Conversations with Things Cover

Conversations with Things

UX Design for Chat and Voice

By Diana Deibel & Rebecca Evanhoe

Published: April 2021
Paperback: 320 pages
ISBN: 1-933820-26-8
Digital ISBN: 1-933820-86-1

Welcome to the future, where you can talk with the digital things around you: voice assistants, chatbots, and more. But these interactions can be unhelpful and frustrating—sometimes even offensive or biased. Conversations with Things teaches you how to design conversations that are useful, ethical, and human-centered—because everyone deserves to be understood, especially you.

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More about Conversations with Things

Testimonials

Deibel and Evanhoe lay out best practices for conversation design using practical, actionable examples, and do it in such a way that it’s a delight to read.

—Cathy Pearl, author of Designing Voice User Interfaces

As conversational interfaces continue to become a part of our daily lives, more and more of the UX community are faced with the challenge of designing conversations. Thankfully, they now have this book to help them run a successful design process. With this book, the UX community finally has a comprehensive but easy-to-read guide to navigate the nuanced and sometimes messy process of conversation design. 

—Mark C. Webster, Director of Voice and Audio Products, Adobe

Conversations with Things is a wonderful resource for designers working with voice. Throughout the book, Diana and Rebecca lay out a good foundation for designers to create inclusive and accessible conversations.

—Regine Gilbert, author of Inclusive Design for a Digital World, designer and educator

Conversations with Things is a solid, practical introduction to the nuts and bolts of designing for bots.

—Kim Goodwin, author of Designing for the Digital Age

Thoroughly researched and peppered with valuable inputs from industry experts, the authors tackle conversation design topics from the basics of prompt-writing to the intricacies of designing for accessibility.  I can give no greater praise than this: I learned a lot, and enjoyed every minute of this book!

—Lisa Falkson, Senior VUI Designer, Amazon

This is a must-read for anyone looking to get started or dive deeper into conversational design. It was thought-provoking and inspirational! I loved how this book addressed a critical need for discussion around diversity, bias, and accessibility.

—Noelle Silver, Founder, AI Leadership Institute

This is a book that everyone even remotely connected with marketing and customer service should read, regardless of whether you’re a budding conversation designer or not. 

—Kane Simms, CEO and Co-Founder, VUX World

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: Why Conversation Design?
Chapter 2: Talking Like a Person
Chapter 3: Crafting Trustworthy Personalities
Chapter 4: Designing Prompts
Chapter 5: Defining User Intent
Chapter 6: Documenting Conversational Pathways
Chapter 7: Building Context
Chapter 8: Complex Conversations
Chapter 9: Researching and Prototyping
Chapter 10: Launching the Conversation
Chapter 11: Designing Inclusive Conversations

Foreword

Early in my career as a UX designer I worked with the inventors of Siri, helping them bring their new smart assistant to life: Viv (later renamed Bixby after being acquired by Samsung). I was drawn to working with the brilliant founding team and the potential of voice to deliver a seamless user experience. The technol- ogy was impressive, but I worried about how AI could be used for harm, either accidentally or intentionally. I did as much good as I could on that project before the four-hour roundtrip commute got the better of me and I left. I did some conversation design in my next role at Pandora, linking the music service to Google Home and Alexa, plus a host of other research and design projects there and then later at Slack. Eventually, I uncovered my greater calling: human-to-human interaction. I spend my time now helping humans learn how to do a better job of connecting with each other instead of their devices.

When I picked up Conversations with Things, I was reminded of my past journey into this realm, and I was skeptical. I remembered how many thorny ethical issues abound in this subset of tech, and how sticky and problematic this type of work can get. This book surpassed all my expectations.

Conversations with Things makes it clear that we cannot create effective digital conversation design unless we understand how to engage in effective and inclusive dialogue as humans. Deibel and Evanhoe make this lesson evident throughout the book, with example scripts of conversation between people, and conversation between people and devices. They paint a roadmap for how to make voice interfaces the accessible and helpful technologies that their inventors hope they will be. If the inventors and designers—likely you, the person reading this book—are successful, you’ll create a pleasant, useful, and inclusive voice interface that also leaves out the bias, racism, sexism, classism, ableism and homophobia that plagues our human- to-human world. Evanhoe and Deibel help the reader plan for things to go right and demonstrate the critical necessity of asking “what could go wrong?”

FAQ

These common questions and their short answers are taken from Diana Diebel and Rebecca Evanhoe’s book Conversations with Things: UX Design for Chat and Voice. You can find longer answers to each in your copy of the book, either printed or digital version.

  1. What do you mean by “conversations with things”?
    This book is about designing for conversational interfaces—any technology that people talk to, whether they’re speaking out loud to it or typing. Think of things like voice assistants and chatbots, or any interface where conversation is the primary input or output.
    We call these interactions between people and talking technology conversations with things to emphasize that while they mimic person- to-person exchanges, these computerized conversational partners aren’t people. There’s a rundown of these technologies (and a whole bunch of useful definitions) in Chapter 1, “Why Conversation Design?”
  2. Does my conversational product need a personality?
    A great question, and one that’s hotly debated. Short answer: Yes. People will perceive a personality no matter what, so you want to be intentional in how you design it. We say that the primary job of a personality is to serve the user and the goals of the interaction. But other considerations, like gender and race, carry a lot of weight. You can see our framework for designing a personality in Chapter 3, “Crafting Trustworthy Personalities.”
  3. How do I document my designs for a conversational interface?
    Whoo boy. This a conversation we’ve had with a lot of people and teams. Our overarching viewpoint is to work with your team to figure out that documentation sweet spot: enough, but not too much. To be more concrete, we advocate for flow diagrams as an essential conversation design tool (but any form of documentation has its pros and cons.) Read all about it in Chapter 6, “Documenting Conversational Pathways.”
  4. I have a lot of questions, but just a little time. What do I need to read?
    There are a couple paths you can take. If you need a crash course
    in design, it’s worthwhile to ground yourself with linguistics in Chapter 2, “Talking Like a Person,” and then focus on conversation design pillars in Chapters 3 through 6. Those chapters will give you the basics you need to get something together. If you’re trying to establish process on your teams, you may want to skip straight to the last three chapters—Chapters 9 through 11. And if you’re more experienced, try Chapters 5, 7, and 8.
  5. What’s your stance on ethics and privilege?
    First, to acknowledge our own privileges and biases, we are white- presenting, cisgendered people who have not personally experienced things like long-term disability or being unhoused. We both had access to a college education, and we entered conversation design when it was relatively easy to get entry-level opportunities.After a combined 20 years in the tech industry, we’ve seen firsthand how people (end users and employees both) can be marginalized, erased, and harmed. We aren’t experts on inclusion or social justice, and many others are, but to us, it’s an essential part of the work that should never be left out. We are committed to creating an inclusive, equitable, anti-racist field where all are not just included but valued. To that end, this book weaves in ways to bake ethical thinking into your processes, and concludes with a chapter on what inclusive design looks like in conversation design, Chapter 11, “Designing Inclusive Conversations.”

Illustrations