To create great chatbots, brands need to find brilliant writers
A view from Daniel Harvey

To create great chatbots, brands need to find brilliant writers

Building personas that consumers can really engage with will require a real understanding of humour, language and spontaneity, writes Zone's chief creative officer.

I gush about well-designed experiences – from the cocktails at our favourite bar to the bounce of an image as you close it in Slack, to the fact that Disney theme parks use blue instead of red to communicate errors (because red is bad and nothing bad can happen in Disneyland).

It’s these little big details that make brands stand out today. As a champion of giving today’s digital-savvy consumers the experience they now demand, I seethe at poorly designed experiences – from butterfly ballots to pull-handles that work like push plates to online forms that ask needless questions. 

This is why, as we enter 2017, Conversational UI and chatbots are yet another thing that UX specialists are learning to love and hate in equal measure.

A designer’s instinctive curiosity and drive to embrace the potential of all things new make them adore this new chatty future. On the other hand, the fear that bots may put them out of a job makes them a target for revilement.

Why the worry? Well, when designers read that Google is hiring writers from Pixar and The Onion to make its assistant more personable, or that chatbot start-ups are hiring comedy writers as ‘AI Interaction Designers’ you can forgive them for feeling a tad concerned.

Writers? Pft! Why are they getting all the best gigs all of a sudden, are we back to brands communicating solely through the written word again?

It’s my belief that it doesn’t have to be all doom-and-gloom but as ever, it means UX designers have to adapt yet again - as they always do. It’s a case of accepting that when language is the interface through which users experience your brand, you simply have to start thinking more like a writer.

The requirements of designing a successful chat experience are different than building websites or delivering apps. Figuring out the personality of the brand is key. Is your brand voice funny, smart, or authoritative?

How is the bot going to behave when a customer asks an unrelated question or isn’t able to clearly communicate his/ her issue? These are questions that we’ve always asked when creating branded experiences, but now they take real prominence.

Some of those questions have always been the domain of copywriters (tone of voice). Some of those questions have always been the domain of UX designers (behaviours). What we’re seeing is a blurring between the domains. And that’s great.

So how do those of us responsible for crafting the ultimate chatbot UX (and I’m talking about writers as well as designers) skill-up for working on these experiences? Two elements from my own background that have been indispensible are improvisation and semiotics.

Improv

There are some basic principles from improv that are proving invaluable when it comes to bots. Establishing personalities quickly is critical in getting users to understand the bot’s character-related boundaries.

This is something improv performers excel at. "Yes, and" is an improv technique that goes a long way toward building scenes at pace. For bot’s this is about anticipating where a user could drive a conversation.

X.ai’s Amy and Andrew Ingram virtual personal assistants definitely use these improv tenets.

Colleagues of people using Amy or Andrew often assume the bots are real people due to their wit and charm. When they find out they’re AI the tendency toward banter remains.

Semiotics

Semiotics is the study of signs. It’s all about understanding how symbols gain and convey meaning. It’s a soft science that advertisers have used for decades to drive home messages.

It’s also leveraged by product designers to make experiences more instinctive. A deep irony given so many semioticians are marxists, academics, and philosophers and couldn’t be further from Madison Avenue and the new robber barons in Silicon Valley.

Metaphors are fundamental in semiotics. And they’re key in setting a bot’s content-related boundaries.

Is it a coach? A wise friend? A concierge? Is it a god-in-a-box? Or an astro-mech android? Setting expectations for the customer by picking a brand-appropriate metaphor is mission number one.

Facebook’s M is envisioned as a kind of digital genie. With it you’re able to do anything from buying flowers to booking tables at a restaurant and much more.

"No" or "I’m afraid I can’t do that," are not in its vernacular (within reason). The artificial intelligence behind it learns from its human partners how to give us the right answers to all our requests.

The rise of conversational UI gives marketers the unparalleled opportunity to align what their brands do with what they say.

When executed well it will merge a brand’s persona with consumer expectations to create a seamless, intuitive experience. The best way to get there will be for UX designers and writers to reach across the aisle and work together.

Daniel Harvey is chief creative officer at Zone.