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The sheer scale of SXSW can be overwhelming for those looking for guidance on the next big thing. I went to Austin with one mission in mind: to zero in on conversational interfaces.

2017 has huge potential for widespread adoption of conversational interfaces. It follows promising work by early adopters such as Activision, Burberry, and H&M, which proved the early promise of the humble chatbot.

Meanwhile, voice assistants like Alexa and Google Assistant are shaping the connected home, providing us with fluid, intuitive access to services and products.

But there’s more still to come as the field develops. I believe every business should equip itself with a chat strategy to guide how its audience speaks and engages with it.

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It sounds like a daunting prospect, but this year SXSW was chock-full of expert advice and debate to help guide that process.

Face value

One of the first sessions I attended this year asked Are Biometrics the New Face of Surveillance?

With a panel including the FBI, biometric experts Kairos, and privacy activist Cory Doctorow, it was an arresting debate. Its core subject — procuring and securing personal data — is also fundamental to the future success of conversational interfaces.

Its early slot in the SXSW programme shows the importance of these issues. While conversational interfaces are picking up momentum for good reason, it’s vital that the systems behind them are robust enough to provide security while also delivering a smooth user experience.

The rightful victims of this shift are passwords and PINs – who wants to shout out their bank details to complete an online order using voice? In their place, facial recognition, fingerprinting, and iris scanning are becoming useful tools to verify who you are rather than simply what you know.

New tech, new blood

You know SXSW is a melting pot, but new challenges of the conversational interface are bringing diverse talent to the wider tech industry, too.

Comedians, directors, poets, and others from artistic disciplines are now finding new roles: creating voices for businesses.

The transition makes sense when you consider that these professions trade on human understanding and empathy. Those are two qualities that successful conversational interfaces will depend on.

While “brand voice” will be a familiar consideration for many marketers, chatbots and voice assistants change the dynamic completely. How do you handle off-topic conversations, complex questions, or complaints — sometimes all at the same time?

Creating the right experience across these variables will entail more than “seeming human.”

Conveying empathy and instilling confidence — maybe a little well-judged humor, too — could make or break the user experience.

John Maeda (Head of computational design and inclusion at Automatic) advocated for this crossover when he presented the third annual Design In Tech report on Saturday. He called on designers to “love their copywriters and content strategists” in order to take full advantage of language as an interface.

Emotional design for the many

In a Friday session on Designing emotionally intelligent machines, Sophie Kleber (‎Executive Director of product and innovation at Huge) projected the market for emotional recognition software will hit $36.7 billion by 2021. That’s incredible growth for a field that many aren’t even aware of yet — a field exploring the role of face and voice recognition in forging emotional connections

But while this tech will help establish emotional cues from a user, how do we then determine how a system should respond?

Kleber proposed a framework to address this question, comprising two axes. One is a customer’s need for emotional connection; the other is a brand’s permission to fulfil it. When neither exist, the system should tune out. When the former is high but the latter is low, the system should behave like a machine. The system should, therefore, only react like a human when there is permission to do so.

To turn that framework into reality, designers and writers will need to become familiar with psychology, Kleber said. Deep understanding of emotional processes and responses will be crucial to devising the right system responses.

I’d add an extra requirement for tomorrow’s designers to create appropriate responses: be the target audience.

It sounds facile, but Maeda had a similar message in his report. He reinforced the point that diverse backgrounds are “inseparable” from successful design.

If future tech is going to benefit the many, it must cater to the full spectrum of their needs. That can’t happen without a representative design cohort behind the curtain.

Dan Harvey is Chief Creative Officer at Zone.

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