A review of
by Erika Hall
About this book
A good reference for UX Theory
Primary audience: Designers and technical roles who are new or have some experience with the topic Writing style: Humorous/Light Text density: Mostly text
Publisher: A Book Apart
The first thing that comes to mind when conversational design is mentioned tends to be tone and voice, as they are the typical concepts discussed on the internet. Yet Conversational Design by Erika Hall offers a different approach that comes straight from the very basics of the discipline: the beginnings of conversation, starting from the oral culture all the way through writing, printing, and the current media. This is done without getting too much into history or cultures by proposing a very light-hearted overview that allows for understanding of how technological improvements (pictograms, the alphabet, print, Wikipedia) impacted and molded social connection.
The second chapter focuses on conversation as an interface and what is needed for communication to exist. A brief explanation of Paul Grice’s conversational maxims is the perfect introduction to the basics of human interaction. According to Grice, to engage in conversation, both speakers and listeners cooperate with one another by following five maxims: just enough information, be truthful, be relevant, be brief and unambiguous, and be polite. The author builds on Grice’s concepts and offers insights on how they can be applied to enhance human-computer interaction.
If up to now we feel everything is too abstract, the author dedicates the longest part of the book to show the reader how these concepts are applied to actual products and what happens when they are not. All of them are key moments in interactions with digital systems from very well-known products. ATMs that are too ambiguous to be understood, Duolingo being straightforward about their value proposal, and Slack communicating efficient collaboration from minute one are just some examples covered by Hall. She uses analogies with actual human conversation and screenshots to illustrate each of them. In this way it is easy to see why they succeed—or not—and can be used as future reference while working on your own projects.
Last but not least, the book covers how personality in writing is not only a matter of strategic decisions, but more often than not the result of the companies’ structure and their (in)ability to work as a team. In order to tackle this issue, Hall starts by reviewing the different situations that might be the root of the problem and then moves on to discuss approaches for teams to improve their communication among members and also their processes when creating conversational interfaces. The interesting thing about this is that it is done from a “conversational” point of view, that is, how teams communicate internally and with other company departments. Because, at the end of the day, if we cannot communicate internally, how are we supposed to create conversations with our users and customers?
Just like The Design of Everyday Things, reading this book feels like common sense—everything seems so evident—but that is the relevance of it. Conversational Design allows us to understand interactions that are so common to all of us that we take for granted and never stopped to think about before. “Engaging in conversation is like driving a car. It’s possible to use it successfully every day without really knowing how it works. But if you need to figure out how to make one, it helps to look under the hood.”
Most advice on “writing for the web” or “creating content” starts from the presumption that we are “writing,” just for a different medium. But when we approach communication as an assembly of pieces of content rather than an interaction, customers who might have been expecting a conversation end up feeling like they’ve been handed a manual instead.
Software is on a path to participating in our culture as a peer. So, it should behave like a person—alive and present. It doesn’t matter how much so-called machine intelligence is under the hood—a perceptive set of programmatic responses, rather than a series of documents, can be enough if they have the qualities of conversation. Interactive systems should evoke the best qualities of living human communities—active, social, simple, and present—not passive, isolated, complex, or closed off.
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