What happens next with Conversational UIs

Cennydd Bowles
3 min readFeb 20, 2016


Hey, I have some thoughts about conversational interfaces. They’re kinda predictable, but it’s been a while and your next appointment isn’t until 3. Would you like to hear them? Y/N

> yeah ok

Okay so obviously Conversational UIs are hot. I’ll confess that sometimes they can be appropriate and fun.

> you mean slackbot?

Well, yes.

But we both know how our industry responds to a promising idea: we bleed the thing dry. Dribbble saturation, FastCo thinkpieces, conference talks. Within 18 months I expect to be rejecting conversational résumés. Shortly after that, the renunciation. Conversational UIs become passé, discarded. It’ll take perhaps three years before we can at last settle on the only accurate answer to design questions: It Depends.

> whats your point?

The point is conversational UIs are coming, ready or not, relevant or not. Works for one product? Try it for all products! There’ll be some woeful efforts ahead: two-screen onboarding flows that become fifteen-minute dialogical ordeals, etc. The call centre experience, coming to an iPhone near you.

> cute: let me tweet that

I’m sorry, I didn’t understand your response.

Haha no but really, that’s worth talking about too. There’ll be all sorts of text-adventure linguistic complexity, and designers aren’t great at textual rigour. Things could get messy. Grammatical entanglement, syntactic opacity, localis(z)ation tripwires.

> arent you being a bit negative

…That’s fair. Okay, there will be some positives.

Conversational UIs will cause some innovation. The Quartz app isn’t for me, but isn’t it great to see a refreshing approach in a tired sector? Anything that moves the debate on from how-much-drop-shadow-is-too-much is welcome.

Conversational UIs will also force designers to cosy up to writers, or to become more linguistically literate themselves. Information architects will be trendy again, since syntax and labels are totally their turf.

There’s pleasing alignment with the NoUI theme too, misnamed and oxymoronic though it may be (it really means NoGUI, since of course there’s always an interface). So hopefully conversational UI will advance non-graphical approaches, particularly voice/sound. Text fatigue will set in after a while, and sound could be an ideal I/O method for conversation.

And users could love conversational UIs, at least those done well during the novelty window.

> i sense a but coming

But I worry about what happens when the marketers get stuck in. I mean… some of my best friends and all that, but marketers can’t resist an opportunity to force a damn relationship on you.

Truth is, I don’t want to talk to most of my products. They’re dumb utilities. Close and forget. I want a spade, not the experience of digging.

The inflationary language of UX has already loaded commodity products with self-importance; conversational UI will make it worse. Apps will bloom with personality, but in the mould way rather than the flower way. That patronising first-person tone, previously quarantined in App Store notes and FMCG packaging — it’s going to infect the core of digital products. Products will get chatty. They’ll want to be your buddies. They’ll insist on being called by names

> that reminds me, youve actually been saying my name wrong this whole time

…and you can bet those names will be sexist too: female for administrative services, male for analytical ones. Think it’s hard enough to remember real people’s names? Now you can experience that with your tech too. You’re out of washing powder: is it Alice or Rita you need to tell?

yeah, its actually pronounced Kenn-ith by the way

Oh well look actually I have to go, sorry. Talk to you later, all right Senid?

Originally published at www.cennydd.com on February 20, 2016.



Cennydd Bowles

Design, ethics, futures · Author of Future Ethics.