What is a conversational interface? A conversational interface is a user interface that mimics human conversationBy now, you’ve most likely interacted with a conversational interface. If you own a phone, you may have interacted with a virtual assistant like Siri, Cortana, Alexa, or Google Assistant. If you enjoy online shopping, you may have interacted with a conversational interface called a bot. Bots can find you makeup, help you order flowers, call you a cab, or help you buy a plane ticket. 

All of these services were designed with conversation in mind. Conversational interfaces are designed to foster a personal connection between services and their users. They can also facilitate better user experiences by having a built-in customer service representative for a digital product.

Companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple see conversation as the future of user development. Bots utilizing this type of interface might soon replace apps, enabling users to interact directly with their favorite digital services. Understanding conversational user interfaces (or CUIs) is essential to understanding the future of technological development.

The idea behind conversational design is to make communication between humans and computers easier. Computers are, by their nature, binaristic. Until now, they’ve struggled to follow complex commands without highly-detailed, binary-coded instructions on how to do so.

But with the invention of technology that allows computers to both learn and self-teach, what computers can understand is growing and changing. Instead of using computer specific language, CUI enables users to “talk” to a computer the way they might talk to another human.

Why “tell” when you can “show”?

In the past twenty years, much of the focus in UI design has been on GUI – the graphical user interface. In the era of home desktops, pointing and clicking was a user’s primary mode of interaction with digital services.

But most users no longer use a desktop to access the internet or any of its services. The rise of the smartphone has heralded massive innovations in UI design as designers compete to grab user attention. After all, most people use only a handful of apps. Designers must work hard to create an engaging interface in order to cultivate an audience.

Conversational user interfaces have begun to dominate the field for one simple reason: they’re far more engaging than their static visual counterparts. By directly engaging with the user, conversational interfaces spark an instant connection and interest. Many CUIs are designed specifically to anticipate user needs. They present an intelligent, engaging experience that many users naturally gravitate to.

Significance of conversational interfaces

The goal of user interfaces has always been to make consumer technologies more accessible, intuitive, and easy to use. A website, for example, utilizes a variety of component parts to make it simple for you, the user, to understand how it works. This plays into everything from the color coding to button and menu design to page organization. Designing good UI is much the same as designing anything else: it’s an art which takes a great deal of study and trial-and-error to get right.

But this method of design is new, and conversation is complicated. Bots are much less complex than humans, and even the most advanced among them struggle to process the immense complexity of human language. Even search engines – which are, in their distilled essence, the most simple type of conversational interface – struggle to answer user questions if they aren’t phrased correctly.

Some of this will change as the technology itself evolves. Facebook is working diligently to create state-of-the-art Natural Language Processing to make bots better at understanding natural speech. Google is working to create a standard for CUI design. And many people – maybe even you! – are using tools like BotSociety to create their own bots, expanding our understanding of what conversational interfaces are capable of.

The future of conversational design

In many ways, CUI and bot design is like the early web. The potential is vast, though it’s currently restricted by a lack of real-world testing. Conversational interfaces have captured the imaginations of many of the world’s lead programmers and designers.

Some think that the goal of conversational design should be to create an artificial intelligence capable of human-like, open-ended conversation. Chatterbots like Mitsuku – which won the Loebner Prize for her human-like conversational skills – are designed with authentic conversation in mind. Mituku’s creator, Steve Worswick, once said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that he felt inspired by emails and comments he received from fans who felt they’d made a connection with the bot.

“[People tell] me how Mitsuku has helped them with a situation whether it was dating advice, being bullied at school, coping with illness or even advice about job interviews,” Worswick told the Journal. “I also get many elderly people who talk to her for companionship.”

Other creators, like Kik CEO Ted Livingston, believe that conversational interfaces should focus less on creating traditional conversations and more on creating a focused user experience. In an interview with TopBots, Livingston said, “People are still experimenting with how bots should work, how they should design the experience, how they should grow. I think the big distraction right now is people really focus on natural language processing. … That’s why we built suggested responses. People are trying to catch up to that now, having a very guided experience but layering in rich elements like full web games, interactive experiences.”

As designers learn more – and as more people begin designing – conversational interfaces will become more advanced and more efficient. Soon, the differentiation between UI and CUI may be arbitrary. If the trends of the technological industry are anything to go by, the future of user interfaces is conversational.



Creative writer and Professional Nerd™ based in the San Francisco Bay Area