Nice Chatbot! What Style Guide Did You Use?
A mini-overview of the state of chatbot style-guides as they exist today in 2018…
(This is a rehashing of a paper I wrote for a college technical writing course to make it read like an article. Enjoy!)
What is a style guide?
A style guide is a set of writing and content-related standards put out by one or more authors for either public consumption, such as the elements of style by Strunk White, or for a private organization, such as a news organization like the BBC and the Guardian, or for a company, like Microsoft, or for a field such as the chatbot industry as we will see later.
Style guides have several purposes:
- The ultimate goal is to improve communication.
- They insure consistency across publications and documents.
- They encourage the use of best practices.
- They may include ethical considerations such as authorship, disclosure, sensitivity, etc.
- They can keep authors on the right path to creating meaningful and helpful content.
What is a Chatbot?
Chatbots are a form of virtual assistant, an assistant that, through a natural language conversation, sometimes spoken, sometimes written, can help you navigate toward answers, advice, or just a conversation for conversation’s sake. This is done through an app or a website.
Chatbots often replace FAQ sections on websites or take on tasks that a customer service agent may do.
You can also think of them as a form of narrow artificial intelligence, something that shows sign of intelligence but only enough to solve a narrowly defined problem, in this case answering questions and imitating human conversations. For a grandiose example, consider Google’s latest feat, dubbed “Duplex”; Duplex is a program/app/AI that is skilled enough to call a real person working at a hair salon and book an appointment, all this without the hairdresser even knowing it was talking to a machine. However, this project represents the cutting edge. Most chatbots, the simple ones, earn their keep by answering simple questions such as about food ingredients, business hours, how to create an account, or pricing of a product, etc.
Why do chatbots need style guides?
Chatbots need style guides for several reasons. First and foremost, they need style guides because they are at their heart “writing”, a literal body of text that has been mobilized, tagged, and organized in order to imitate a conversation.
This concept is called scripting-for-chatbots. (Here the word “script” refers to an actual script such as written for actors.) One of the first things you do when creating a chatbot is to create a script, the written content that it is likely to return to the user at some point as directions, advice, and answers, etc. Sometimes, chatbots like IBM’s Watson can scrape the internet for answers (off sites like Wikipedia or through API’s like Weather.com’s), but most chatbots work only with limited scripts, scripts designed by a technical writer or marketer who is behind the scenes. Also, in an effort to seem more intelligent than they are, some chatbots have built-in the function of sending the user to a real-live-person if the chatbots starts to fail. (This tactic is reminiscent of the Mechanical Turk, a fake chess-playing robot that is surreptitiously controlled by a real person hidden in the machine, under the chess board.)
Takeaways from Microsoft’s style guide for Chatbots and Virtual Agents
So, as a program that is mostly writing, what does Microsoft have to say about chatbot style? Let’s take a look at some highlights:
- Make sure your chatbot adds value to the user’s experience.
- Confirm user’s intent before acting on questions and by offering lists of options, etc.
- Pace the conversation carefully, and add artificial delays if necessary for a natural feel.
- Accommodate alternative word order in keywords from search queries, etc.
- Don’t forget to conclude conversations!
- Be honest, build trust, and make clear the chatbot’s limitations to the user.
- Keep it short, simple, and write for the lowest Flesch-Kincaid Grade level.
- Be a good listener, mind your pronouns, and update your bot over time with feedback from users!
Style Guide Landscape for Writing for Chatbots
Since it is a fairly new industry, I was surprised to find that Microsoft was not the first to create a style guide for this topic. However, the other attempts were mostly (glorified) blog posts. Nevertheless, they have some good, if not better, advice.
Take a look at the chart below for an overview of what I found:
Chatbot style in action: Mitsuku
To get a sense of what chatbot style looks like, I decided to look for evidence of good style using a real live chatbot. I chose, Mitsuku, an award winning chatbot designed by Pandorabots, a chatbot building company, a chatbot that is designed to be your friend. I will test it against the Microsoft Style Guide:
Q: Does it add value to my experience?
A: I would say right-off-the-bat, yes. It was easy to set up and start talking through Facebook Messenger (Facebook’s Email and messaging app). When I attempted talking with Misuku about the weather, things got a little confusing. However, it did answer what the weather was in a certain area and what it’s favorite type of weather is. I’d say that it added value. Of course, something like Amazon’s Alexa would probably be better for answering weather questions.
Q: Does it attempt to confirm my intent.
A: Yes, when it wasn’t sure where I wanted to know weather information for, it told me its capabilities first. It said it could look up weather information if I gave it location information.
Q: Does it pace well?
A: Mostly, but it is unusually quick. This gives it a jarring feeling, a feeling that it is faster than a human at typing and maybe even thinking.
Q: Did it properly conclude a conversation?
A: It responded appropriately when I told it I would “be right back.” As you can see, it even made an Arnold Schwarzenegger joke.
Overall, this chatbot (“bot” for short) did incredibly well. It obviously has a lot to learn in terms of understanding complex sentences, but the bot, overall, seems to have a good sense of style. After a short use, however, it is obvious that the bot’s biggest talent is in avoiding answering questions, and that becomes annoying, as a user, after a few minutes of use.
The Future of Style Guides for Chatbots
I predict that future chatbots will be more complex and that more people will use them. They will be more personalized, and they will be more clever. Furthermore, I think chatbot designers will get better at their craft and at writing chatbot-dialogues, too.
Most importantly, I see chatbot style guides growing in their usefulness, and I see the specificity of the tips, tricks, and rules increasing in them as the art and science of chatbot-design grows.
- “Meet Mitsuku.” Mitsuku, www.pandorabots.com/mitsuku/.
- Microsoft Guide to Style: https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/style-guide/welcome/
- Microsoft Guide to Style (Virtual Assitants): https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/style-guide/chatbots-virtual-agents/index
Guides and Articles:
- The Bot Playbook: How to build a successful chatbot that will enhance users’ lives:
- A guide to developing bot personalities. Personality is the new UX.
- Let’s Talk About Text: A Chatbot Design Guide
- Winning Dialogue: and what you can learn from novelists and screenwriters
- 5 Tips for Writing Chatbot Scripts
- Duplex by Google:
- Chatbots: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chatbot
- The Mechanical Turk https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Turk