Voice Assistants such as Siri, Amazon’s Alexa, and Google Assistant allow us to interact with devices simply by talking to them. With these experiences becoming more common, brands need to learn how to craft conversations that feel natural and authentic. RED Interactive Agency–where I’m a senior product strategist–recently attended a Conversational UX workshop at Google. Here, we explored and prototyped for Actions on Google, the company’s conversational UX platform. We focused on developing human-like conversations and came up with three main takeaways for building conversational bots:
Develop A Consistent Persona
Developing a persona is the first step in humanizing conversations. We naturally perceive a persona even if one hasn’t been deeply developed. In fact, our propensity to anthropomorphize is so strong, we see patterns in many things around us, a psychological phenomenon called pareidolia–so it’s critical that we take the time to craft a persona that accurately reflects a brand’s values.
Establishing concrete personality traits–humorous, witty, sarcastic, or jovial–makes it easier to choose the right words and phrases for all subsequent interactions. Once defined, the persona has to stay consistent. Like an actor playing a role, the persona must never break character. For example, a banking application that uses a straightforward, serious tone shouldn’t tell crude knock-knock jokes while discussing your financial details.
To ensure consistency, create a persona style guide that starts with a backstory and factors in attributes like age, gender, and speaking style. Making this a shared document ensures that everyone understands exactly how the persona should respond in various scenarios.
Master The Conversation Flow
One of the most challenging tasks is creating a natural conversation flow. Many interactions will just be a single question or command from the customer. For example:
“What’s the weather?”
“70˚ and cloudy.”
But conversational interactions can be far more complicated. Asking about a movie and following up with “When is it playing?”–the conversation has to maintain the movie context along with knowing that show times prior to the current time aren’t relevant. With so many options, it can be challenging to map out a full conversation.
The Happy Path
To deal with this challenge, start off by creating a “happy path”–an ideal scenario where the customer says all the right things. From there, add in branches of other possible things the customer may say. While we can’t anticipate everything, knowing how and when to get customers back on track is crucial.
Taking Turns and Brevity
Taking turns with short responses, like any good conversation, keeps customers engaged and holds their attention better. While a paragraph of text may be quick to skim and read, the nature of voice interaction is linear—you can’t skip around the way you can with a piece of text, and long, complex sentences can overload the user. If responses are too short though–such as a simple “yes”–the conversation becomes too mechanical. Finding a balance and testing different phrases that align with the persona is key here.
Ding! Ding! Earcons!
Earcons–audio sound effects such as beeps, applause, and musical feedback–play an important role in the conversation flow. When used properly, they can break up the monotony of voice and inject some personality into conversations. But they can also act as a cue for customers for when they should talk or listen. For example, when you say “Hey Siri” you’ll hear a “Ding! Ding!” This lets you know Siri is listening, and it’s your turn to talk. Well-timed earcons can be used to control the conversation flow while reinforcing a form of audio branding.
Copy How People Talk
Sounding natural takes more effort than you might expect. It requires a well-defined persona and an understanding of the persona as a human. Given the backstory, you may want to have an accent or use quirky sayings like “okie dokie.” You may want to use contractions or have a much more formal tone. It all depends on what persona is appropriate but the key here is to make a conscious effort to sound natural as it relates to your persona.
Having a variety of responses creates a level of surprise that makes conversations feel more natural. There are, of course, the standard variations of “yes” including “yeah” and “sure” but things get interesting when you throw in a “Hell, yeah” or “I got this, bro” again, staying brand and persona appropriate. This is where you unleash the creativity of copywriters to take the persona to the next level.
Know How To Fix A Conversation
In everyday speech, conversations often break–we mishear a word, maybe get distracted for a second or we simply don’t understand the phrase. Conversational UX with bots is no different. In fact, the current limits of technology guarantee that we’ll have what’s known as “conversation breakage” and part of humanization is understanding how to gracefully repair it. Remember, to err is human so use this as a chance to convey cleverness, self-awareness, and other human qualities.
The Conversational Experience
As conversational UX becomes ubiquitous, we face an enormous challenge in understanding how to keep these conversations natural. As always, the technology will improve. Speech recognition will become highly accurate, and artificial intelligence will understand intention over words. But to make conversational UX successful–desired by customers and useful to brands–we’ll need to first master the art of humanizing these conversations. The key to the bots succeeding is the human touch.