Conversational Design by Erika Hall (New York: A Book Apart, 2018. 134 pp)

Erika Hall has been working in web design and development since the late twentieth century. In 2001, she cofounded Mule Design Studio, where she leads the strategy consulting practice. Her enthusiasm for evidence-based decision-making led her to write Just Enough Research. She speaks frequently to international audiences on topics ranging from collaboration and design research to effective interface language. Her current talks explore the limits of using quantitative data to make design decisions.

Computer Talk

It feels like a couple of years ago society hit a fulcrum, and conversation shifted dramatically. Where communication between people often occurred verbally, communication with machines happened largely through code or writing.

Now, we communicate with each other via text. Seriously, if you call me I won’t answer. But, the rise in conversational AI allows people to talk to machines. Hey Siri. Hey Alexa. Hey Google. Ad infinitum.

Even more, the nature of language has adapted to our technological ways. Short truncated sentences are mandatory. We don’t have the patience for Moby Dick anymore; we need meaning communicated in 140 characters or fewer.

So, conversation means something different these days. Is a text exchange more conversational than talking to a virtual assistant? In business, is a dialogue with a customer more important than ad copy? And even more, how can business delight customers when the nuances of a product value proposition must find traction without much real estate on a mobile-rendered smart phone?

Exploring these questions, Erika Hall makes the case for conversational design as a foundational pillar of product design strategy.

Conversational Design

In Conversational Design, she argues for the importance of the written word adapted to the changes in media we see all around us.

“A good conversation is more than an exchange of phrases, it begins with an unspoken agreement and succeeds with cooperation towards a goal. These principles can guide our choices in what kind of systems we create, the interfaces we design, and how we work together to create something meaningful and valuable” (5).

Giving examples, she lays out the best practices of conversational design and gives a how-to guide to improve communication effectiveness for businesses looking to harness the digital space.

While many tips and pointers are useful, the one part that sticks with me as I consider ways of implementing her ideas into my daily habits is poetry.

Poetry as Conversation

For Hall, poetry represents emotional impact in an economy of words. When a poet needs a reader to feel a specific way, the poet only has a few words to accomplish the mission.

So, paradoxically, poetry influences conversational design by inspiring writers to get to the point with the necessary emotional gusto to communicate not only meaning but also subconscious belief.

“Also, clean out the clichés and pat phrases by reading some poetry. Aloud. With your team. Poetry is your best source of deliberate intentional language that has nothing to do with our actual work. Reading it will descale your mind, like vinegar in a coffee maker” (99).

Conversational Design is an excellent précis on the shifting norms of language in society and how writers can capture this concentrated essence in business communication. As we write to humans and talk to machines more and more, we must continue to consider what it means to have conversations that matter. Conversational Design is a good starting point to accomplish these ends.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

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