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Words are the new UI/UX. That means the same diligence and attention to detail that was once poured over every pixel of a website or app will now have to be applied to each word of a bot interaction. The problem is that most people were only too cognizant of their lack of expertise when it came to laying out an app, but when it comes to chatbot dialogue, we all believe ourselves to be experts. After all, we have been talking since we were two years old, so we must know a thing or two about it by now.
Of course, we are quite deft at conveying charming anecdotes to friends but not necessarily so skilled at coherently communicating a technical process over a longer format to a stranger. For the latter, a degree of planning and sophistication is required to grab and hold the attention of someone who is not worried about hurting your feelings by “walking away” in the middle of your explanation.
So how do we write compelling chatbot dialogue that will captivate users like the most carefully crafted app interface? Start by asking yourself these questions:
Who are you talking to?
Be as narrow as possible in your description of your perfect user. Theoretically, anyone can be a potential user, but few things appeal equally to Brooklyn tweens and Iowa grandmothers. Who, specifically, do you imagine making up the bulk of your audience? This will inform how you talk to your users.
What do you want them to do?
I am reminded of a joke from the movie Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, when a frustrated Steve Martin berates John Candy by saying, “And when you tell a story, have a point, it makes it so much more interesting to the listener!” The same is true of chatbot dialogue — it is important to have in mind exactly what you want users to do before you start rambling on aimlessly.
People don’t plan to fail, they fail to plan
Once you have these important attributes clearly defined, you’ll need to outline your chat experience. This will become the backbone of your final conversation, and it is utterly essential to have as a guide before you start picking out the specific words in your chat. The reason is that without it, you will be rudderless, and the conversation will be meandering and confusing. Your user will be left feeling that they don’t have enough breadcrumbs to get back home and will give up.
A good rule of thumb is to write down the 10 top-level points you want to make. Be mindful of the order of these points, and the conversation should flow logically. Put the most important points up front; don’t assume the user will make it all the way through every time. If you hook users early, you get to educate them later.
Artificial Intelligence, not Artificial Communication
Our brains are very adept at communicating with people. Thousands of years of evolution have seen to the cultivation of that all-important skill. By comparison, we tend to engage a totally separate part of our grey matter when it comes to communicating through a computer. We abandon all innate sensibilities regarding empathy and reading the room before we start talking. For instance, before someone tells a “blue” joke at a dinner party, they will generally first take stock of who else is at the table and consider how those listeners might take the joke. A quick scan of any comment section would suggest people don’t extend this same courtesy to online conversations.
To create engaging chatbot dialogue, we must engage the more advanced section of our brain that is highly attuned to the nuance of communicating with people. The best way to do this is to hold in your mind an actual person who would be a perfect user for your bot. Now, let me stress this point. I don’t mean a type of person, I mean a real person. It should be someone you know well, such as a good friend — like your college roommate, Eric. Then, when you are writing, don’t write for the faceless masses, write the way you would say it to Eric. How would you text Eric? Would you send an emoji? Write it that way in your chatbot. Would you tell a small joke to make the conversation more fun? Make the same joke in your chatbot.
As chatbots are still in their infancy, we are more concerned with how things are running on the backend, and, too often, the actual chat dialogue is an afterthought. However, this is a huge mistake. It’s like opening a restaurant and spending all your time standing over the chef’s shoulder trying to establish the perfect amount of salt in the soup while your waiters are putting their cigarettes out in the customers’ pie. Chabots are not unlike restaurants. Although it is important to serve a good product, how the customer is served will stay with them long after the taste of the meal has left their mouth and will most influence how likely they are to become loyal customers or recommend the experience to friends.
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