Writing Chatbot Conversations: What You Need to Know— Part II


This is Part II in a series on designing and writing conversations for chatbots which happens to be a new and developing area of expertise! While the focus of Part I was on understanding your audience, Part II is all about defining who your chatbot is.

If you missed Part I you can find it here.

Bringing Your Chatbot to Life

While messaging platforms have made it relatively easy to develop and set up a chatbot, we are quickly realizing that making a good one isn’t always easy. A critical differentiator can be in how you craft “who your chatbot is.” Put another way: The personality and style in which your chatbot communicates can make or break the experience for the end user. So how do you make sure you design your chatbot in a way that people will actually want to interact with it? Below are four key elements to consider as you develop your chatbot: 

#1 — Identity

Clearly defining your chatbot’s purpose is a critical first step in creating its identity. Will your chatbot be topical or task-driven?

Topical bots incorporate entertainment into their communication style. As a result, they need to have the traits of a great conversationalist. They’re upbeat, witty, complimentary, highly engaging, and a good listener.

Task-driven bots are focused on helping users get a job done: buy a pair of sneakers, get a question answered about their account, or find the nearest store location and it’s hours. They are more direct and efficient. But keeping things succinct and to the point shouldn’t mean your bot is perfunctory and stoic. These bots need the character and personality of a successful customer service associate. They are helpful, friendly, knowledgeable, trustworthy, positive, and goal-oriented.

If your chatbot is for a brand ensure that it appropriately represents the brand’s voice (tone, spirit, or personality) and values. Remember, the chatbot is an extension of the brand, and the brand needs to be recognizable in how the bot reflects it.

What shall I call you? Believe it or not this is a very common question that users ask chatbots. I would recommend that you name your chatbot and make sure that it knows it’s name when asked to avoid an IDK (the chatbot’s response for “I Don’t Know”). If you prefer not to name your bot, ensure it can respond intelligently to users who ask “what’s your name” or some version of this intent, again to avoid an IDK. And when naming your chatbot, select a name that’s consistent with the identity and gender (more on this in #3) of your bot.

#2 — Voice

Once you have defined your chatbot’s character and personality, select a few traits that are the essence of its persona and use these to craft and hone its voice.

An excellent reference framework is The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice developed by the Nielsen Norman Group. While the framework was developed based on website content, I think there is applicability to tuning the voice of your chatbot.

The four dimensions of tone of voice are:

  • Humor: funny vs. serious
  • Formality: formal vs. casual
  • Respectfulness: respectful vs. irreverent
  • Enthusiasm: enthusiastic vs. matter-of-fact

Each dimension is represented on a 3-point scale, with a neutral midpoint.

The Four Dimensions of Tone of Voice Scale — Nielsen Norman Group

Of interest for chatbots, in the research conducted by Nielsen Norman, was the measurable effects tone of voice had on users; specifically on users’ impressions of an organization’s friendliness, trustworthiness and desirability. The tones that performed best were: casual, conversational (serious — casual vs. serious — matter-of-fact) and enthusiastic.

In our experience to-date, we have found that users of chatbots typically experience a sense of novelty.  They have few to no set expectations about the experience because chatbots themselves are so new to the scene. By adding a bit of whimsy to your user experience, such as unexpectedly humorous responses or the use of emoji’s, your chatbot can delight and provide a memorable experience. The degree to which you incorporate these will be dependent upon the voice of your brand and your chatbot’s purpose.

#3 — Gender

It’s a boy! It’s a girl! Or not? You choose! There are a lot of varying opinions about defining gender for bots. To-date the majority of the most familiar virtual assistants from Apple’s Siri to Amazon’s Alexa to Microsoft’s Cortana, have default female personas. For many this is just perpetuating traditional stereotypes. To counter this, some companies are allowing users to select a gender. X.ai gives users the ability to choose their meeting scheduling assistant: Amy or Andrew. Other companies are avoiding the issue altogether by building gender-neutral bots.

The good news for those of us designing and writing for text vs. voice bots is we can more easily create gender neutral bots since there is no audible voice to give away gender. This allows your users to decide if they are chatting with a her, him or it!

Of course, going back to your chatbot’s purpose, character, personality and your brand, there may be very good reasons for why you would assign gender. Just think it through carefully so your choice adds to (rather than detracts from) your business.

#4 — Human-Like or Not

While chatbots can mimic human conversation and interact with humans, they are not human. A chatbot pretending to be human can create confusion for users—and confusion quickly leads to distrust. Which is not a desirable trait in your chatbot. The vast majority of people say they want to be told whether it is a human or a bot they are chatting with. They don’t want to be tricked. Help your bot be trustworthy by being clear to its users that they are interacting with a bot.

Another common human expectation is that computers are accurate, consistent and fast. Rather than trying to make task-driven chatbots seem human-like, focus on creating a bot that 1) actually solves user problems, 2) addresses their needs more quickly, and 3) does both more simply than alternative existing solutions.

After all, a “human” experience is defined by how the user feels—not how life-like the chatbot is. Your challenge is to get the balance right and leave the user feeling as though they have had a human experience while successfully (easily, quickly, and enjoyably) meeting their needs!

Stay tuned for Part III — Helping Your Chatbot be Successful. We’ll be covering topics that will have a direct impact on your chatbot’s potential for success including user on-boarding, AI tools, bot-human hand-offs and on-going monitoring for improvement.


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