This is the first episode of our serie of interviews with conversational design thought leaders. We are going to run those interview as raw transcripts with “burnt tongue”. At the end of the day, those are conversations too


Joe Toscano

For this first chapter, Vittorio from Botsociety is interviewing Joe Toscano, Author/Speaker of Designing Intelligence and Experience Design Consultant at Mach 9. Former Googler and active Blogger for InVision.

Vittorio So before we start, it would be really cool to have your opinion about something we are doing

Joe Ok sure go ahead

Vittorio So what we would like to do is create the Botsociety journal. The whole idea is: write about how designers as switching from visual design to conversational design. So, how is this shift happening, how are they tackling it.. because it is both a risk and opportunity. So, that is what we would like the blog to be focused about.

Joe Okay, would you like a response to that right now or. . .

Vittorio Well, I just wanted to tell you this is the idea I came up with talking to a lot of designers. So, all of my questions will revolve around the idea of this shift.. I wanted to know if this idea sucks in your opinion, because we are still able to change it now

Joe Yeah okay, I think it’s  interesting. I’m not sure if visual designers will be switching over to conversations with bots, to be sincere with you. I think it’s more of an opportunity for writers actually, you know – people who have writing experience. It is just a different kind of skill set.

Don’t get me wrong, I think there is still a need for visual design, you kind of need to have that whole mobile interaction. We are not going to just have conversations, we will also have interactions  with a physical device, visuals on a screen, etcetera. So I think there is still space for visual designers, but I don’t see conversation design being a graceful career transition for people that have spent their lives doing graphic design. We will still need visual designers, but this shift  opens up a lane for writers to get into the technology space. It gives them more creativity as opposed to what is typically a production role. I think it will be interesting, definitely.

Vittorio Okay great. In your experience, what is the most difficult or the maybe counter-intuitive thing in this switch? So say I’m a designer/writer or whatever, what is the counter-intuitive thing that I have to grasp in order to start working on conversational interfaces? I don’t know if the question is clear, just tell me that this question doesn’t make sense if that is the case.

Joe No, I get it. I am trying to think. *pause* I think the challenge is to think from an information designer perspective, because that is kind of what an information designer does – the question becomes how do you take the information and architect it in a way that will be interactive and easy to use, read or, in general, digest.

So, I think from that perspective, it is a matter of figuring out a new type of infrastructure: the infrastructure of conversation. We need to figure out the signifiers, in the context; how and why people communicate; and how those underlying principles work together.

I mean, it is totally different than the design of interacting with a physical device or a digital device. It is something that is fundamental to being human — something that evolves and that we are constantly learning. I don’t think a lot of traditional designers have experience with that.

I think I got lucky, when I was in college, my undergrad was messy, but I ended up with  a degree in Psychology and minors in Sociology, English, and Gender Studies. So I was lucky, I got a lot of the background knowledge required to make the transition pretty easily — you might even say that I was more prepared for a role as a conversation designer than an experience designer, who works mostly with graphics and code. But I think for a lot of designers who actually went to design school or art school, it will be a very big hurdle; I really do believe that. I don’t know if it something a lot of them are going to take on.

Writers are backVittorio  This is very interesting. The idea of the psychology getting more central, I see that, but at the same time there are some principles I guess that should be common, between the way a designer is coming up with more graphical experience than a conversational experience. Maybe on one end of this spectrum there is a lot of stuff that you can’t adapt, but on the other side there are things which are going to be untouched by the shift to conversational. Or there aren’t any, and we need to figure out all the stuff again?

Joe I don’t necessarily think there is a lot to be learned, to be honest. The similarities are within technology, and the field of technology. If we  abstract the concept a little bit, we are not just picking up conversation, we are picking up how we are going to conversationally interact with the machine. And from a systems perspective this will vary, based on best practices for defining an experience — you might “conversationally” direct the machine to do certain things, then it might have to share something with you that you need to visually react to on a screen. Or you might direct the machine with a physical device or gestural interaction and then hear an audible, conversational reaction/confirmation from the machine.

So, like I said, I think that  there is still room for visual designers — I think they will stick around. I don’t know that there are a lot of similarities between visual design and conversational design, because conversations, for the most part, are kind of invisible.

For example: everything I am saying you are recording and you hear it, it’s audible, but there is no visual to it. You could have it printed on a computer screen or paper. But there isn’t necessarily a visual design to it. You know. It is just words, and, sure, like, each character is a symbol  that can be stylized at the end of the day, but it’s not like creating a graphical interface.

But it’s not like a handle on a door or a button on a screen, that we kind of know what to do with, from a general purpose standpoing. An A is a symbol that, if  the user doesn’t know, has no meaning, it is just a symbol at that point. It is there, and it can visually be seen but it  doesn’t have a meaning.

But, I do know what a letter A is. So when I see a letter on a screen it is a graphic but it is different than graphic design, which is more artform based than conversation. Conversation is still an artform, but it is a different kind of art.  It’s not  color,shape, and form it’s more of a mental thing that we’re socialized to understand and is specific to context.Small Letters

Vittorio Intuitively I agree, the conversation is a different art, which has no colors, for example. How do you approach the creative process of coming up, for example, with personality for a chatbot or a voice agent?

Joe Yeah. So, in that sense, there is some similarity to what we do as designers. You want to start with the persona.  If you have a business, you have been marketing for a while, you have some language already established that you have written up, and you have interacted with clients, so they have a history with your brand: Your brand has a voice.

The challenge of making a persona is that you want to turn your brand into a personality. I also do not think that every brand needs a character specifically, but you can still have a persona made without creating a character.

For example, Google Assistant has a personality. It is the Google assistant and it is a tool, so the personality of Google is very helpful and resourceful and not super, I don’t want to say friendly, but it doesn’t try to convince you that it is human or that it has a character, it is meant to be a tool.

But then you have others, like the Call of Duty bot, which is clearly a replication of a video game character. All of these characters have a distinct personality. It is a spectrum, it is not really a binary choice.

From historical perspective you need to look at your business, your product, or whatever it is that you are turning into a conversational interface, and ask yourself: How would that thing relate to another person? It would probably be good to do an examination of your marketing materials, your customer service representatives, etc. And then you base your language around that. Does it barge in and interrupt people? Maybe it is extroverted. Or maybe it is quiet and it is a bit nerdy, so it is respectful,a little bit more introspective and whatnot. So those are things to think about.

Vittorio So you say: you start from the brand, but then you have to work on it, it is like.. you have to develop a spectrum, a different character that builds on the traits which your brand already has.

Joe Ok, let’s take Nike for example. We want to build a conversational interface for Nike that represents the Nike brand. It’s probably going to be extroverted, maybe a little more aggressive or assertive than other brands. It is an athletic brand, so you have to think of what people think of when they think of Nike? They think of an athlete, they think fast, they think strong, you know things like that versus Walmart.

Maybe the Walmart character is like the old person that greets you at the door. So, the Walmart bot is a lot more relaxed, it is happy to see you, it is a lot more passive. You know what I’m saying? Every brand already has a personality to it, the key is to figure out what your brand personality is.

Vittorio Clear! And cool. And how hard do you think you should bring this forward? For example, this, if you are really serious about this, you may bring to a functional level. So, for example, following the examples that you outlined: the Nike bot may send more notifications to users because it is more extrovert, right? So in the end it contacts you more. Whereas, Walmart, more introvert, does not actively send you a lot of messages.

Joe I think that has less to do with the push notifications and more to do with the voice the way you say things. There are certain words that are more extroverted than others. There is also the pace at which you speak, for example. Someone who is more extroverted speaks faster so sentences are probably shorter and choppier and less thought through. And this is where I am saying there is a difference between a visual designer and a conversational designer. It is incredibly different because conversation you are working with things you learn in language class, whether that is English, Spanish, or whatever language that you speak. And you learn those things in your language. It is totally different. I am trying to think. . .

The Designing Intelligence cover, more below

The Designing Intelligence cover, more on this below

Vittorio I get it. What you are saying is that the difference is there and so if I am used to working with colors, say for a web page, I want take a look at the brand guidelines, at the colors of the brand. And you are saying in conversational, you have to take a look at the tone of voice for the brand to work on top of that. But it is a totally different part of your brain that is actually doing this job.

Joe Yeah, it is a different part of your brain. The persona is essentially the brand guidelines; you would have a layout of this person, who they are, and how they would behave and then you might write in a few snippets, example copy, etc, so you could say in this situation the brand would say this, and in this situation this brand would say that. In response to that, this brand would say that. That is where I think the persona is the new design guidelines, the aspects the modular, the template, the persona is the template; so from team to team you do not lose the consistency of your brand.

Vittorio Say that I am a visual designer and I would like to approach more this conversational space, where should I start in your opinion?

Joe Yeah, yeah. So, I would think my first step to be to just start playing with some of these things. If you want to learn about all of these techniques, and what is out there, and I sent you the whole list, but some of my favorites is Wired for Speech — one of the best. It’s going to tell you a lot about creating personality through conversation. But in terms of natural processing, if you are really trying to think through how people speak, the book called Metaphors We Live By, which is really interesting. There are just things as a society, as a whole, kind of like base our language around.

For example, positive in most cultures is I am achieving more — I am getting up for the day, my energy is rising, my stocks went up 10% today, those are all positive things.

But in some cultures, up or more is negative. They actually promote balance and people living together, so more is not always good, and they view the world differently.. and they will speak differently.

There is a difference between individualist cultures and collectivist cultures. So, for instance, like in the United States we very much live (unfortunately) for the attention and for the individual; versus in culture a Western culture like Japan or China they live much more for the family and the culture there, so these two would represent  individual versus collective cultures, in that sense. They will speak differently, they will behave differently because of that.

So in a culture where I am more respectful of my family, I will be conscious of the things I say and how it might affect them, versus if I am more about myself I probably have more tendency to use the words I, me, instead of us, things like that. There are little differences between cultures that will greatly affect the way you lay out a conversational bot.

There are also different ways to punctuate and structure sentences that make them have personality traits, within words without having an audible voice.

Then, once you get audible voice, it gets even more intricate to design  because there are more layers that define the voice. There is much more depth to an audible conversation. You can hear the emotion,the tone of my voice, the stressed syllables — all of that. Versus when it is written you don’t quite get that full content; it’s not quite as deep of an interaction, so you have to write it and you have to know how to use grammar appropriately. It is a new challenge definitely.

Vittorio Great. That was very interesting Joe, there are some questions you think I should ask apart from this, which I came up with, again this is the first interview I do

Joe  I think those are good questions. I think I am in the same position you are in is to try and figure out what questions to even ask. Because it is such a new deal, and I think there are so many people that are trying to bridge that gap. And it’s a pretty large gap. So, I think you trying to find the point that will be relevant or practical. It is a really interesting challenge.

Vittorio Great, thank you.

Joe  Yeah, man

Vittorio By the way, what is it that you are working on at the moment?

Joe Yeah, yeah, absolutely. I am currently working on writing my book, Designing Intelligence. I’m also designing it!

The book starts out with the history of data, technology and the evolution — how they all work together and how they have affected/helped us over time. I walk through why conversation is the next interaction model, and eight  chapters about how to properly design a conversation. And I have a few chapters about the future of how things can play out, what to watch out for, how things can go bad, and how we, as technical leaders, can create a better future through these systems.

I’ve been working on it for almost a year now, so I’m really excited about it.

Vittorio Great. Okay so I will put this in as well of course. That was a pleasure. Talk to you soon!

Joe Bye

You can find Joe on Twitter here

Designing intelligence

Check out the website Designing Intelligence!

Also published on Medium.


Vittorio Banfi

Co-founder at