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Having a great conversation with your users


Demystifying the art of conversation design for Voice apps


One of the reasons why people are increasingly adopting voice-apps over a mobile app or a website is because voice is intuitive, it comes naturally to us. We have been taught to speak and talk ever since we were born.

Humans have perfected the art of conversation through the thousands of years and hundreds of generations. So, while using a voice app, people already know how to communicate with it. But the downside of this is, while humans are experts in having conversations, our computers sadly, are not. So we must design our conversational apps in a way that our users can get the most of our apps, with the least effort from their sides.

While making the perfect conversational app is a progressive effort, we do however have some guidelines to help us get started.

In 1975, Grice stated that participants in a conversation expect that each will make a “conversational contribution such as is required, at the stage at which it occurs, by the accepted purpose or direction of the talk exchange.”

This simply means that while having a conversation, people are always cooperative towards each other. Grice postulated four maxims that participants in a conversation knowingly or unknowingly follow, in order to cooperate with one another. These maxims can be applied to the conversational structure of our apps to help it sound more intuitive:

In a conversation, a speaker always tries to provide as much information as is required in order for it to progress forward. We must keep in mind to not overwhelm the user with too much information, neither to underwhelm him with too little.

Consider the following examples:

This is the welcome response for a Gratitude Journal I have been working on:

Response: Hey! It’s amazing that you’re choosing ${appName} to keep a record of little things that make your life beautiful. You’ve already taken the first and most important step towards practising gratitude in your daily life. Inorder to make the best of ${appName}, we would need to create your account. If you agree, please say ‘Create my account’

Redesign: Hey! Welcome to ${appName}, your personal gratitude journal. Please say Create My Account to get started.

While the first response tried to give the users a warm welcome with a little encouragement, it sounded too much to the user. The redesign however, sounds much better as it is a crisp and provides users with just the right amount of information.

Here’s another one:

User: Can you play a song by Adele?

Agent: Yes, I can.

User: Can you play a song by Adele?

Redesign: Sure, here is Hello by Adele.

This is a perfect example of how too little could be dangerous too.

Speakers provide information which is best known to be true. This is how we earn the trust of a listener. If we have no evidence of a fact, it is best to not include that in the conversation. We must always provide the user with truthful information, in order for a conversation to proceed forward.

Response: My backyard is as big as the Moon.

Need I say more? No one likes a liar.

Imagine three people are having this conversation —

U1: While leaving the house today, my dog shook hands with me as if leaving after a meeting. He is so smart!

U2: I think the pancakes I ordered were vanilla flavoured, but why do they taste like banana?!

U3: The new UI of this app is awe-full. Where is the search button?

While people might find it amusing sometimes to play pranks on each other, trust me, when a computer does it, your users are not going to be happy about it. They are just going to assume your app has gone bonkers.

Try to communicate your dialogs in the most ordered and precise way that is possible. Avoid ambiguity and be clear. Users love clear and concise dialogs with proper intonation and speed. Use SSML to get that perfect speed and tone, in a way that conveys the message across correctly.

Response: Your payee list currently contains the following payees:

Redesign: Here’s who you can pay:

Here’s another example:

Response: Your transaction you requested is now completed.

Redesign: Done!

Cooperative principle makes designing conversations much intuitive and natural. As James Giangola would say, “Cooperative Principle is not an option, it is an evolutionary advantage, as people are naturally cooperative”. So we must take advantage of that.

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