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Chatbot DesignMay 15, 2017Written by Dean Withey

What is Conversational UI?

Email? Check.

Facebook? Check.

Twitter? Check.

SEO? Check.

Conversational UI? Errrr, huh?

This is the reaction we usually get when we talk to brands about chatbots and AI.

They have just sorted their email marketing, well, by sorted I mean they have accepted the terrible ~20% open and ~1.5% CTR. They are happy with their growing social audience and encouraged by increasing website traffic. When we meet them and start talking about having a one to one conversation with their audience, their brain kinda explodes.

Most brands love the idea of it. You know, actually talking to the people they are trying to sell to or engage.

However, most just don't believe the technology to do it at scale exists (it does). Brands understand they could have real human staff sat all day talking to one or two people at a time, but the idea of a machine-human talking to hundreds of thousands of individuals at once blows their mind.


This is the power of chatbots, AI and well designed conversational UI.


Imagine having a conversation with a customer or fan in real time.

What would you say? What would you ask?

Would your brand be funny? Would it be serious? Would the conversation encourage someone to buy something, or would it offer useful advice?

Would the 'person' talking on behalf of your brand pretend to be a human or would it be a bot? What does it look like? Is it a boy or a girl, man or woman or perhaps a robot? Does it have a face? If it does, what does it look like?

Where will this conversation happen? Will it be via an on-site widget or Twitter DMs, Facebook Messenger, SMS, email or Telegram?

Can people talk 24 hours a day, seven days a week? How quickly will your machine-human reply? Will it speak in English, or be multilingual? Will you let users decide what language to use? Will it use pictures, audio and video or just regular old text? What about emojis? Does your brand use emojis and if it does, which ones?


So, what is conversational UI, or user interface? 

It is how your brand represents itself in words and audio, in conversation. It is the tone, voice, humour and language; it is the way it talks. It is the planning for, answer and delivery of all those questions above, and a boat load more just like them.

On face value, writing a few words and mapping out a conversation does not seem like a huge challenge. After all, it is 'just' words, right?



You have to write every answer to every possible outcome of every question.

Consider the opening to a typical conversation.

Hi. - says the user
Hi. - says your brand
How are you? - says the user
I'm good, you? - says your brand

Within four sentences you are at a split-point (the point in which a conversation can change based on a single answer).

The user says they are sad. What does the bot say?

The user says they are having a glorious day. What does the bot say then?

The user explains their cat just died. Argh, what now?

How deep and wide do you plan the conversational UI? Do you write an answer for every possible outcome? Probably not, that sounds pretty tedious (and massively impossible).

Well, how about just not asking the user how they are, that sounds like a good idea? Well, maybe, but it hardly makes the conversation friendly or different from every off-the-shelf chatbot development platform.

As we can see, despite being mid-ish 2017, and in the middle of the 'chatbot revolution', conversational UI is a problem that is far from solved.

Lots of people are touting conversation as the future of web interfaces. Why bother searching, dragging, dropping and clicking when you can just chat with someone (or something)? It sounds fantastic on paper, and actually, a few forward-looking brands are dipping their toes in, but it is still early days.

The technology is pretty much there, and the consumers are ready, is it now really just down to the writers?

Yes, but, no. Well. It depends.

It depends on the technology and how good at artificial intelligence the chatbot development company is.

You see, most, well, nearly all (*cough* not us *cough*) AI companies use AI on just one side of the conversation. They use a form of AI called Natural Language Processing to understand what a user is talking about, and then fire back a reply with pre-prepared sentences.

As an example, services like api.ai and wit.ai give you context and intent from words. You fling it a human-generated sentence and it replies with what it think it means. Developers then pair this response from 'the AI' with the correct sentence and send that to the user. Hey presto, you have a chatbot, albeit a pretty rubbish one.

The other option is to use AI on both sides of the conversation.

Rather than spending hundreds of hours crafting a beautiful conversational UI, you train AI to talk just as the brand talks. You feed the hungry AI monster data from live chat transcripts, emails, word documents, spreadsheets, web pages and anything else appropriate. The chatbot then just talks as the brand would talk. Obviously, it is about 10,000,000 times more complicated than this, and I will talk more about it in later blog posts, but you get the idea.


Isn't it just the same old thing? 

Conversational UI is nothing new. It is just a conversation and something humans have been doing for thousands of years. Take shopping for example.

Before this newfangled internet, we used to go to shops and speak to other real humans. We would walk in, and someone would wander up to us and say something. Trained salespeople would use scripts and well-tuned words and sentences to encourage us to buy something. AI, chatbots and conversational UI is the same thing, but instead of going to the shop and speaking to a human, we are going to a website and speaking to a machine.

There are lots of reasons they are so popular now. Namely, technology is ready and consumers are accepting.

A less-often talked about reason is the low barrier to entry.

Think about using a website to buy something.

You need a computer, a browser, a keyboard and mouse. You need to know how to make all of that work. When you have done that you need to know about the internet and websites, and need to know how to find a website that sells what you need and get it to show on your monitor. When you get to that website, you need to understand how it works, how the menu and navigation works and how to use the search function. You need to know how to use an online shopping cart, how to get those three digits off the back of your card and, probably most importantly, you need to trust that everything is safe and your super-shiny new toy is going to arrive protected and on time.

A conversational approach to that same thing takes away lots of barriers.

Sure, you still need a computer, browser mouse and keyboard and you still need to know how to get to a website. However, what if, when you get to that site, someone (or something) says: "Hi, how can I help?".

If you put "Hi, how can I help?" on your website what would people say?

Perhaps more importantly, what would your brand say back?