In its purest form, product design is a dialogue between the designer and the user. With chatbots, this concept is becoming more and more literal. In the bot world, conversation literally becomes the user interface. As such, the quality of conversations, not pixels, becomes our metric of obsession. And although we’re still in the early days of this design revolution, it’s clear that writers are going to be its pioneers. If you’re a writer today, you hold the keys to designing delightful consumer experiences. If you’re an engineer, you might want to consider partnering up with a writer to infuse more personality and craftsmanship into your bot’s design.
With dialogue at the center of product design, it’s critical that we develop frameworks and standards of excellence that ensure we, as an industry, start building bots that seamlessly combine copy and code rather than making quick “fart bots” meant to attract users.
As my personal contribution to the growing field of conversation design, here are the 10 writing commandments that I live by (Full disclosure: It’s actually the 10 writing principles that we share with our new hires at Heyday). Feel free to use them, remix them, and take them to the next level.
Chatbot users don’t want to read a novel. They want to get to the essentials quickly and get things done. So make every word count. Short and sweet. Snappy and memorable. Use succinct language and stick to the message. Simplicity is an art. Strive to be the Picasso of messaging.
One message equals one intention and one desired action. Don’t overwhelm users with multiple messages and calls-to-action all at once. Make the conversation granular, progressive, and natural. Clean and clear. Oh, and don’t be afraid to use buttons to guide the user experience. Write for the Average Joe, not for neuroscience PhDs.
We can’t stress this enough. Specificity is clarity on steroids. Avoid open-ended questions or statements. Human beings tend to be unpredictable, and bots do not cope well with unpredictability (at least not yet). So avoid ambiguity at all costs. Don’t open the door to misinterpretation, otherwise the conversation will likely go off topic and result in a disappointing chat experience. Be very specific about what you expect from users and what they can expect from you.
Keeping things short and sweet doesn’t mean you can’t inject a healthy dose of personality and humour. This is actually vital if you want to keep users engaged over time. This is especially true if you’re building bots for brands. Avoid falling into a hard-sell mode, and make sure you study the brand’s tone and manner. A bot is the extension of a brand’s personality, so it’s critical that it reflects its spirit and values. Personality will make your bot come to life and make users come back for more.
Interactivity and imagery
As a writer, it’s tempting to rely only on words. But sometimes a picture truly is worth a thousand words. Make the conversation visual and interactive. People tend to engage more when you strike the right balance between text and images. Don’t be afraid to use imagery to showcase different options in a compelling way. You’ll most likely see engagement rates go up.
You don’t want to make people feel like they’re chatting with a machine. You want them to feel like they’re chatting with a friend. Natural language, expressions, and emojis are good ways to make the conversation feel, well, more conversational. Beige and bland are your worst enemies. Make interactions feel human, even if you’re honest about the fact it’s a bot talking.
Be upfront about everything. Don’t trick users into thinking that the bot is a real person; manage expectations in the very first interactions. If you’re honest about the bot’s capabilities and limitations, users will more likely play fair and square and follow the rules. If you try to be too smart, they’ll try to outsmart you and make you look like a fool. And they’ll likely succeed.
Rule #1: Be useful. Rule #2: See rule #1. Chatbots are the perfect channel to build relationships based on value. And the best way to create value for people is to be the trusted friend they can turn to when they have a question or need something. Always be at the service of the user, whether it’s to provide pure fun or pure function. If you do that, they’ll reward you with their attention and, ultimately, with their money (or whatever end goal you’re trying to achieve).
Bots are exciting because they offer an infinite spectrum of possibilities. Be original in your approach, even if you’re building simple functionalities. Building an FAQ bot? The bot’s answer could be a text message, an image gallery, a video, a quote from another user or anything in between. Try to mix up the format every now and then to keep users engaged at all times. Bots may seem like rigid frameworks at first glance, but they’re actually more of a creative playground than most can imagine.
Last, but not least: A great conversation designer can predict scenarios and prepare for the unexpected. Make sure your bot can adapt to unpredictable twists in conversation and react intelligently. Having fallback scenarios that set boundaries is a smart way to keep the conversation on track. Easter eggs are also a big plus. Showing your resourcefulness always leaves a positive impression on users.