What skills do conversation designers need?

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Photo by Cesar Carlevarino Aragon on Unsplash

In November 2020 I reached out to the conversation design community with a question:

What do conversation designers need in their toolkit?

This idea came from Steven King’s book ‘On Writing’. He suggests that writers use certain tools every time they write — grammar, style, vocabulary, etc. — and they should consider which tools are in good shape and which need improving. I loved this idea and wondered how it might relate to conversation design?

You probably know this, but it’s worth saying it again; ‘conversation designer’ is still a new job title. Chatbots and voicebots were niche until around a decade ago when Siri arrived on iOS. According to Phillip Hunter, “in 2014 there were maybe 200 people on the planet who had designed for speech”.

As the field is so new I wanted to know which skills are essential —then conversation designers can know which tools they have ready and which need sharpening. I hoped the community would help, and they didn’t disappoint! I posted a link to the questionnaire on LinkedIn and it was also included in a Voice Lunch newsletter.

I received 18 responses from conversation designers at different stages in their careers. They’re listed at the end of this article. Considering I’ve never met any of the respondents in person, and some of them aren’t even direct connections on social media, the 18 responses made my day.

My approach

I asked three open questions (no multiple choice). Respondents could answer with as many words as they saw fit.

The questions were:

  1. What skills do you need EVERYDAY as a conversation designer? You could call these ‘core skills’, ‘vital skills’, the ‘meat and potatoes’ or ‘nuts and bolts’ of your job
  2. What COMPLEMENTARY skills do you often rely on as a conversation designer? These are things you do that support your core skills
  3. What are those ‘icing on the cake’ skills you use? You may not use these skills often, but they certainly help with conversation design projects

Leaving the questions open meant I had to work with the responses to look for common themes. On the other hand, I didn’t want to limit what people could say — I hoped they might surprise me with skills I wasn’t aware of.

UX design principles such as user research and testing, the importance of great writing and the need to constantly research and top-up knowledge are discussed everywhere I look (I keep a list of resources here). I wondered if the respondents would confirm that these core skills are indeed the most vital? Something that I also wanted to know was — is there anything I wasn’t aware of that I really should know?

Understanding the charts

I’ve created a ‘grouping’ for every single response, and each grouping uses the same colour in every chart:

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‘Skill Groupings’ with their colours (as used in every chart)

Admittedly my approach is a bit flawed — I had to interpret the responses to find common themes — so it’s important to say the groupings of similar responses are more important than the actual numbers. For example; if enough people mention ‘writing’ in various forms (copywriting, UX writing, grammar and spelling) then we can be sure that ‘writing’ is an important skill, and it will show in the results.

1) Skills conversation designers need everyday

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From the above chart we can see that UX Design, Soft Skills and Writing are the most useful skills conversation designers use everyday (based on the groups I attributed to each response).

The following chart shows the most frequent actual responses (bars are arranged into their groupings such as ‘soft skills’, ‘UX design’ etc):

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As you can see there’s a wide range of responses, and these are just the most frequent. In total there were 62 unique responses received to this question.

Multiple respondents mention:

  • Writing in its various forms (the green bars)
  • Various elements of UX Design (the red bars)
  • ‘Empathy’ alongside other soft-skills (the orange bars)

Some responses only appeared once but I think still deserve attention:

  • The importance of having ‘a good ear for dialogue’ (my interpretation of this response is that they analyse conversations to improve their ability to write them)
  • Trying to ‘anticipate user responses’ (this also appeared in the ‘complementary skills’ category)
  • Although linguistics appeared a few times, one respondent added that pragmatics is especially useful
  • ‘translating text to interactive flow’
  • ‘to be able to build a conversation flow that can be tested quickly for iteration’

2) Complementary skills conversation designers use

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The following chart shows the most frequent responses:

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Most often mentioned:

  • Solid research complements a conversation designer’s work
  • Linguistics helps (knowing how people use language should lead to better designs)
  • Designers use special tools and need to know how to use them
  • Team cooperation is important (designers usually work with many stakeholders)
  • Marketing skills help (I assume this is because most conversational designs are related to a brand’s marketing strategy)

There were a few interesting unique responses too:

  • The importance of the relationship with developers —how to cooperate and communicate with them
  • ‘solid workflow from initial thoughts to blueprint for implementation’
  • ‘Awareness of customer behaviour’
  • ‘Patience’ 😀

3) ‘Icing on the cake’ skills

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Technical, soft skills, linguistics and research were the most frequent response groups.

Here are the most frequent actual responses:

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  • Knowing linguistics helps conversation designers
  • The role is creative and requires a strong imagination
  • Presentations to stakeholders are necessary
  • The ability to write code was mentioned a few times by conversation designers, and specifically the Python language
  • Having a grounding in psychology is sometimes useful

Some of the responses that stood out to me as especially interesting ‘icing on the cake’ skills were:

  • ‘Social media skills’ and ‘experience with reporting (eg Google Analytics) has also been useful’
  • ‘cultural knowledge of trends’
  • ‘voice-over experience’
  • ‘localisation’
  • ‘Journalism — reporting and interviewing’
  • ‘statistics’
  • ‘Wit and humor’

Common skills among all three categories

I wondered what I would discover if I combined the responses to all 3 questions into one chart. I thought it would be insightful even if it wasn’t the original intention (respondents had answered specific questions about skills they use everyday, often and rarely).

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At first I found it incredible that ‘soft skills’ would be the most frequent, however I realised it makes perfect sense — conversation designers must work within a diverse team, they also need to be empathetic to the needs of clients, stakeholders and users, and finally conversation designers design soft skills! In other words; the results of their work needs to be a conversation with a digital persona that feels like it has soft skills.

Technical skills are just as vital; the conversational design that must feel natural is built upon a complex technical foundation.

The other four with more than 10 responses — UX design, writing, research and linguistics —are a unique combination of capabilities that make conversation designers so valuable. Everyday I read articles or hear discussions related to the importance of these skills for conversation design.

And here are the most frequent actual responses for all 3 questions (bars are arranged into their groupings):

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Is the above chart the most important of all?

I think it makes clear that research, writing and linguistics are the most important skills as they were the most frequently cited by respondents. Designers who can back those up with as many of the other skills as possible — technical, UX, soft skills, psychology, visual design and creativity — should be in a strong position to face the daily challenges of being a conversation designer.

This does lead to more questions; do all conversation designers need visual design skills or only those who work with text-based chatbots or multi-modal designs? How much of a grounding in a separate field such as psychology or coding is necessary?

Every designer is different. Each will meet different challenges, and work within a team with different capabilities. I think the above chart is a great insight into the various skills you need (research, writing and linguistics) and those that you probably will need at some point (technical, UX, soft skills, psychology, visual design and creativity).

There were also a few unique responses that appeared in multiple categories:

  • Understanding NLP (natural language processing)
  • Understanding NLU (natural language understanding)
  • Having ‘social media skills’ and being ‘social media-savvy
  • ‘Story-telling’
  • ‘Visual design’

Conclusions

I wasn’t surprised to find that writing and UX design are vital skills for conversation designers. Many copywriters and UX designers transition into conversation design because their skills are a great basis for this new field. There are many articles written on that subject already.

Research matters — the designer must know who will use what product, and where, when and why. In order to know these things, solid research is required.

Also the importance of technical knowledge isn’t surprising — the limitations of the technology, the constant hype of new features, new design tools as well as the new systems that are being designed for, and the need to find compromises so that the design actually works! This all reminds me of an oft-quoted adage in sound production: “we do extremely fake things to create a natural-sounding result.” I think this applies to conversational design too: it should feel natural for the user, but under the hood there are many complex technical processes occuring that users shouldn’t notice.

As I’ve spoken to many conversation designers in the past few years the importance of linguistics has been mentioned continually. It makes perfect sense. A conversation is based on language, and linguistics is the study of language. It stands to reason that if you know linguistics you should understand what’s happening when someone interacts with your conversational design.

So what surprised me?

I was pleasantly surprised to learn of the importance of soft skills for a conversation designer — cooperating with the wider team (and specifically programmers), as well as being empathetic with clients, customers and users. It seems from the responses that being adaptable and curious is useful. Presentations matter too. On the other hand, it’s not a surprise that a conversation designer must be a good communicator — the success of their designs depend on it 😀

The other skills that appear to be useful (to a slightly lesser degree) were psychology, marketing, coding, design thinking, and knowing other design skills such as visual design.

Finally, I wonder if some things are implied but unsaid. For example, a few respondents listed ‘creativity’ as an important skill but I can’t imagine a designer who isn’t creative! What do you think?

Researching and writing this article has been a long and enjoyable experience. I hope the way I interpreted the responses makes sense to you — please let me know what you think in the comments below.

Thanks so much to all the conversation designers who responded to the questionnaire:

Arathi Ajaykumar, Seth Miller, Anna Ralph — heyday.ai, Matt Portillo, Iris Odyssey Cabrera, Sasha A. Rae, Jason F. Gilbert aka The Botperson, Mary Tomasso, Joseph Suskin, Noémie Six, Rich Wallace, Robert Sosin, Hayley Komen, Dr Maria Aretoulaki (DialogCONNECTION), Raagini Chadha, Ivona Gudelj, Charlotte Kuyvenhoven and there was one anonymous respondent.

Benjamin McCulloch is a conversation designer and audio specialist.

His portfolio is: http://conch.design/

Conversation Designer and Audio Specialist — http://conch.design

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