Since the rise and fall of the dot-com era and its burst, we have seen multiple trends in technology and interaction design come and go. Every new progress in technology has triggered waves of excitement and new trends. The more mainstream the world wide web became, the more sophisticated websites became. Advances in mobile technologies and devices brought the web to the small screen. Apple’s introduction of the iPhone started a new paradigm and helped the mobile web to break through and made touch the default way of interacting with devices. Responsive design to make websites fit all screens and devices was born followed by the mobile-first paradigm. Simultaneously trends such as the social web became mainstream. With every new technology and trend, companies have shifted focus, invested in these new technologies and tried to catch up with technology. Even industry leaders have done so for the sake of doing so rather than trying to solve actual problems, to generate benefits, and to serve their users. The confusion around plug standards of Apple’s latest hardware products is only one example (Kastrenakes and The Verge, 2016). Although philosophies such as UCD and UX Design have gained momentum, it still seems that every new wave of progress triggers the urge for companies and designers to work for technology rather than making technology work for us. Now, in 2016, a new age has arrived. The age of conversational UIs driven by advances in artificial intelligence. “It's clear to me that we are evolving from a mobile first to an AI first world”, Google CEO, Pichai (2016) announced. In a constantly evolving landscape of new trends, this research project is an attempt at answering the following question: “How might we design Interactions and Experiences for New and No User Interfaces?”, relating to conversational UIs, bots, smart assistances and AI; but always keeping the user, and the serving of the user in mind.
The Revamped Double Diamond design framework (Nessler, 2016) is applied to tackle the underlying research question to this study: “How might we design Interactions and Experiences for New and No User Interfaces?”. The process consists of four parts: Discover, Define, Develop, and Deliver. During the research phase (Define), secondary research and primary research are applied. Additionally, there are two collaborations with industry partners. These corporations aim at gaining first-hand experiences in the field, gaining knowledge from professionals, and verifying theories to answer the underlying research question.
2.3. The age of conversational UIs
Man-machine conversations are nothing new. But they have recently celebrated a renaissance. Conversational UIs are the big thing in 2016. The big five industry leaders – Google, Apple, Microsoft, Facebook, and Amazon – have been pushing forward by introducing their vision of the future and related products. Conversational UIs are interfaces that mimic human interaction, whether spoken via voice or typed as words. Conversation is the interface whereas the machine in the form of an intelligent or scripted bot or agent communicates with the user. Such interfaces offer a more direct and personal way to interact and a lower learning curve than regular GUIs. Thanks to advances in AI, computers have become capable of communicating with users in a more human way. Today's smart assistances are still restricted to specific tasks.
2.4. Designing with the human in mind
In the 1970s, Dieter Rams set out to define ten core principles for good design. These principles still get applied in today’s design world. With the rise of the world wide web, related guidelines, and recommendations in the field of design or UX have gained popularity and are now established. Along the hype of conversational UIs corresponding guidelines have appeared. They often bare similarities and follow established guidelines. Linguistic and communication theory are also relevant for conversational UIs. Schulz von Thun’s (2000) four layer model or Grice’s (1975) maxims for good conversations are valuable resources to be referred to. Thanks to secondary research and collaborations on Zumbrunnen’s (2016) project uxchat.me and Hinderling Volkart website redesign project, design guidelines could be validated, resulting in three principles when designing a conversational UI:
- Appeal at first word.
- Create value when you talk.
- Build relationships and a lasting impact.
2.5. Case study: Building bots in collaboration with Hinderling Volkart
In collaboration with Hinderling Volkart – one of Switzerland’s leading digital agencies – I set out to apply a user-centered design approach to a specific and real industry project, put theories and guidelines to test, and explore the process to build a conversational UI. Their project: Redesigning their agency website and incorporating chatbots on every employee’s profile page. An agile sprint planning consisting of four sprints was set up. Sprints consisted of various activities. A kickoff workshop with the management was held to evaluate overall goals and the definition of the target groups. Interviews with employees and clients were conducted to gain insights of their user’s needs. Personas, scenarios, and use-cases were created to process the learnings and prepare for prototype testings. Prototypes were developed and qualitatively tested internally and externally. Various workshops were held to define conversational areas, flows, features and structure. An employee survey was conducted to generate content for the bots and learn about each employee. All of this helped the development of the bots. Various learnings could be made through the process and especially the testings. Key learnings were to make hard-facts about an employee available at first glance, leave the user in control at any point and to be pleasant, surprising and personal when engaging users in a conversation about soft-facts.
2.6. Reflection, Conclusion and outlook
Technology is constantly moving forward. While we are in a transitional phase from an app to a conversational paradigm, some question the overall need for screens. At the same time, new ways to interact with screens appear and the overall use of screens will not be abandoned anytime soon. Conversational UIs seem to have their benefits in some, if not many cases. Nevertheless, it needs to be thoroughly assessed as to what a product's goal is, the problem it needs to solve, and the use it ought to generate for its users. With new technologies and possibilities, new challenges for designing appear. Established guidelines in design and UX provide guidance when dealing with these new challenges. Nevertheless, with every new challenge, there needs to be exploration, experimentation and a certain level of trial and error to establish specific recommendations on how to dealing with specific new devices or technologies. The human or user centred toolkit and UX methodologies prove valuable in this process. At the same time, they require constant validation and adaptation for a specific use. This study reveals certain approaches but fails at the same time to deliver an overarching answer to all questions. In a field of constant progress and change “Designing interactions for New and No User Interfaces” remains a constantly evolving challenge that leaves room for constant and further exploration.