Good Bot Design Means Never Having to Say: ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t get that’

A graphic of a lit-up phone screen showing chat, with one message from a person and another from a bot. A person is holding the phone and hovering their finger over the chat.

Maxims of Conversation

Anti-Maxims of Error-Handling

An example persistent menu to accompany a chatbot. It has three options: “Talk to an agent”, “Outfit suggestions”, and “Shop now”.
A helpful persistent menu. Source: Persistent Menu documentation from Meta
A screenshot of a bot from MobileMonkey, showing failure to understand simple inputs like “main menu” and  “exit”. In both cases its response is “Sorry, you must select one of the choices below.” followed by a re-routing step.
Stuck in a loop with a bot that doesn’t include an intent for Main Menu or Exit. Source:
A screenshot of an example chatbot for mental health chatter, called Hey Jess. It fails to understand the input “stop”, and continues to talk about the user’s afternoon and how to get “some extra pep”. The user tries an alternative route by saying, “No, I mean stop messaging me please. Unsubscribe.” The user’s final message is amusingly desperate, “Unsubscribe?” with a question mark.
No way out of this conversation. Source:
Android error message, “Sorry, but to do that, you’ll need to ask your Google Workspace administrator for permission.” Below it are visible two buttons, “Learn more” and “Calendar”. The input to the Assistant is shown: “recurring event for every Thursday”.
Unhelpful Android error message for a voice-based attempt at creating a recurring event. Source: My phone.



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Jyoti Iyer

Conversation Designer and Linguistics PhD. Favourite pastimes include: sticking to Br. spelling, smashing the patriarchy, and making music.