Elaine and Cecilia talk Conversation Design

NLX team members, Elaine and Cecilia, talk Conversation Design in the AI space

Elaine Anzaldo

08/26/2021
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E: Hey everybody, I'm Elaine. I'm a Conversational UX Designer from NLX and today I'm joined by Cecilia, who is another designer part of our Conversational UX team. Welcome Cecilia, we're so excited to hear about you and hear about your unique background and how you got started in the field of conversation design and working in the conversational AI space.

C: Thanks so much for having me, Elaine!

E: Let's get started with some of the questions that we have here prepared. Could you explain a little bit about your background? I know you're an Instructional Designer, but some people might not know exactly what that is, so could you explain more about Instructional Design and what the role entails

C: Absolutely. So an instructional designer specializes in understanding the process of learning. At its most basic form, learning starts as a transfer of some bit of information to a person. When that information is really mastered by the person, whether it's because the information can be recalled or applied in a situation without a learning aide, it's now become knowledge or a skill of that person. So first, we would identify: What is the information that needs to transferred to a learner? That now becomes part of the learning goal. And sometimes we're working against certain challenges. An instructor may approach me and say, "Normally, I teach a foreign language class and I'd have the chance to have conversations with learners in person, see how their mouths move, or maybe hear how they pronounce things. Now I'm having to do everything online and I can't meet synchronously with all of my students." So an instructional designer will really devise solutions that take into account many factors, including those challenges, all to allow for that transfer of information to someone, better than it was before an instructional designer would've intervened. So the role then entails kind of evaluating: what are the resources, the systems, and the methods that currently exist? And which ones need to be created or implemented if they don't. All to provide a useful and really pleasant experience of that information transfer.

"An instructional designer will devise solutions that take into account many factors, including [situational] challenges, all to allow for [a smoother] transfer of information to someone."

E: Of course, I definitely like the point you brought up about learning goals. That is, trying to figure out what and how the information should be presented. That's actually really similar in conversation designer. It is like you're designing communication, how you want to present information and communicate certain content. So, in your opinion, how different is conversation design from instructional design?

C: I'm gonna say something a little provocative here. I think they're more similar than they are different. We all understand the psychology of exchange and perhaps even the mental faculties that are at play when people communicate or learn. I'd say even our frameworks for design likely have a lot of overlap when we approach a project. Conversation designers are asking many of the same questions, like: What parameters am I working within? What channels are these conversations having to take place in? What does the user need to be able to do? What information does the user need to have at the end of this exchange? How do I sequence things to be best for the user? You'd ask all of that when designing for learners too. Instructional designers really iterate on the materials and methods designed based on student performance and conversation designers do the same thing. You'll adapt a conversation or train AI based on how users have performed or are performing. We're also both very user-centric. Conversation designers operate to create better outcomes for users communicating with a system and you could say the same thing for instructional designers. So much so, that many instructional designers, including myself, are trying to rebrand as "Learning designers" because we focus on that process happening for students rather than just instructors. Both conversation designers and instructional designers are adapting the technology to the user and not the other way around. And if i really had to distinguish us, maybe it's that instructional designers focus on users within the context of learning environments and systems while conversation designers aren't necessarily always operating within that context or those systems. Instead, they focus on a very particular experience happening with communication and how that exchange is heard, seen, or felt by the user.

"[Both types of designers] are asking many of the same questions, like: What parameters am I working within? What channels are these conversations having to take place in? What does the user need to be able to do? What information does the user need to have at the end of this exchange? How do I sequence things to be best for the user?"

E: I love that. I actually don't think that's very provocative. I think you hit the nail on the head. That's exactly what I see in our work at NLX, we're not just designing for the end user. We're still working with the client's pain points. Our direct client could be a company trying to help their customers, or now with our B2B approach, we're trying to templatize these journeys. I definitely do see that similarity: making sure you're able to design within the abilities of the instructor and their needs but also the students' needs. In general though, what transferrable skills have helped you in your role at NLX?

C: That's a really great question. Do you remember when I mentioned there are a ton of different factors instructional designers have to account for when creating learning solutions?

E: Yeah.

C: Well, most of the time those factors are only revealed during research. We don't usually get an instructor providing a convenient report of everything up front. Even if I went through, say, an hour of questioning with them, they might not know all of the answers. So my process of researching things has helped me make informed design decisions here at NLX. So now when someone, let's say from sales, or marketing, or design, asks me, "Why didn't you think of this?" or "Had you thought about that?" I can anticipate it and have an answer prepared so I don't need to delay the production of something or iterate on my design nearly as much. I think too, the practice of breaking down really large educational modules or content into smaller parts and even role-playing as the user has been very beneficial. I can now go through a process I designed and with each successive step, I can pause to wonder, "Is this step necessary? Is it understandable? Is it enjoyable?" without really losing sight of the purpose of it all. Since I'm not a subject matter expert on all things when collaborating with different instructors from different disciplines, I really need to disclose that and solicit as much as their knowledge as their time allows. Being aware of what I don't know, not being fearful of sharing that fact, and also empathizing with everyone else's time, has really allowed me to communicate openly and effectively with our teammates here at NLX.

"Being aware of what I don't know, not being fearful of sharing that fact, and also empathizing with everyone else's time, has really allowed me to communicate openly and effectively[...]"

E: We definitely feel that. Having you on board has been such a great experience. Personally, as part of the design team as well, we love having you here and having that attention to detail.

C: Thank you! Same.

E: I actually want to ask now, do you enjoy working on any particular use case or industry?

C: One of the first cases I worked on when coming to NLX was related to the travel industry, specifically aviation, which is rather personal to me since I've had a passport, I think, since I was three months of age. I love that I get to build an experience that I also get to consume. With that, I'm really hopeful that we'll be called upon to work on public sector problems. Because so many government services are using— I think— outdated methods that people are frustrated by. They're not very useful for the people who need them or the people that even run them. Especially when so many rules and regulations are at play that govern deadlines on people, can you imagine having more self-serivce options in these scenarios would be time-saving, cost-saving? I think we'd improve the well-being of people too because: who wants to take unpaid time off to go sit at an DMV for hours only to be greeted eventually by an underpaid staff member who wishes their situation were also better and not overwhelming?

E: Yeah, that really is an important issue. I definitely see that as a concern, especially because our world has changed so much over the past year. We have seen the need for more advanced technology. Over the course of the pandemic, I was actually surprised to see a lot of government websites had to be updated super fast. That's because there's an actual need. Hopefully these kinds of technologies get adopted soon as well because there is a demand for it.

C: Exactly, and I hope we really get to work on it together.

E: Yeah that would be definitely very fun. So you actually piqued my curiosity a bit. What excites you about the Conversational AI space?

C: As you just mentioned, in the last year, we've seen how important it became for us to really stay connected, while equally important to remain apart. Conversational AI can help us navigate what I believe to be a weird quagmire: staying safely isolated while committed to feeling that there's contact wherever and whenever. If we didn't care as much about that last bit, then yeah, sure, we can design better websites, forms, or better lists of instructions. But that's not how humans always want to interact with something or how they should interact with something given certain circumstances.

"Conversational AI can help us [provide] contact wherever and whenever. If we didn't care as much about that last bit, then yeah, sure, we can design better websites, forms, or better lists of instructions. But that's not how humans always want to interact with something or how they should interact with something given certain circumstances."

C: I see the product from our own company help make people's lives better— without having to be put on hold for 40 minutes just to talk to the next available agent or wait in a long line when you have get home to take the dog out. Or, let's say your router malfunctions but it's outside of that 7am to 7pm window of support. I love that Conversational AI is super convenient and addresses user needs while engaging a broad spectrum of users with different speaking styles or knowledge. It offers that contact in a way that's most natural and appealing to the user. Human user, right?

E: Exactly, we are calling them users because that's a very common industry term, but we still of everyone as a human and we do try to design for their human sensibilities. That's really cool. I like that perspective as well. Now I'm gonna backtrack a little bit and touch again on your background in instructional design. Do you have any tips that come specifically from your background that you feel directly apply to conversation design?

C: Definitely. The most basic form and process of what learning is or what communicating is— it's the same and universally felt. We know, not all users are. We account for different learning styles, different mastery styles, and so on, and conversation designers have to consider user preference and proficiency when designing as well, right? There are a lot of guiding principles we follow that I believe conversation designers probably also know, so I don't want to be too prescriptive about a process. I'll say instead, one method I find myself habitually doing— I think we both do— whether I'm in a consultation with an instructor or I'm designing something in my own time: write down those ideas that immediately come to mind. Often we filter ourselves or don't trust our intuition or we edit our thoughts as we're having them. And really, it's the first or even second idea you have, no matter how it rages to you in the moment, that becomes the one you circle back to or want to settle on later. You can always fine-tune or flesh out a concept during a separate session. It's a screenwriting tip too. It's better to write things down than to not write anything at all. One last thing— I know this is true with the two of us— draft a conversation flow with another person. Either grab yourself a coworker or friend and test out your dialogue and your logic. You really want someone who's outside of your knowledge bias or vantage point to break or think differently so you can design for that.

"Draft a conversation flow with another person. Either grab yourself a coworker or friend and test out your dialogue and your logic."

E: Mhmm. I agree with those points. I've talked to many people in the conversation design industry and basically everyone agrees on these points: take notes extensively, observe your surroundings, and have someone in the room with you when you're ideating. You need someone to push back and give you a different perspective than what you already have. So on point! I love this.

Trivia Round

E: And we're back, so Cecilia, I have a bonus question for you. What is the most challenging part of a conversation designer's job?

C: I'm a little reluctant to answer this since either the conversation design community is gonna have varied experiences or you all have a collective one and I just haven't had it yet. So, I'd like to already draft my apology to all of you conversation designers out there. I'm thinking there's no wrong answer, right?

E: Exactly.

C: For me, I might get so enveloped with the delivery of a user journey through one particular channel or mode and then have to realize: okay, maybe that user isn't using a device with a screen. It's also not just designing a multimodal experience— which we specialize in here at NLX— where you create a few steps for a user to fulfill a task. Maybe that task is setting up an appointment or filling out a form. And then [you slap on] some script at the end that the AI assistant delivers to the user. Instead, you really have to be able to consider the other lanes the whole time and switch lanes while designing, all in service of creating a cohesive multimodal experience. That can be challenging, but also really rewarding when you do it. I think that's probably the most challenging.

"You really have to be able to consider the other lanes the whole time and switch lanes while designing, all in service of creating a cohesive multimodal experience."

E: I definitely hear that a lot, collectively. Actually, that is something that is a really big problem. Working with multimodality just could be so challenging overall. There's different ways to do it. I think the way we do it here at NLX— it's a little bit different than maybe what people are used to. Generally, if you talk to Bank of America's Erica or a smart home device like Alexa and she has a display— those interactions are very transactional. You kind of don't have to think a few steps ahead. There's a question and an answer and it's presented in this way. I feel like at NLX we kind of mix everything. We do have transactional parts of our journeys but overall, we try to let the user decide what they want to do. I agree, for me, that's also a very big struggle.

C: Yeah, and again, most fulfilling too when you overcome those obstacles. I think it's a superior product to be able to offer multimodal.

E: Yeah, exactly. I do think that it's challenging, but we always have fun, and we always try to deliver products that don't feel stuffy and give people a good experience.

Closing Remarks

E: So let's wrap up this interview, I have one last question. What advice would you give to any aspiring conversation designer out there?

C: This is such a new field, and I think everyone in the community is trying to build it up, rather than trying to capitalize on competition with each other. Network with people, attend virtual meetups, etc. because you'll make great contacts that way and find the next amazing job or even get inspired with your own work. Also, don't doubt your intuition when designing. You've been communicating with people and systems all your life, and if you trust what feels right, you likely have that opinion formed from years of personal history and an astounding amount of your own data. And, this is something you and I say a lot too and I love it, it's: have fun. Just have fun.

E: I love that. That's such a positive note to end this on. Have fun! Just let yourself be open to new ideas and have fun with your peers. That's amazing. Thank you so much Cecilia. We really learned a lot from you today.

C: Thank you Elaine for having me.

E: Gonna close this up. I hope everyone enjoyed our talk with Cecilia, background in instructional design, now conversation designer at NLX. It's been a great chat and hope to have more conversations with you and share more about what we're doing at NLX.

Elaine Anzaldo

Elaine is our Conversational UX Designer providing Conversation Design support across the range of NLX Conversational AI offerings.

She has worked on projects for market-leading technology companies such as Apple, Google, and Facebook where she applied her Data Annotation, Spanish Translation and cross-functional Account Management skills. She also spent time at the Cambio Center of the University of Missouri where she honed her language translation and copywriting skills.

She is an active member of Women in Voice Silicon Valley, the Conversational Collective, as well as Voice Tech Global, and is a recognized influencer in Voice Tech.

She has a Bachelor of Science (B.S.) in Biological Sciences from University of Missouri at Columbia and an Advanced Conversational Experience Design Certificate from Voice Tech Global.