Talk to me: towards conversational interface

With the emergence of artificially intelligent bots and virtual assistants, many people predict a paradigm shift from traditional UI to conversational user interfaces (CUI). People are spending most of their online time on messaging. According to Business Insider Intelligence, the messaging app market is growing rapidly, and the usage has surpassed social networks. From Siri and Cortana to Messenger and Google Allo, increasingly companies like Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, etc. are creating new ways of interaction. Whether text chatbots or voice assistants, the core of the shift is conversations.

Conversational interface
Since the development of Douglas Engelbart’s Augmentation of Human Intellect project and early demos such as Xerox Alto computer Apple Lisa and Macintosh, graphical user interfaces (GUI), have dominated the field of human-computer interaction (HCI) for decades. However, the coming conversational interfaces may end the era of ubiquitous GUI. Instead of manipulating metaphors on screen, talking to your device or messaging a bot is more natural since that is the way how we interact with other people. Conversations are contextual and a form of embodiment; thus the interaction can be seamless and meaningful. Moreover, artificial intelligence (AI) empowers conversational interface system to be aware of the context and our preference so that it can better understand our needs and respond intelligently even emotionally. Take Amazon’s Alexa (voice service that powers Echo) for example. By using voice technology and machine learning, Alexa can interact with people in a natural way. Allo, Google’s messaging app which was released recently, is able to create start replies according to the content and context. And the built-in Google Assistant can give you the information you want whenever you ask.

Challenges of CUI
Despite advantages and opportunities of conversational interfaces, there are technical and social challenges. For virtual voice assistants, the obstacle is ambiguity, which lies in spoken conversation. While for textual bots, AI can be a double-edged sword. Remember Microsoft’s AI chatbot Tay? It just took Tay less than 24 hours to grasp racist languages and ironic memes. Although there are advanced in machine learning and natural language processing, AI, on the other hand, may uncover the weakness of human nature.

CUI design
As a designer, it’s thrilling yet challenging to think about how to create elegant conversational experience. For CUI design, I think simplicity, clarity, and personality are key factors. Although CUI should enable people to complete perhaps complex tasks, it’s essential to keep the conversation simple and focus on the context of specific scenario. Clarity requires less ambiguous information and allow users to interact seamlessly. As a natural interaction should be like talking to a friend, a bot with personality can be fun and engaging.

An attempt to create a bot story on wit.ai
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