Applying Conversation Analysis Concepts to Interaction Design?

Conversation Analysis could be defined as a discourse analysis method which relies on the assumption that only talk-in-interaction constitutes a valid object of analysis: relevant meaning is only created in the framework of an actual conversation between two or more participants.

Thus, Conversation Analysis is often described as a positivist approach: conversation analysts argue that it is indeed possible for researchers to be neutral and to achieve scientific objectivity. This contrasts with postmodern or poststructuralist approaches, which could be seen as rather dominant — I would argue, for good reasons — in the field of discourse analysis (I’ve written a little bit about these in a previous article). Conversation Analysis has nonetheless strong sociological roots, and is related to ethnomethodology which makes it even more interesting!

Conversation Analysis needs a bit of practice to master, and requires an understanding of a certain number of notions, which all revolve around the organisation of talk as turn-taking. It provides the analyst with a solid toolkit for describing the structure of a particular interaction. For instance, the term adjacency pair describes the couple made by a particular utterance which invites a response, and the response itself (these are thus quite common). As misunderstandings can themselves be quite common, a phenomenon described by conversation analysts as repair occurs. This term describes the set of actions undertaken by participants so as to reestablish the interrupted flow of a conversation. A last concept I would like to quickly add to this short list is the notion of preferred/dispreffered responses, which I hope is self-explanatory.

I’ve found a nice paper online (pdf) which describes conversation analysis much better than I do. I also posted an article a while back featuring a short example of how conversation analysis can be performed on a particular bit of conversation, in this case the transcript of a call to a suicide help line.

So how can we apply this interesting methodological framework to the analysis of a conversation not between two human subjects, but between for example a person and an interactive system? If we argue that each action of the user and each prompt/response of the system are equivalent to the utterances that form a natural conversation, we are now equipped with a powerful analysis tool that provides us with interesting ways of analysing (and hopefully, improving) the ‘interactional flow’ between user and system. The notions of adjacency pairs, repair, and preffered/dispreffered responses indeed seem applicable to interaction design, and there is much more to conversation analysis than these. For instance, the particular branch of conversation analysis dedicated to institutional talk might also yield some interesting results when applied to the study of human-computer interaction.

It would be quite interesting to find a small bit of interaction which could be analysed using conversation analysis see where it takes us. I would do that now if I weren’t so lazy, but hopefully this will be the subject of a future article!