Let’s Talk About Conversational Interfaces

Since the release of Golden Krishnas thought-provoking book The Best Interface Is No Interface last year, few topics have been as scorching hot in the design community. What could the potential impact of conversational interfaces be, once they reach mass market adoption?

“No UI” has become a catch-all phrase for any interface without a traditional graphical user interface (GUI) and can be divided into two groups: Invisible and Conversational.

Invisible UIs don’t need an active interaction to work. The idea isn’t new, Last.fm has been around for well over a decade and is a good example of a service where the usage primarily happens in the background without the user being required to take action.

Conversational UIs (CUI) are used by apps that either utilise the well known interaction pattern of chat applications (like Quartz News or Lark) or apps that reside in chat applications (like GoButler or Facebook M). Even though there have been plenty of SMS and email based services in the past, the main difference is the two-way conversation.

Why are CUIs taking of right now?

There are a lot of things wrong with many of our current interfaces, which Krishna’s book covers. It’s not unusual that digital solutions require way more steps to solve a task than their physical counterparts. They also require users to adapt to the logic of the application rather than the other way around. A conversation on the other hand is a much more natural way of interacting instead of imposing internal silos like help desk, sales and loyalty programmes on the user.

The iOS version of the fitness app Lark is influenced by watchOS.

Another reason is the emerging trend of smartwatch UIs beginning to influence smartphone UIs. The Apple Watch may have some weird interaction patterns, but reading and replying to messages is not one of them. In a similar way to how websites went on a diet due to responsive web design, we now see smartphone applications being influenced by smaller devices.

If you also add maturing AI and CRM tech, the low usability threshold, flat rate priceplans, better wireless data coverage, roaming regulations, the shift from client side to server side development and the sheer amount of time we spend messaging on mobile the stars begin to align.

Will the trend pass?

Will this become a paradigm shift on the same level as the first mobile apps, or is it a novelty that will wear off once “the next big thing” comes along? Who knows? But let’s face it: certain apps just don’t make sense. Many apps only need to be used irregularly, perhaps once a year or once in total and most of these don’t need to leverage the full potential of native applications or HTML5 to accomplish their main purpose.

CUIs are somewhat of a novelty right now but may eventually grow to be considered a viable third way of creating apps, not just by pioneers but by large corporations as well. As an experiment, we took an afternoon to ponder what it would be like to order train tickets from the government-owned passenger train operator in Sweden, SJ, using a CUI.

So where can this development take UI design in the future? One of the biggest gripes people currently have with Siri is that she’s simply not smart enough and that the speech recognition isn’t flawless—yet. But with more services being designed in this conversational manner and speech recognition becoming increasingly better, Siri and similar voice services like Amazons Alexa and Microsofts Cortana might soon have a much broader skill set as they become the “browsers” of this new paradigm.

Long road ahead

There is a long road ahead when it comes to standards, security, privacy and—last but not least—technology issues that need to be resolved. The rise of the conversational interface might never come, but if it did, would it be the end of the GUI? Probably not. Just like there never was a native vs web zero-sum game, there will probably be room for graphical and invisible and conversational user interfaces.

A big part of the reason the topic is gaining so much attention in the community is the fact that people that make a living of creating X usually get concerned when they read the obituaries of X. But a book titled “No GUI is sometimes the best UI” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

We’re witnessing an expansion of the perception of what an interface can be and with it the role of the designer. Applications will still need people empathising with their users, regardless of the interface. Probably more than ever. These are exciting times!


I work at Apegroup, a digital agency in Stockholm, Sweden, where I help companies come up with, plan and realise their digital strategy. Together we try to push boundaries through design of digital experiences. Want to know more about how we work? Read more on our website.

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