December 2018
Text by Nithya Krishna

Image: Dmytro Zinkevych/

Nithya Krishnan is a user assistance developer and user experience advocate. In her 10+ years of experience in the field of technical communication, she has authored end-user documentation across various domains. With an academic background in information technology, her interest lies in creating a cohesive learning environment for all roles involved in a software development process.


Don’t instruct, converse!

Conversational user interfaces such as chatbots or digital assistants change the way we seek and perceive information. What we are looking for is an interaction that most naturally resembles a human conversation.

Technology has rapidly and radically changed the way we consume applications. Since the advent of Graphical User Interfaces (GUIs), we have become very accustomed to visual icons such as clicking a file, dragging and dropping a file to a location, selecting a button, choosing a menu option and many other ways to accomplish a certain task. 

Conversational User Interfaces (CUIs), on the other hand, dispense with all these actions associated with clicking, dragging and dropping, selecting, choosing and so on. We can now interact with the software by the simple use of text or voice (which is then converted into text). Such conversational interfaces, containing either voice or text or both, make the experience more natural to us, transcending the part where a user needs to learn to use an application. Everything works seamlessly through natural language.

By leveraging the conventions of natural conversation, CUIs can be made so that people intuitively know how to use them and feel comfortable with them. 


Conversation design for CUIs

CUIs in the current digital setup allow conversations between humans and computers. This happens through what we commonly call chatbots or digital assistants. 

Figure 1: The conversation design process

In the context of an enterprise or a business, a CUI must have the ability to respond to questions initiated both by the user and by itself. It should not have one-way conversations, but must be able to fully understand the business data at hand. In this way, a CUI not only provides the data for the request initiated, but also provides information for a suitable course of action. Additionally, a CUI must remember past conversations, so that it can pick up from where it left off (past interactions and preferences). The simplification of getting a service done through a regular conversation makes it easier for consumption. Less training is required to use the CUI. This is true even for inexperienced or occasional users. 

Here are some basic conversation design steps that you can follow, once you decide to build a CUI to cater to your user’s needs.


Set the goals and define a persona 

Understand the service that your CUI needs to offer to the user and set the desired goals to construct your CUI. We build relations not just by the information we exchange with one another, but by emotions as well. A CUI must represent a personality of trust and emotion. Therefore, it is crucial to define the persona of your CUI by introducing an identity that reflects your brand. Instead of delivering information to users in an automated format, the CUI must aim to be natural and support the service it is created for.


Figure 2: Conversational principles


Structure and flow 

Structured conversational flow is the core to building effective and engaging conversational interfaces. Any breaks in conversation are generally very disturbing, interrupting the flow. Your CUI must be intelligent enough to transcend these breaks to make the experience more fruitful. It should drive the conversation forward. For instance, the CUI should suggest things to help users discover additional functions or contain actionable phrases or buttons to redirect them to a place that might solve their issue. Giving the user the freedom to speak or write helps to keep the conversations more natural. 


Content matters

The foundation for every CUI is content. Content cannot be an afterthought. Keep in mind that you don’t want your users to feel like they’re talking to a machine. The key is to use friendly, inclusive language. Attaching a context to the conversation helps. This gives a more personal touch and a whole new dimension to the conversation. You must determine the various entry points to the CUI, situations based on the mood of the user, less likely questions, and so on.

The intent of using a CUI is that it saves time and helps navigate to the right sources to get the task done. Otherwise, it’s not much better than any website or app. While designing content, you can create boundaries for the conversation, by giving your user buttons to select or actionable commands to use, or by asking the right questions. Sometimes, it is also a good practice to repeat information, so the users feel more comfortable knowing you got it right.


Build your conversational script

With the flow and content in hand, you can create chat clusters and determine (on paper) what the overall conversation is expected to look like. 


Consulting with developers and deciding on the platform

Understand how you can digitize your overall script with the help of your development colleagues. Upon completing the coding of your CUI, you can decide which platform best suits your business needs, e.g., Facebook Messenger, Slack, Telegram, WeChat, and so on. Select the platform based on your target audience and the user experience it offers.


Key conversational aspects and principles

The integration of conversational UI capabilities into digital assistants humanizes the way we interact with computers. These digital assistants make conversations more context-based and intent-based by taking advantage of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and machine learning, thus providing a more human-like interaction.

Context, variation, turn-taking, and threading are all part of a cooperative conversation, an idea popularized by the British philosopher of language, Paul Grice. Grice called this the Cooperative Principle. 

Cooperative principle
Grice developed Grice’s Maxims to define the essential conversational rules he observed – namely, that people should be as truthful, informative, relevant, and clear as possible when talking with each other. A UI should try to follow these inherent rules of cooperation as well:

  • Quality – the speaker conveys only truthful information
  • Quantity – the speaker provides as much information as he can 
  • Relation – the speaker provides relevant information that is pertinent to the topic being discussed
  • Manner – the speaker organizes the information and avoids ambiguity and obscurity


In any conversation, understanding the context is crucial. This helps to create a dialogue. The persona that you define must keep track of the context to understand what the user says. For example, imagine a user asks a chatbot to check for tickets to a movie. The chatbot can prompt options based on the movie requested and by reading the location of the user, so that the optimal choice can be made. The context here corresponds to the tickets for the specified movie and the location.


Bringing variation to the conversation can help keep it from becoming overly monotonous. Responses can be made to vary each time to maintain the user’s involvement. For example, imagine a user who asks about the weather each day. This can be responded to differently each time to avoid the response being repetitive. Variety brings a sense of interest, something that is of paramount importance in a conversation.


It’s important to give everyone the chance to speak during a conversation. When you interact with a chatbot, turn-taking is important to ensure that the conversation isn’t a monologue. It must be clear to a user when it is their turn to say something. Designing and giving such cues is crucial in a conversational interface. For example, think of a case where the user has asked for the available routes to a conference. The chatbot must prompt some questions, making it clear to the user that it is their turn to respond. It’s important to constantly involve the user in the conversation.

Narrative and conversational design using copy

In the field of design, any content that is written in text – however big or small – is commonly called copy. As we move into a more conversational trend in the applications that we consume, we as designers and writers must understand narrative and conversational design aspects to be able to convert product requirements into a clear and engaging user story. There must be an inventor’s spirit, highly refined aesthetic sensibilities, and a fine-tuned ability to contextually communicate the right message in the right place at the right time to customers. Copy needs to be clear, consistent, and simple, so that people can interact with the product intuitively. You know that the content has been written well when users don’t even notice that they are being guided. 

When people read content written in a conversational tone, it gives them a feeling that they’re directly involved. Rather than talking to your audience, you’ll be conversing with them. Unfortunately, most of us have authored content following rigid and boundary-driven rules. It does take an effort to break this habit and try to communicate effectively and colloquially. It is important to note that writing in a conversational tone does not mean writing sloppily or using poor vocabulary.

The crucial step is addressing the reader directly. An easy way to do this is to pretend you’re writing to a close friend. The second is to forget formalities when writing. It is perfectly fine to break some grammar rules so that your writing is less arduous for your readers. Also, stripping away all the visual clutter can help you focus on the core message you are trying to communicate. The final tip is that you read out loud what you’ve written. When reading out loud, we tend to spot errors more easily.The essence of good copy is to turn every message in your digital product into a valuable conversation. 

As a general tip, here are some do’s and don’ts:


  • Copy must contain useful data, but must not be poorly presented. 
  • Copy must be presented in a visually amazing way, but must not demonstrate a lack of meaning or purpose. 

It is always good to keep the balance between words and graphics. You must make meaning and appearance support each other, and both aspects then become more powerful in terms of user experience. Recalling the words of the famous American author, Dr. Seuss: "Words and pictures are yin and yang. Married, they produce a progeny more interesting than either parent."

Creating content in a conversational tone

A conversational style of writing might break some grammatical rules. Conversational writing is aimed at the target audience and addresses them directly. Sentences may begin with pronouns and end with verbs. Sentences may even begin with "and", "but", and "yet".

Simply put, writing in a conversational tone should make the content sound like a conversation between two persons rather than a textbook. Here are some design tips and tools to create a more conversational tone while designing CUIs:

Introduce yourself

As with any conversation that you have with a person for the first time, you need to introduce yourself. It helps to set the context for future conversations. This is where defining the right persona becomes crucial for your CUI. Explain in a few words what the users can do. Keep the introduction clear and engaging. The user must want to come back again to use the CUI.

Create an active connection

Make your content sound genuine and direct. Remove the passive in your writing. The key is to use an active voice. It makes users feel like they know you and have your attention. For example, instead of responding "Your feedback will be conveyed to our team for further action," you can say "I’ll take your feedback to my team for further action."

Use simple words

Writing in a conversational tone is sometimes defeated by using heavy vocabulary. Don’t make it hard for a user to understand what you’re saying. Use natural and easy words – words that you typically use in everyday conversations. To ensure better reader engagement, use words that your users can understand.

Use contractions

We all know how we’ve always had to remove contractions from our routine and formal documentation artifacts. However, conversations are all about contractions. Stay natural. Don’t, can’t, doesn’t, I’ll – you’re free to use all these at your will, but ensure you don’t go overboard either.

Keep sentences short 

Your users need some breathing room to understand what is being said. It is always a good practice to keep your responses short. Even if it means that there’s a lot to convey, breaking it down into smaller sentences makes it easier to follow the dialogue.

Always address your user

What do a good salesman and a conversationalist have in common? They talk less about themselves and more about their listeners. This is precisely what you must advocate with your CUI as well. To make your content engaging, remember to always address your user. This is not the place to brag about yourself. Engage the user by addressing him or her as “you”. This makes it more personal.

Ask questions

Questions are the best way to keep your users engaged. This way, you keep them involved and always focus on what they want. Based on the type of CUI you design, your questions can have static answers (based on the response choices you provide your users with) or dynamic ones, keeping the conversation more real.

Appropriate endings

Providing closure to a conversation demonstrates social intelligence. Your CUI must end conversations in an appropriate manner. Whether the user completes the task, abandons the task, or runs into an error, your CUI must adapt the responses in an appropriate manner. 

Moving towards content design and strategy

Based on your company's goals and products envisioned, it is crucial to have a content design and strategy that best reflects these objectives. With CUIs gaining more traction in the market, there is a large scope to design content. As a content strategist, you become an advocate for your company’s design, where you work towards shaping experiences by formulating guidelines, standards, and taxonomy that helps users complete the task at hand. You help set the vision for content and drive cohesive product narratives across multiple platforms and touchpoints. You become the go-to person to decide product goals and, most importantly, the voice and tone of your CUI.