Speaker spotlight: Verne Ho on designing conversations

How can chatbots improve the user experience of a digital product?

A handful of ways! For starters, by virtue of its medium, chatbots tend to gravitate towards shorter and more linear workflows. This often pushes product teams to discover new ways to create a simpler and more streamlined experience for its end users.

Users also benefit from the familiarity of chat, creating a lower barrier of entry even if a user hasn’t interacted with a specific bot before. This also means, for chatbots integrated into mainstream platforms, engaging with the product falls perfectly into existing rituals already, requiring no new behaviours to be adopted.

Thirdly, chatbots offer unique opportunities to personify a brand and create more nuanced and emotional connections with users. Deeper personalisation and more adaptable and organic workflows also puts more power in the user’s hands, allowing them to get things done in a way that best suits them.

What are the main differences between designing conversational interfaces and standard, graphical UIs?

First and foremost, conversational interfaces are content-driven experiences. What we typically see as microcopy on a standard UI is actually the primary communication lever in conversational products. The UI still plays an active role, but is more determinedly supporting the consumption, creation, and interaction of content. The result is also a hyper-focused experience that relies on less real estate and a more limited set of visual cues to help users get things done. It’s also for this reason that the UI on most chat products tends to converge around the same familiar patterns, minimising the need for bespoke components and giving way for the content to be the distinctive ingredient in the experience.

What are the biggest challenges in designing a chatbot like Kit?

An important distinction between Kit and many chatbots is that Kit is a business product. For our merchants that work with Kit, there is more at stake with every decision being made together. With their brand, customers, products, and money on the line, one of our greatest challenges is in helping Kit develop high-trust working relationships that breed confident decision making. This is inherently why language matters so much in crafting Kit’s conversational experience; the voice, tone, and words we choose have far reaching impact on how Kit is perceived and interacted with, which plays a critical role for merchants trying to build and run a business.

Photo by Cynthia Nguyen

Why have conversational experiences taken off so much over the last few years?

Chat’s resurgence into nearly all of our favourite products has been such a fascinating shift to observe. Despite being one of the oldest forms of digital communication, I think chat’s comeback can be attributed to a handful of reasons:

  • Digital adoption: more people are preferring to interact online over in-person
  • Immediacy: chat is simply faster than most other communication mediums, and we live in an age where patience and attention spans are increasingly being shortened
  • Multitasking: we multitask more than ever before and chat lets us balance several tasks simultaneously without skipping a beat on any of our conversations
  • Connectivity: we’re also more connected than ever before and use chat to maintain a variety of types of relationships across a multitude of platforms
  • Richer expressions: chat simply isn’t the same chat we used to have; it’s now emojis, boomerangs, filters, stickers, drawings, animations, and a growing list of other ways that let us express ourselves more richly
  • Familiarity: at its core, despite all the ways its evolved, chat still fundamentally operates off the same interaction model, making it incredibly approachable and easy to adopt

For these reasons and more, we’re now not only texting and DMing our friends across every social platform, but we’re also chatting with our rideshare driver, our delivery person, and even the reservationist at our favourite restaurants. When you look at it closely, chat has made a fascinating leap from being a means to communicate to being a means to get things done.

Can you recommend some tools and resources for conversational design?

Certainly! Hemingway is by far one of my most used apps on a daily basis. It’s a great tool to drop your terrible first draft of content into in order to see how it needs to be refined for clarity and readability.

I also occasionally use Omnigraffle (or any diagramming tool) to map out conversation flows and logic trees (much in the same way you would for user flows). This often gives our UX, engineering, and product teams a common artifact to use when defining the experience.

To prototype conversations, I rely heavily on “table readings” — that is, reading a script out loud (sometimes with other team members) to gauge how naturally and fluidly the dialog sounds and feels. Form builders (like Typeform) that support conditional paths can also be used as lightweight prototyping tools for conversations.

As for reading material, Erika Hall’s Conversational Design is a great primer on thinking conversationally about product design. Any voice and tone guidelines for chat or voice products you can get your hands on also tends to offer a ton of insight into how other leaders are thinking about this space.

What can people expect to take away from your talk in Bristol?

I think the audience can expect to walk away with a better understanding of the unique opportunities that conversational experiences can offer, why these types of products will only grow in relevance as time goes on, and more importantly, how we can all create better experiences that map back to why people truly value conversations. I’m excited to share!

What’s your favourite cocktail?

I’m definitely an Old Fashioned kind of guy! There’s so much elegance in its simplicity and refinement. It’s also incredibly easy to mess up when you try to be too creative with it. Classic and spirit forward is definitely the way to go for me.

Apart from Verne's talk, Pixel Pioneers Bristol covers practical web animation, cutting-edge CSS layouts, DevTools, modern web development with the JAMstack, optimising experiences for multiple devices, durable and inclusive design, and more.
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