How to run a conversational design ideation session

Rachel McConnell
Aug 22, 2019 · 4 min read

Conversational-led design can be one of the most effective routes to a natural user experience. Why? Because when you start by thinking about the conversation you’d have with a user, you think about the natural flow, grouping and hierarchy of questions or information. You also speak in plain English. This means when you translate this into your page design or journey flow you create something that feels a lot more human.

Conversational ideation can also take your UI design to unexpected places and provide insights you’d never considered before.

I refined my version of this ideation technique further with some tips from Strategic Writing for UX, and it’s a great exercise to do before you go into sketching out page design or journey flow ideas.

Here’s how do it:

1. Define your challenge

As with any ideation workshop, you should have a problem you wish to solve. I’m using ‘create a new booking journey for business travel’ as an example in the image at the bottom of this page.

2. Find an even number of participants

You need to run this workshop with pairs. More than four people is good, ideally 8–10 people is better. Your output should be multiple versions of the same journey. If you only have two people you’ll find yourself having to run through multiple versions of the same conversation and you might run out of steam.

3. Prep your materials and location

You’ll need Post-Its, pens, dot or star stickers, and large paper such as Flipchart paper. Each pair of participants will need space where they can chat to each other without disturbing the others. Break-out areas are good. Failing that, a large meeting room with each pair working in a corner should work.

4. Set the scene and identify your goals

Brief your participants with their goal. One of them will play the role of the customer, the other will play the role of the brand. Before the conversations starts, Torrey Podmajersky recommends noting down the goals of the user and the goals of the business, like this:

Example of user goals and business goals

5. Have your conversation

Now, your pairs are to imagine there is no digital interface and role-play the conversation they might have if one person was the customer, the other the business. They should capture one side of the conversation on one colour Post-it, and the other side on a different colour.

You may wish to put a time limit onto this phase or conversations can go on forever and debates can emerge. Ten to fifteen minutes should be enough time.

Capturing the conversation

5. Get annotating

Once the conversation is complete, it’s time to look back through it. If the ‘customer’ asked something unexpected, participants should add a ‘*’ to the Post-it. These are scenarios outside the ‘happy path’ you’ll need to make sure you have covered in your web page or journey.

Once the conversation is mapped out, participants can look through and mark anything they might see forming an interaction with a dot (call to action, form field, navigation etc).

They can also highlight any particular language they feel is important with a ‘!!’. Perhaps the customer used a different expression than was expected to describe something or answer a question. This reveals the different mental models and expectations of customers.

6. Summarise the conversation flow

It’s now a good time to summarise the order of the conversation. This makes it easier to compare with how other pairs approached the journey, and work out whether the order flow makes sense. You’ll have something that looks like this:

A summary of the conversation

7. Now get sketching

It’s now a great time to move into sketching out a page layout or interaction flow based on the conversation. Allow fifteen minutes maximum for this. You might want to run a more traditional ideation session now, but with ideas based on this flow of content. Participants should also remember the specific interactions they noted in the conversation, or scenarios they hadn’t expected.

8. Compare, discuss and vote

Now it’s time to compare journeys. Ask each pair to share their journey and highlight any surprises they had as they talked through the conversation. When each team has shared, give everyone three dots and ask them to vote on the parts of each journey they like the most. These can then inform your future design work.

From conversation (left) to wireframe sketch (right)

Make sure you also captured any deviations from the ‘happy path’ you’ll need to design for, and any particular language that’s been used (the language will help inform the final copy).

Now you’ll have some great content-led design directions to explore.

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