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Composition by Yours Truly. More at https://www.instagram.com/beantcalligraphy/

Notes on the book ‘Conversational Design’ by Erika Hall

Beant Kaur Dhillon
Aug 25, 2019 · 5 min read

I finished reading the book Conversational Design by Erika Hall. It was a joy to read the articulate and sometimes cheeky writing. The central idea of the book to me is:

First, imagine and write the conversation you would have with the user if there were no interface. Then use this conversation to guide the rest of the design. This includes the selection of the medium of interaction, the visuals, and the interactions.

One of the best parts of reading this book was that I talked about it with colleagues and they referred me to new articles. So, I got a much richer view of this topic not only from the book but also through the conversations (pun intended :D) it enabled. Below is a summary of the topics and tools from the book, and the related chats and research.

As a user researcher, I try to evaluate if the text and content of the user interface or the system are clear and understandable. But Erika asks that you consider the role of your interface or its parts in your users’ lives. For example, is your system a helper, guide or an advisor? This role should guide the tone or language you use in the system and its parts.

Some first thoughts on the role of the products I have worked with:

Transformation of a role: An online clothing store could play different roles at different stages of shopping. As a hypothesis, the web store could be a stylist or an assistant. Even both the roles could exist at different stages of the shopping journey. Possible differences in tone could be:

  • Stylist/Style Coach: Hey there! I see you are looking for party outfits. Would you like some help in styling up? [If the user agrees] Okay, here are the top 10 popular party dresses this season. Like any of these?
  • Assistant: Let me know if I can help you in picking an outfit. [If the user agrees] Okay. Based on your recent search for Party Dresses, here are the top 10 party dresses this season. Would you like to see more dresses?

Different relationships with different users: Let’s consider a medical system. If a system creates images for the diagnosis, it could be a partner to the technologist who operates the machine. It follows then that it would be an assistant to the Physician who reads the images provided by it. If algorithms start to help with diagnosis, does the system become a partner or is it too far a leap to make?

So how do you decide the type of language to use in your interface? Erika suggests eavesdropping on conversations at the places where your users spend time. If that sounds impolite ;), you could conduct interviews and listen to them talk about their day. In her words,

“In addition to just plain eavesdropping, conduct interviews and listen to your users’ language… Then go back through your notes and pull out all the nouns and verbs. This will tell you what your customers do, and the words they use to describe what they do.”

So, for an online store, I would hang out at stores or cafes. That’s where I could overhear conversations between users and stylists/store assistants. Fortunately, it is easy to spot people based on the brand they are wearing. Or more likely, I would just recruit people for interviews.

How to test your language or text or content?

Inspired by the book, I also set out to find out approaches for evaluating the text or contents of the system. Below is the article with a summary of the methods to evaluate the text, copy, or content of a product or system. It describes methods to check: a) if the users understand the text and/or visuals of the interface, b) how do they perceive the emotional tone of the text.

Erika talks about the idea of Minimum Meaningful Conversation towards the very end of the book. I would have liked to see more in this chapter. She describes the framework of Concept — Script — Sketch Model for conversational design. The following questions could guide the script that you write.

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Key questions to ask when designing the Minimum Meaningful Conversation. From Conversational Design.

Content-First Design & Conversational Design

I was looking for examples of Conversational Design and shared the article draft above with colleagues. Much thanks to Michiel de Waal for pointing me to an article on Content-First Design. It opened a world of relevant examples. This is why writing and sharing are awesome ;)!

From my understanding, Conversational design is Content-first design. However, Content-first design may not always follow a Conversational design approach. For example, Prototypr.io describes how you can create draft content based on your existing content or from competitors’ content.

Steph Hay describes a great example of Conversational design for CapitalOne in her article. In another example, Fabricio Teixeira shows a Content-First approach for DropBox. Using these two examples and a few other articles or approaches**, I sketched the flow below to try out in a project.

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Steps for Conversational/Content-First Design (based on examples by Steph Hay & Fabricio Teixeira). Composition by author.

it is an interesting book with valuable insights. Though I would have liked to see more examples beyond web apps, especially for complex systems or systems for professional users. An idea for a follow-up Erika Hall ;)? Below are my main takeaways:

  • Consider the role of your interface/system in your users’ lives. Design the content and the interface around that role
  • If you are trying to decide the tone or the type of language to use in your interface, then listen to your users. Eavesdrop on conversations at their hangouts and/or interview them. Use their language (nouns and verbs) to guide you.
  • Instead of moving to sketches directly, first write the conversation you would have with the users if there were no interface. Use the script to guide your design and to select the way of interaction (website, app, speech interface, etc.).
  • During the design process, continue to test the content for tone and understanding of the UI text.

*Creating content prototypes with Adobe XD by Prototypr.io, Conversational Prototyping by Joscelin, Using Figma for content prototyping by Ryan Cordell, Combining content prototypes with design mood-boards by Thomas Byttebier, and a Superlist of all Content-related UX resources by Ryan Bigge.

P.S. Just in case you are wondering :), I wrote this review independently, so this book recommendation does not benefit me in any manner.

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Beant Kaur Dhillon

Written by

Sr. UX Research Consultant & Artist. I write about growing as a user researcher, creativity, books, freelancing, writing, and learning.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +718K people. Follow to join our community.

Beant Kaur Dhillon

Written by

Sr. UX Research Consultant & Artist. I write about growing as a user researcher, creativity, books, freelancing, writing, and learning.

The Startup

Medium's largest active publication, followed by +718K people. Follow to join our community.

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