Conversation shapes much of modern design. Product designers and UX researchers talk to stakeholders, users, developers, all to solve problems facing the business and its customers. Increasingly, the conversation is the design.

In the past, designers could only take that conversation so far. Early dialogue may have shaped user stories, design elements, and content strategy, but once a product is launched that conversation becomes asymmetrical and reactive. We monitor user behavior and iterate on designs to improve satisfaction or conversion rate. While that may work for certain web apps and SaaS platforms, it can lead to increased friction for digital products with complex onboarding flows or diverse audiences.

Enter conversational design. Conversational user interfaces, like Intercom, have given the designers the ability to implement dialogue directly into the digital products we build, rather than relying solely on user feedback to shape design and user interaction, making our designs proactive – even predictive when armed with the right insights. Messaging services have been baked into all kinds of experiences; if you’ve interacted with customer support or your banking app recently, you have likely talked with a chatbot without realizing it.

Conversation can be instant and frictionless, and it’s how humans are accustomed to solving problems. Which makes it an ideal way to introduce new users – humans – to an unfamiliar digital experience, and it’s transformed the way we bring new people into one of our most complex client projects.

Making Small Talk

Effective user onboarding can be difficult to nail down, especially for a product with multiple user groups with diverse needs.

Read Right from the Start on the Cox Campus, a language-learning initiative of the Atlanta Speech School’s Rollins Center for Language & Literacy faces a number of challenges to fulfill its mission. Its goal of transforming the face of childhood education through language and literacy requires educating and inspiring everyone involved in a child’s educational journey: parents and family members, educators and caregivers, school administrators, researchers, politicians and policymakers, donors looking to make an impact, and more.

Since Read Right from the Start on the Cox Campus is a learning platform designed first as a professional development resource for educators, our earliest work with the Rollins Center included a registration gateway to build user profiles, track progress, and create a supportive community within the app. However, as their reach expanded, we learned that cumbersome registration process blocked people who could use the program but were not in the initial core demographic – parents, community leaders, and others could all benefit from the curriculum, yet did not need the rigorous onboarding for professional development purposes.

Source: Krystal Higgins
Source: Krystal Higgins – New Users Matter Too

Although users have come to expect some sort of login – name or email – on the websites they visit, user sign-up often creates huge roadblocks to progress. For Read Right from the Start, an overburdensome sign-up process was blocking stakeholders and potential donors from entering the site to learn more. Yet stripping the login process entirely meant potentially losing that information entirely or losing the ability for educators to save their progress through the curriculum.

So our solution was to open the site to all users and build a less prescribed path for user onboarding. To account for users entering the site on multiple landing pages and with varying levels of awareness, we decided a conversational UI could share essential information, while letting new users know they were supported by “real” people who cared about their success. While everyone may start by sharing their name, we can ask for further information once conversation reveals the user is an educator or someone looking for professional development.

Once we’d decided to remove the content gateway and open the site to all users and acquisition channels, a conversational design was a no-brainer. Our challenge was to find a way to gradually serve content to certain user groups to ensure they’d be served a valuable experience no matter where they entered the site.

Choose Your Words

Building a conversational UI begins with fully understanding the context of the dialogue you want to manage with your users, which requires a lot of research and groundwork. In our case, we had the advantage of years of product analytics and having done in-depth customer journey mapping while iterating upon the platform. Even accounting for the multiple entry points and levels of brand awareness, we knew exactly what our core audiences would be feeling when they landed on the site and what they’d hope to accomplish.

More importantly, we knew the tone and context of the discussions we wanted to support.

The first iteration of the Cox Campus was a clickable campus map, where teachers could enter new buildings to access new curriculum. Though our design evolved into a more modern learning management system, we wanted every user to have the experience of stepping into a room on campus and talking to a professor, librarian, or records keeper.

As we built scripts upon our detailed customer journey maps, we created a persona that mirrored how interactions on an actual campus would play out in the digital space. By anticipating the needs and questions of our users, we created conversational elements that brought warmth and welcome to an impersonal digital interface.
conversational design user flow for read right from the start

  • Create a Natural Conversation – While full user profiles require detailed information, we decided we only needed one information to start a conversation: a name. Like most conversations with new people, starting with a name and gathering additional information with open-ended questions or user cues was enough for users to become comfortable with the platform. Backed with the huge flowchart of user interactions above, we built hooks and cues into the UI to move people along the right path.
  • Set Its Scope – Conversational design should simply build upon the customer journey mapping exercise done at the start of any new project. Before building a conversational UI, designers should know exactly what the goals and outcomes of any conversation should be – both for the business and its users. For us, we needed to educate and inform users, while slowly drawing out the information needed to build profiles. By determining the end goals of each conversation, you can craft a script that delivers value at every interaction.
  • Reduce the Uncanny Valley – The problem with artificial intelligence is that the closer to lifelike it gets, well…it gets pretty creepy. The more systems act or look human, the more likely they are to weird out the people interacting with them. Just like robots or CGI people, chatbots can easily fall into the Uncanny Valley of being “too human, yet weirdly not human enough.” For Read Right from the Start, we needed to balance creating a chatbot that was warm and trustworthy enough to initiate a conversation, yet not too real that users through they were talking to a real person named Angela.

Why Conversational Design

Beyond simply being the natural way humans interact, conversational interfaces bring a number of benefits to product design.
Breaking the Patterns of Conventional Design – Visit any five websites, and chances are good you’ll recognize a few (read: most) design patterns in use across each of them. Visual design patterns typically lead to uniformity across the web. One site utilizes a design technique that works, so everyone follows suit to create a familiar experience. These patterns keep users grounded in familiar context, but they also create impersonal experiences. Conversational Design is an opportunity to show there are real, unique people behind the familiar patterns of your brand, even if the user knows they’re not necessarily talking to a real human.

conversational design in action on Read Right from the Start

While visual design is the same for each user, conversations are inherently unique – even when following a script. A good conversational UI can be designed to identify more casual language and reply in the same tone or inject humor when it seems necessary. Even scripted conversations allow for more nuance and brand personality than the design patterns that users have become accustomed to, bridging the gap to a more customized, personal experience.

Increased User Interaction – Often the hardest hurdle in onboarding someone to a new product is simply getting them to use it, especially as intended. While good designers can shepherd new users through a complex interface, conversational UI allows the user to progressively control the information they receive. If a learner on Read Right from the Start wants to move on to a new segment, they control that interaction and we can ask for further information – like an email address as appropriate.

Reduced Friction – While it’s impossible to predict every fringe use case or user desire, a well-designed chatbot or conversational UI can reduce user friction by simply limiting users to a few predictive options. With open-ended questions or offering proactive solutions, we can help users find their path before they feel frustrated with a design or user path.

Reduced Customer Support – There’s a reason most e-commerce sites now have chatbots standing by to help customers in a bind; your customer service teams typically only sees a finite number of (usually predictable) customer queries. Intelligent conversational design can solve most user frustrations while minimizing the need to have staff standing by to help users with easily solvable issues.

Filling in the Blanks

While reducing the need for customer support staff might be beneficial for your business, the beauty of conversational design isn’t that it removes humans from the equation. It’s that it allows designers to build upon the data and information we gather before a product launches and bridge that gap into the daily practice of user interactions.

We don’t have to wait for analytics to tell us that users are dropping off due to frustrations in the shopping cart, or that paid search traffic struggles to connect with content – we can predict that behavior and build UI elements to mitigate that user friction. Conversational design allows users to fill in the blanks of our assumptions, and also find the information they need to find success within a product.

Like any good conversation, it’s just a place to start.

Feature photo by on Unsplash


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