Although Chatbot UI (CUI) may seem like a new phenomenon, the technology has long been popular in countries like Japan and China. When Didi Dache integrated with WeChat’s CUI for taxi service in 2014, the company quickly got over 700,000 bookings a day through WeChat alone. Fast forward to 2016: Silicon Valley has finally discovered CUI and has invested heavily in the sector, with hundreds of chatbots soon to be released into the market.

One of the earliest steps in developing a chatbot is deciding how to give it a personality. Some companies take the Siri approach and choose not to give their chatbot a visual avatar, while Slack, for example, created the slackbot to make things a little more fun. If you decide to create an avatar, here are a few things to consider.

1. Know your demographic and target user personas

Your target audience should heavily influence the design of your avatar. A more conservative chatbot might be appropriate in the legal research market, whereas early adopters might be attracted to something with a futuristic or techie feel. Each target audience’s likes and dislikes should be taken into consideration.

2. Match your avatar with your brand’s positioning

Every brand has its own unique appeal, and the ideal avatar should create a positive and distinctive impression that’s consistent with your brand. Consider the differences in branding an avatar for a financial services company like American Express and one for an entertainment company like Disney; Goofy might not be the best avatar to tell you that your stock portfolio shrank 10 percent, but he would be great for booking a trip to a theme park.

3. Pick a gender

The gender of your avatar, if you choose to give it one, may influence the way your audience interacts with the chatbot. Your audience may feel more comfortable interacting with one gender or the other, depending on the specific situation, so be aware of how you’re influencing user behavior. You can also give people the option to select their own avatar gender, which Apple does for Siri.

4. Get multiple designers involved

At HealthJoy, we initially struggled with design because people within the company had strong and conflicting opinions. People will be passionate about the image your avatar projects, and every one of your designers will want to create his or her own vision of the avatar. I personally think this is great, and we even wanted more concepts and ideas during the design process. We used Fiverr.com and spent only $250 to get several rough mockups from our design brief. The money was well-spent, as we found we liked the expressive eyes from one design and the colors from another. This is the visual representation of your brand, so take some time during the process and get lots of input.
Early-JOY-Designs.jpg

5. Design for mobile screens

Your avatar might live in a lot of different places, but the most-utilized interface going forward will be the mobile screen. Lots of details disappear when you scale your design down in size, so view how your avatar looks at 32×32 and 64×64 pixels. Does one design retain its integrity better than another? Focus on the elements that scale well.

6. Consider doing your design in vector format

We’ve used Joy on mailers and posters, and hopefully one day you’ll see her on billboards. We designed Joy as a vector illustration so that she can scale from the tiniest mobile screen to whatever size we need.

7. Test your design

We started with about 50 different designs and surveyed our employees to narrow it down to five choices. We then asked for customer input to pick our winner. If you don’t have customers yet, you might try a service like PickFu.com to get real-world feedback.

8. Name your avatar

I think we went though a hundred different names on the way to JOY. It might seem obvious now for a company called HealthJoy, but originally we settled on Emma. One day, while I was taking a shower (my best idea-generation location), it hit me: Let’s call her “Joy.” The instant I suggested the name in the office, we knew we had found the winner. If there’s one take-home message, it’s that you shouldn’t rush the process of designing your avatar. Your customers will develop a personal relationship with your avatar, and you want that relationship to be a positive one. Nobody demonstrates the importance of a likeable character better than Disney: Mickey Mouse was created in 1928 and is still loved and cherished today. If people love your avatar, they’ll love your product.