation design means ensuring there is a strong correlation between what the user expects and what the system offers. No unpleasant surprises or bait-and-switch tactics that cause distrust.
Intentionally vague language, such as a “Get Started” link that forces users to create an account before even knowing what they’re signing up for, can feel deceptive and negatively impact the perception of how credible your system is. Using clear language and ensuring all the information necessary to take action is present in conversations with systems will help create a more trustworthy and satisfactory interaction.
Politeness is the quality of being respectful and considerate of other people, and it helps make people feel more relaxed and comfortable with one another in a conversation.
Being respectful of your customer’s limited time and attention means designing interactions that don’t impose on them. Don’t be rude, like ads that pop up and starting playing a video, forcing you to listen while you’re trying to figure out how to close them.
Polite designs help organizations meet business goals while also making customers feel good. Giving the customer more or fewer options (depending on what they’re trying to accomplish) and anticipating additional needs can make digital interactions feel more considerate and pleasantly productive.
Understanding your user’s journey through research and testing will help highlight areas where there are opportunities to make users’ time with your system more productive and efficient, making it clear that you respect their time.
People make mistakes. We’re only human, after all.
In a system interaction, how easy or difficult it is to recover from an error affects the entire rest of the experience. You’ll only try so many times before getting frustrated and giving up.
Computers are programmed to follow instructions based on reason and logic and don’t always catch our more human errors. Understanding intent with imperfect information or an unexpected response is challenging for machines, but not impossible. Google Search again is leading the way with understanding search intent. When you spell a word wrong in your Google Search query, you still get relevant results, and it shows you the corrected spelling. Even if that’s still not quite what you meant, revising the query feels effortless.
While the machines are learning about intent and natural language processing, we can learn from our human interactions to create thoughtful and intentional designs that help people make decisions easily and recover seamlessly.
Conversational design is design that feels human, even when it’s really a network of systems. Improving interactions to make them feel more human will make them seem more natural and effortless, even if we know we’re still working with a machine.
The principles outlined here are a starting point, and I strongly recommend Erika Hall’s Conversation Design for many more wise insights around creating conversational interactions in practice and finding the right voice for your interface.
Almost every relationship or transaction is now possible to mediate through a digital system. Understanding what makes person-to-person interactions work as well as they do, and applying to those principles when designing interactions, can help ensure our systems feel less robotic, and more real.