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#11 Your conversation design questions, answered
Thank you for trusting us with your CxD questions!
We’re back online
Yes, we’re guilty of quietly disappearing from the internet and suddenly blowing up a storm on social. We all needed a break for the summer. We hope you also took the time to unwind, relax, and recover! 🏖️
This issue we’re breaking away from our original format to accommodate our larger than expected audience Q&A section. A few weeks back, our social media manager Elaine had asked for questions on Instagram for this newsletter issue and we were taken aback by the overwhelming response! We were so grateful to receive so many thoughtful and original questions.
In this issue, we’ll answer 4 of the submitted questions, and will space out the remaining in issues to come. Happy reading!
Podcast Corner 🎙️
While we’re waiting for season 2…
Our very own Millani Jayasingkam cameo’d on the legendary voice tech resource, VUX World, with Ben McCulloch! The conversation? All about finding and creating your Conversational AI community. Millani is extremely well suited to talk about such a topic, given her background participating and helping MC events by Voice Tech Global, building her podcast v-team, and now organizing in-person events via AI Speakeasy Toronto!
Watch it and let us know which parts stood out to you!
Audience Q&A 💌
To help us answer questions this week, we have newly minted podcast volunteer Kritika Yadav! 💜💙💜 You might remember Kritika from a previous newsletter issue. We loved her transparency and kindness so much we knew we had to bring her onboard. Welcome Kritika!
How has Conversation Design changed over the past year?
Kritika: Well, it's been quite a journey in the world of Conversation Design over the past year given all the new developments. What stands out the most to me is how the role has evolved. We've gone from being seen as those who simply make things sound good (yes, imagine me saying my bot responses out loud) to becoming an integral part of the entire product development process.
The idea that "conversation design" is optional has faded away. Now, we're right there, collaborating closely with engineering teams and data scientists. It's not just about aesthetics; we're deeply involved in discussions that lay the foundation for a successful product. Whether it's fine-tuning Language Models (LLMs) or ensuring they seamlessly meet our product's unique needs, we're in it every step of the way. This heightened level of involvement is genuinely exciting. Our expertise isn't just valuable; it's now considered essential in creating products that users not only love but rely on. It's an evolving landscape, and I'm thrilled to be a part of it.
Millani: For this past year, it has been an unexpected wild ride - this can be applied to conversation design and my life but for the purpose of this newsletter, let’s stick to conversation design.
I always hope people will be familiar with the concept of conversation design and its importance. To be honest, my expectations have been greatly exceeded thanks to the rise of ChatGPT and LLMs. Users have been amazed at their level of understanding. Compared to the cute little chatbots we have out there, users are impressed by the answers these LLMs spit out. We used to hear a lot of complaints around chatbots and IVR experiences. Nowadays, that talk has quieted down and it’s all about AI taking over our jobs.
Full disclaimer: I’m Canadian, so I don’t know what Bard is like, but from my limited experience with Generative AI , it has disrupted our industry. It’s no wonder designers are freaking out trying to figure out what it means. Gen AI is affecting how to think about our role in design too, and changing what “design” will mean in the years— or months to come. But at the same time, I still get questions like, “What’s a conversation designer?”, “what does conversation design mean?”, “did you create that chatbot on [company I’ve never heard of before]?”. I even get questions like, “What is AI? Are you the AI? Don’t lie, I know it’s you, right?”
Elaine: A personal goal of mine is to bridge the divide between what the UX community considers “UX design” and what UX design can include, like niche specializations such as conversation design. I say this because I’ve now sort of become my UX/product designer friends’ go-to Conversation Design spokesperson. So, I get this question a lot. The general sentiment I hear these days is, “Oh, with ChatGPT out in the world, there must be such a big demand for conversation designers now!” To which I say: sorry, no. To demand conversation design, it first requires knowledge of its existence in the first place, and painfully, the world is not super aware of the CxD discipline as you think. Take this year’s largest design conference, Config. More than 8,000 registered attendees, so many panels and talks, but no mention of conversation design or recognition that UX designers have ventured into conversational experiences in the past. Siri exists, but most users don’t know where the content comes from. Also, by default, conversation design is constantly in flux because the technology is constantly evolving, so to change is the nature of the industry. By that definition alone, I would say our discipline hasn’t changed much in the past year.
Which skills (hard/soft) translate best to a CxD career?
Kritika: You know, when it comes to what skills really shine in a Conversation Design (CxD) career, I'd say the hard skills can be picked up along the way, so I won't dwell on those. But let's talk about the soft skills, because they're the real MVPs in this field.
First off, critical thinking is an absolute must-have. It's like your secret weapon. Critical thinking helps you dive deep into all the possible user journeys and really analyze those conversation flows. It's about seeing the bigger picture, understanding how everything fits together in the product, and not getting stuck in one tiny corner of it. And here's the real magic trick: creativity. This one's a game-changer. Once you've done all that critical thinking and analyzed the heck out of things, that's when creativity kicks in. It's where you take all that analysis and turn it into ingenious solutions. You start thinking about how to make the user experience not just good, but extraordinary.
There's another vital skill that holds immense importance in this field—mastering the art of thriving amid ambiguity. Conversation designers often find themselves delving into unexplored territories and tackling emerging use cases where uncertainty is the norm. Embracing ambiguity becomes a superpower, enabling them to fearlessly explore and innovate in these novel and uncertain domains.
You know those chatbots or virtual assistants that seem to chat with you like a real human? Well, they're standing tall on the shoulders of these heavyweights: critical and creative thinking, plus the ability to embrace the unknown. So, if you're considering a career in CxD, remember to keep those thinking caps on and your ambiguity-detecting radar sharp, because they're your best pals on this exciting journey.
Millani: I’ll focus on my favourite one because it’s something I’ve always worked on, continuously work on, and will always work on, no matter what. COMMUNICATION. It should be a no-brainer because we are… conversation designers. But communicating goes beyond the content your product will say. It’s also about communicating the decisions you’ve made to take the product in a certain direction, communicating new ideas and bringing them to the table, communicating the importance of conversation design as a practice, communicating the difficult learnings from tests, and navigating difficult conversations in general.
For companies who have recently branched out to having conversation designers (or naming certain roles to conversation design), they probably don’t want to reinvent the wheel and reinvent existing best practices in the industry. That’s why, it’s the responsibility of the first or founding designer to go in and establish those best practices and advocate for them. The biggest soft skill you can bring to the role is strong communication abilities. Tapping into it and being able to reach the other person is very important. It’s also good to bring yourself to work, if it’s possible. Authenticity is louder and stronger than you think. Weave it into your style of communication, if you don’t already, and notice the difference.
Elaine: I’m probably coming off as the pessimist in this group of writers (haha), but to be honest, the biggest soft skill you need in conversation design is to not take things personally.
What does “not taking it personally” entail? For one, it’s the ability to separate yourself from your work. As a junior conversation designer (and as someone new to UX design in general), I would always be afraid to ask for feedback, and more than that, scared to know how to gracefully accept and respond to constructive feedback. Would “Okay, I can see where you’re coming from. Let me make the change.” suffice when I didn’t want to deal with the instant rejection I felt on my design? Over time, I realized that I am not my work, and just as how my role as a designer makes me have blinders on and only see my user (not all the time, but yes, blinders on), the same applies to other cross-functional partners who have their own goals and motivations when they examine work on their product. We’re all collectively working to build better experiences. It’s okay to be wrong, because no one is right all of the time!
To be more specific to conversation design, you also have to learn how to develop thick skin. Being a conversation designer and working on conversational products inherently means being at the mercy of everyone’s assumption of “I human. I speak, therefore, I conversation designer.” It means having patience when someone repeatedly suggests fixes to your bot response, but you’re asking for feedback on the interaction flow as a whole. It means oversharing your value and your role even when no one really knows why you were invited to a meeting. It means doing your homework and constantly running audits of your competitors so you can always give up-to-date feedback that expands beyond the usual “I used Alexa once and here’s what it said” comments that you’ll hear from your teammates.
As for conversation design hard skills, that’s pretty much what this newsletter tries to reveal. To become a conversation designer, it’s important to write good, but more than that, you need to understand what technology you’re working with under the hood. You need to know if you’re working with Rule-Based systems or ML models. You need to be able to run your own User Research, conduct or understand CSAT surveys, conduct usability testing (the most famous of which is the Wizard of Oz method), conduct bot performance audits (either by yourself or be able to understand user behavior trends as explained by Data Analysts), update utterance lists within intents or create new intents, and many more skills that I probably don’t have space to list. But I wrote about these before in a blog post, The CxD Toolkit.
What’s the difference between a product and a conversation designer?
Kritika: Well, you see, the main difference between a conversation designer and a product designer is the kind of projects they dive into. Conversation designers focus on creating those engaging user chats and interactions within conversational interfaces. On the flip side, product designers can have their hands in all sorts of projects, like mobile apps, websites, and a whole lot more. So, it really comes down to the medium and specialization.
But here's the cool part: there are some pretty neat similarities too. Both roles are all about putting the user front and center, digging into user research to get inside their heads, and being awesome team players. And here's the kicker – a lot of the skills are actually quite similar, with a few extras specific to their own design tools and tricks. So, if you're a conversation designer eyeing a switch to the product side (or vice versa), it's totally doable. You've already got a bunch of skills that translate. Piece of cake, right?
Millani: I want to highlight that there are a lot more similarities to both of the roles than differences. I know the question is probably probing at the differences between the two, so let’s talk about that. The best way to understand it is to look at the roles individually to identify their purpose first. Both roles are user-focused. Typically, product designer are responsible for the ‘product’ (which can range from physical products like chairs to websites and mobile apps), and they consider both end-user and business needs. Meanwhile, conversation designers primarily consider the end-user and will map out the interaction design of a conversational experience (these can range from a chatbot to an IVR to a voice assistant). I recently found this article again, which is dated back to 2021, but I love how well the writing structures what conversation design is. This quote by Marlinda Galapon sums it up so beautifully: “[Conversation design] is the practice of designing interaction flows and strategizing forms of language to build a natural conversation between a user and a system”.
Elaine: I’m extremely biased when I say: I don’t believe there’s any division between the two. Conversation design, especially that of voice assistants, is product design by a different name. Each time I try to answer this question, the more similarities I find. This is probably because the definition of product design has evolved beyond simple visual or user interface design. It’s design as a holistic experience, which includes everything like typeface, motion, visuals, voice and the overall product experience, from onboarding and marketing to long-term experiences and feature maintenance.
As the debbie downer of the group, I will say that the key difference between a product designer and a conversation designer is the reputation of the discipline and the weight the title carries when you’re in a room 👀 Spoiler alert: you might get ignored more when your role is “CxD” (this is where the thick skin is really important!)
What are some outdated resources about conversation design?
Kritika: I actually am not aware of any outdated resource I wouldn’t recommend people to read. For example, I believe Botmock still stands, but it no longer exists as it got acquired by Walmart. Generally, I first check the date a resource was written or last updated (more than a year is a no-no) and it gives me a fair idea if it’s worth my time or not My advice: just be mindful and pick & choose what seems best as per your situation, not everything applies!
Millani: My favourite community and one of the reasons why I am where I am today - Voice Tech Global. Here’s why they disbanded. They used to offer an amazing Conversational UX certification course (which I took!) and were a big part of the reason why I started Voice This! podcast. The podcast was originally intended to be part of Voice Tech Global. Tim, Polina, and Guy’s support with the podcast was invaluable, but ultimately, once it picked up, they decided to discontinue VTG 🙁 Just typing this makes me sad because the community was led by awesome people and filled with awesome people. They still have articles that are relevant to this day but unfortunately, they don’t offer courses or events anymore.
Elaine: There are. so. many. I still remember publishing a blog post about free resources in conversation design and boom! Botmock gets acquired by Walmart and suddenly my article is outdated. Probably the worst offender of all is conversation design related design competitions — currently, there are none. At least, none that are a dedicated designathon, complete with a panel of judges. If you weren’t getting into conversation design in 2020 or 2021, you unfortunately have missed out on this. And before anyone cites the 2023 Gen AI Voiceflow competition at me, I don’t remember it being design-specific or having a panel of design industry leaders judging project submissions 😎
Thanks for Reading This! 🥰
Voice This! Newsletter is a collective effort by Millani Jayasingkam, Kritika Yadav, and Elaine Anzaldo. Opinions expressed are solely our own and do not express the views or opinions of our employers.
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