What is a conversational designer?

Writing this blog is a result of all the people I have spoken to in the last couple of months about chatbots. Most people don’t know the term ‘chatbot’ despite having used Siri for many years. So I probably would call myself a conversation designer rather than a chatbot maker!

So what does the role involve? We all have the ability to communicate so surely anyone can do this?!

Obviously the whole article will counter this point. But to make the argument much more succinctly I will use an example from the domain of physiotherapy. We all have the ability to walk – so why is there a need for physiotherapists?

If you can walk surely it is easy to explain to others. But the need for physiotherapists is quite well accepted today. Who else can understand the complexity of the skeletal system, the ligaments, the muscle tissue, the optimal function of the joints, the best way to rehab etc.

Just to be clear I am not calling myself a world leader in this field or claiming perfection. Simply that “conversation design” is a very new field that differs from traditional writing domains.

What is the need?

People see physiotherapists when they are hurt generally. If your livelihood relies on physical health (sportsmen for example) then you will at least see one regularly if not employ in a full time capacity.

So in the example above replace physiotherapist with conversation designer and sportsmen with business. An ability to communicate is not a permanent given. There will always be injuries or PR problems if you are a business. There will always be a need for maintenance to keep things healthy. In health terms this is stretching and check ups. In communication terms for businesses, this is always adapting to the customers needs and demands.

As a large portion of customer service has migrated to social media support from traditional call centres it is clear that customer behaviour is changing. Sitting ‘on hold’ in a phone queue is no longer acceptable for the majority of customers.

The time people spend in messaging apps is increasing at a break neck speed. We are in the middle of a shift in the way that people communicate with businesses. Rather than fill out forms, craft emails, navigate endless pages of a website or search on Google, customers using chatbots will be able to communicate in a completely natural way.


This applies to voice based chatbots too – not just the text based versions. This is a revolutionary technology not just because of its power, but because of it’s accessibility. My Grandad is over 90 years old. He is able to command his Amazon Alexa device to read him books, find obscure radio stations, play his favourite music, change the lighting, search for information on Wikipedia and call me in another country! Of course Alexa has tens of thousands of skills but for him to do all of this using only his voice is testament to the technology. A phone or iPad interface isn’t an option for him.

This is a wonderful article from the guys at Intercom on how are relationship with computers is changing. Here are my favourite extracts:

“Our interactions with computers have always been fundamentally rooted in input/output, call and response. But as computers have grown increasingly sophisticated, so too has their ability to communicate in a more human way.

We’re innately tuned to converse with others. It’s how we share knowledge, how we organise ourselves, and how we share emotions. Language has been part of our makeup for hundreds of thousands of years

The history of personal computing is best described as the continual removal of layers of abstraction between machines and people.”

To make a final visual point about the change look at the picture below. People are attached and connected like never before. Doesn’t it make sense to be where everyone already is if your a business? Inside messaging apps.

(Image from Intercom)


It began with SMS back in the 90’s but as messaging has become more sophisticated with apps like Facebook Messenger, Snapchat, Whatsapp etc, so their popularity and usage has surged.

Although voice calling through Skype, WhatsApp, Messenger, Viber etc is essentially free only using your data we often still default to texting. It’s perhaps because:

1)you can text anywhere
2)instant responses aren’t required
3)it’s fast
4)easily digestible

Thus, the opportunity for businesses is to communicate with users in a different way than has been done before.


Traditional advertising on TV, billboards and radio attempts to interrupt and steal attention. Marketing emails quickly fill up the inbox. It attempts to broadcast the most general message possible to reach the greatest number of potential customers. It uses tricks and stunts to be memorable. It uses repetition to break into consumers product decisions.

Traditional support uses call centres and a website that provides a lengthy form to fill out. It usually isn’t available 24/7 365 days a year. It certainly isn’t personalised. And it usually provides a stark departure in style to the aforementioned advertising.

The future promises different interactions with businesses. Advertising ceases to be a competition. Who can spend the most or shout the loudest is losing importance. With chatbots users will interact with the companies they want to interact with and remain in control (See the Facebook Messenger 24 hour rule). These interactions will be more and more personal as artificial intelligence skills improve.

The chatbot will act more like a skilled salesman who adapts to your communication style and takes cues from your behaviour. And like any good employee they will always be improving their skills.

The result is a reward for businesses that prioritise their customers by always being there for them 365 days a year, being consistent in their ‘personality’ and being personal in their communication.

Who wouldn’t want to interact with a business in the comfortable and natural way that they speak to friends? A virtual assistant promises to have a far greater effect than a boring website or spammy email!


Chatbots and virtual assistants require a designer to do the following:

1) Create personalities
2) Effective copy-writing
3) Craft a quality user experience
4) Create a strategy
5) Maintain and train


It goes without saying each business is unique. A traditional formal dress outfitter probably communicates differently than a surf shop!

Some people may think businesses shouldn’t have a personality. But when it comes to conversation, to quote Google

“We instinctively apply human characteristics and personality to digital speech (whether spoken or visually with text), even if they are just a few seconds long.

Every voice has an owner, and we naturally form a mental image or composite of the speaker.

In the same way that we evaluate real personalities as more or less cooperative, we evaluate engineered personalities—whether the traits are purposefully designed or not.”

To me a great virtual personality is far more memorable and generates far more loyalty and trust than any advert could. I have written another full piece on this topic here.


Copy-writing is hardly a new discipline. An experienced copy writer can definitely adapt to building chatbot or virtual assistant experiences. But they must adapt. Those with social media experience are primed for the task.

Just like social media, the brevity of messages means that a concise writing style is a virtue. The use of emoji, gif’s and slang can be vital in crafting the personality above. Sometimes an emoji can be worth a thousand words 😝!

Some have compared conversation scripts to movie scripts. Of course their is a crossover – the writer must entertain and stimulate interest. But with chatbot scripting, context holds a much bigger role. The writer cannot be assured of the environment in which the interaction takes place. Is the quiet sofa experience the same as the busy high street experience? Virtual assistants or chatbots, don’t just tell a brand story – they help achieve customer goals.


User experience or UX as it is known, is something every designer in every domain strives for. A designer for communication must put themselves in the shoes of potential customers. Don’t just try and figure out their prime concern. As a conversational designer you have to try and figure out anything they could ask. The task is monumental.

As we have seen with Siri it can very quickly disappoint. Current technology means that chatbots do not have the contextual memory of human intelligence that we take for granted. Although this is the case we should make our product able to handle the randomness of conversation as best we can. This is a sharp departure from the skill of UX in apps, as the designer can control the flow of screens. With an empty typing area in a conversation though, the user can go anywhere!

Google again makes some fantastic recommendations when it comes to the new world of conversational UX.


  • Follow basic conversational rules and everyday speech patterns (including a greeting)

  • Apply the principles in Grice’s Maxims

  • Accommodate a range of speaking styles

  • Suggest through intuitive examples of what people can say (without “teaching” them)

  • Use acknowledgers to show that the system is listening

  • Randomize acknowledgers to make the UI sound more natural

  • Use explicit confirmation for clarity around important requests, and implicit confirmation if a request is less risky to fulfill

  • Use “errors” as opportunities for more meaningful (and natural) interactions



  • Ask the user a question but then keep talking

  • Model responses on touchtone apps and phone-tree scripts

  • Try to teach people what to say

  • State the obvious

  • Talk down to users or offer responses that sound mechanical”



This is usually the prime reason for a business to engage a chatbot company or conversation designer. “I want a chatbot to do the following…..”. The most popular bots currently provide customer support or help customers find information.

The business may have a goal of improving customer satisfaction or increasing email sign ups a certain amount. Or reducing phone calls. Automation of certain business tasks of course saves time and money for staff. New data and reports appear regularly now as more and more bots have been ‘released into the wild’!

Traditional advertising strategy has either used price or humour as a way to win new customers. Chatbots promise personalisation to achieve business goals. How will the designer map the conversation to create the desired effect?

Conversation UX design often uses a mind map for planning


In my own experience so far and in the reports I have read it seems that no matter how carefully you apply the previous skills it is impossible to predict how people will behave with your chatbot.

I like to visualise a virtual assistant as an employee – it must always be learning new skills. Assistants or bots that continually make the same mistakes or have limited skills will not stand the test of time or prompt repeated interaction. There are too many other digital options out there.

A traditional app or website may have twenty five screens. You can use analytics to see how popular they are. You can conduct user feedback surveys to see what they think. You can measure conversation rates.

With an assistant you must analyse in a much more human way. Read through conversation logs – where does the conversation go off topic? Where are users dissatisfied? Which questions can it not answer? What language does it misunderstand?

Finding the weak points of your chatbot provides you with the opportunity to train it further. Provide new answers. Suggest different options for certain customers types. Train it to understand new slang language examples.


This is the major attribute of conversational technology : you will learn more about how your customers feel and what they demand – more so than any survey.

A well designed and maintained chatbot makes the promise of ever increasing ability and improvement.

Perhaps a chatbot today only suits a segment of your customer base. But as artificial intelligence scales ever increasing heights and our interactions with computers become even more natural, can you afford not to have a conversational interface as a business?

A final point worth pondering for those dismissive of this new technology > as they get older today’s young children may need to have it explained to them what a traditional phone was for or what a desktop computer tower is!

Thanks for reading!
Malcolm Isaacs


Also published on Medium.

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