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How to Cooperate in Conversation Design

You turn to me, and say, “Any updates on the designs I asked you about?” To which I reply, “That sandwich from Einstein’s was very, very good.”

You’re instantly confused, and for a very good reason. Unless talking about sandwiches is code for something, I was answering a very different question from the one you asked. And this violates something we usually take for granted: when we talk with each other, we’re cooperating. When I lie, or ramble, or reply with something irrelevant, I’ve stopped cooperating.

This idea is known as the cooperative principle. More precisely, it’s the idea that in conversation, we contribute as much to the conversation as is needed, moment-by-moment, to achieve some goal.

Unless you’re a sociopath (and I assume you are not), you do this naturally. In fact, Paul Grice, the man who invented it, means it as a description for how we normally talk, and not as a prescription for how we should talk. Again, we do this naturally. Grice took the natural, and therefore invisible, thing, and made it visible by articulating it.

Thinking for Yourself

But if we all do it naturally, why is discussing the principle important for designers? Put simply, it is easier to cooperate when we talk than it is to write. Why? Here’s John Trimble, in his excellent book, “The Art of Writing”:

Most of the [novice writer’s] difficulties start with the simple fact that the paper he writes on is mute. Because it never talks back to him, and because he’s concentrating so hard on generating ideas, he readily forgets–unlike the veteran–that another human being will eventually bet trying to make sense of what’s he saying. The result? His natural tendency as a writer is to think primarily of himself–hence to write primarily for himself. Here, in a nutshell, lies the ultimate reason for most bad writing.

John Trimble, “Writing with Style”

(And for most bad design, I’d add, but I digress.)

When we carry a normal conversation with other people, those other people are not on mute. We know what is being said and who is hearing it. We can see their faces, and gauge their understanding: are eyebrows raised? Are they nodding their heads? Are they making eye contact? Are they looking away, disengaged? And what do they say in response? Do they ask questions? Are they getting to their goal? All that they say–the content of their speech, the inflection of their voice, their facial expressions and body language–all of these are constantly available, constantly reminding us that we are speaking for others, and constantly telling us whether we’re playing our part well (or not).

When we write, on the other hand, we are, in very real ways, blind and deaf. Writing is a solitary act, and so it is easy to write for ourselves, to think for ourselves. And so–bringing things full circle–we forget to cooperate, to play our part in the conversation.

As writers, we are designers.

Design is often perceived as visual, but a digital product relies on language. Designing a product involves writing the button labels, menu items, and error messages that users interact with, and even figuring out whether text is the right solution at all. When you write the words that appear in a piece of software, you design the experience someone has with it.

Metts and Welfle, “Writing is Designing”

As an interface designer, this is important to remember. As a conversational designer, it is especially important. A conversational interface relies primarily, and sometimes wholly, on the strength of our writing. And the strength of our writing–our capacity to cooperate–relies on how well we understand our audience.

Following Grice’s Maxims

Let us turn back to the cooperative principle: the idea that we should, at each moment of a conversation, contribute to achieve whatever goal. In normal conversation, there can be many goals: to inform; to comfort; just to listen, and offer comfort and presence; to shoot the breeze and get others laughing. All of these are important to our humanity. But as conversational designers designing conversational computer interfaces, we have a more limited set of aims: to inform, to entertain, and/or to accomplish some task. We want to cooperate with the user and help them achieve these ends. What are practical guidelines to do this?

Luckily for us, Paul Grice gave four maxims. Again, these are descriptive–we naturally do these things. They are:

  • Maxim of Quality (Tell the Truth)
  • Maxim of Quantity (Say Only as Much as Necessary)
  • Maxim of Relevance (Be relevant)
  • Maxim of Manner (Be clear)

Let’s talk about each in turn.

The maxim of quality. We should only say what we understand to be true. We shouldn’t say what is false. When we lie, we are failing to cooperate.

The maxim of quantity. Napoleon once said “Quantity has a quality of its own.” He was suggesting that the size of his army–massive for the time–overcame any defects in their training and preparation.

But what is true for the battlefield is not true for conversation. We do not want to provide too much information. And neither do we want to provide too little. We want to provide the right amount. We all know long-winded people who say too much, who go on for far too long to say what they mean. But it’s also possible to provide too little information. Imagine me asking someone, here in New York City, “How do I get to Chicago?” They might say, “Head due northwest for XXX miles.” True, so far as it goes. But also much less information than I was hoping for. Like Goldlilocks trying to avoid the porridge that is too hot and too cold, we try to provide the amount that is not too much or too little, but “just right.”

The maxim of relevance. Be relevant. Go along with the topic. If I ask you for the time, don’t reply with your opinion of how bad the latest episode of the Bachelor was. It’s irrelevant to what I was asking for.

The maxim of manner. Be clear. Make your writing and speech easy to understand and unambiguous. If I ask you where the closest Starbucks is, do not give me the latitude and longitude. It’s true; it’s concise; and it’s even relevant. But it’s not clear, at all, how I’m supposed to use that information. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that “The indispensable characteristic of a good writer is a style marked by lucidity.”

The maxim of manner is arguably the most important of them all. Something can be relevant, true, and sufficient. But if it is not clear, it cannot be judged as relevant, true, or sufficient.

Let Context Guide

As I said earlier, conversation fills many roles in our lives: to laugh, to comfort, to learn, to love, to persuade, to entertain. But for conversational interfaces, the goals are much more limited. They are usually to inform, to entertain, or to accomplish some task. And when we switch between these contexts and goals–not to mention other contexts like physical location or mobility–we need to consider the impact on the situation, in light of Grice’s maxims.

In conversational design, we deal fundamentally in “turns.” (This is, perhaps, the best parallel to what graphic designers call the “artboard”, or put more simply, a screen.) A turn is made up of the utterance (“what the user says”) and the resulting response (“what the voice assistant says”).

As designers, we have the control over the response the voice assistant provides. Amazon stresses a “one-breath test” for the length of these responses. This means that if a single response by Alexa or Google Assistant cannot be said in less than one breath, than it’s perhaps too long. And this is true most of the time. It is true when the aim is to inform or accomplish most tasks. But it is not always true.

Consider Kung Fu Panda, a popular Alexa skill made by RAIN. The turns are much, much longer than a single breath, because the aim is to entertain.

Or consider Headspace, another voice app RAIN made. I was the lead designer for this app, which ties into the popular Headspace product, which offers guided meditations to everyone. The menu is exceptionally simple:

In the first two responses, the goal (getting quickly to a meditation) dictate that we be brief and clear: here are your options. We broke the conversation up into tiers, to avoid an excessively long list of options at the beginning. But once we reached the meditation, we played a ten-minute response: a guided meditation. Far from being too long, this was cooperating with the user: providing them a guided meditation, where they expected to only listen.

A more difficult lesson I learned with Headspace: in the first iteration, we played a short message at the end of the meditation, explaining how to get access to more meditations. I thought this would be helpful. But far from achieving its goal, users hated it. Just when users had achieved some stillness and quiet, we interrupted it, ruining ten minutes of patient silence. Metts and Welfle have said that “when writing is designing… the goal is not to grab attention, but to help your users accomplish their tasks.” We were grabbing their attention again, when our purpose should have been to help them achieve their tasks at every step.

How to Write for Others

Some of the key points:

  • Conversation is about cooperation.
  • We naturally cooperate in normal conversation. But when writing, our audience is on mute. So it’s easy to forget.
  • Grice’s maxims describe how we normally cooperate. We tell the truth; we say enough (not too much or too little); we stay relevant; and above all, we’re clear.
  • Context is important. Conversational interfaces are usually made to inform, to entertain, or to accomplish some task–and sometimes all of these. Keep this in mind at each turn.

How do we do this? I’ll write more about that in another article. The key, of course, is to keep the audience in mind. Never let your writing–whether it be for a blog post, website copy, a chatbot, or a voice interface–go out without having first thought what your audience wants, and how well you’ve provided that.

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