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Crafting Conversations Between Humans and AI

Cathy Pearl is currently Head of Conversation Design Outreach at Google. She has been designing Voice User Interfaces (VUIs) since 1999. Previously, Cathy was VP of User Experience at, whose virtual-nurse avatar, Molly, helps people engage with their healthcare. An expert in voice user interface design, Cathy is the author of the O’Reilly book Designing Voice User Interfaces. She has worked on everything from NASA helicopter-pilot simulators to a conversational iPad app in which Esquire magazine’s style columnist tells users what they should wear on a first date. During her time at Nuance and Microsoft, Cathy designed VUIs (Voice User Interfaces) for banks, airlines, and Ford SYNC.

She holds a BS in Cognitive Science from UC San Diego and an MS in Computer Science from Indiana University.

Namagiri Anand interacted with Cathy Pearl on how and why Conversation Design has gained importance, and what it entails.

Cathy Pearl

Namagiri Anand: What is Conversation Design? Within that, what is that you are seeking to accomplish?

Cathy Pearl: Conversation design is how we create experiences that teach computers to communicate like humans, not the other way around. It's a combination of leveraging human conversation, and working within the constraints of the current (early) technology, to create usable experiences that are conversations between people and computers. That could be via voice, typing, tapping, etc.

My goal is to make people aware that conversation design exists and that it's key to have someone with this skill set if you plan to build conversational experiences.


"Conversation design is how we create experiences that teach computers to communicate like humans, not the other way around." - Cathy Pearl, Google.


Namagiri Anand: Why is Conversation Design gaining importance now?

Cathy Pearl: Virtual assistants and smart speakers are gaining in popularity and becoming useful technology. Many individuals and companies are rushing to build these experiences, but many are doing so without including a designer. The result is quite a few experiences that are difficult or unpleasant to use.

Namagiri Anand: How do you go about designing conversational user interfaces?

Cathy Pearl: One of the important first steps is to write sample dialogs, basically like film scripts that are conversations a user might have with the computer. Then we read them out loud and iterate. We think about persona as well (the personality of the system--all systems have personalities so you should design one up front). Then we map out the logical flows, and finally, code, test, iterate.

Namagiri Anand: What are the use cases you are seeing for Voice UI? For instance, the most pervasive that I see is mostly around music requests. How do these use cases mature in the times ahead?

Cathy Pearl: Music requests are certainly common, but we're seeing more things like asking for information, how to's, and factual questions, as well as smart phone controls, reading audio books, listening to podcasts, and helping with cooking. Also bedtime routines for kids, the news, and playing games.

Namagiri Anand: How do you set user expectations? How do you ensure the relevancy of conversation?

Cathy Pearl: This is crucial. So often people design expecting users to magically know the system's constraints and say things like "How can I help you?" when it can only do a few things. It is key to ask the right question to guide the user.

Namagiri Anand: How do you define a successful user experience? What do you measure?

Cathy Pearl:

- Did they know what they could/could not do?

- Did they accomplish their task?

- Did they accomplish it with satisfaction and not get frustrated?

Namagiri Anand: How do you go about handling errors in conversation design?

Cathy Pearl: It's key to think about errors up front. Speech/natural language systems have errors! But if you design for this, you can quickly get users back on track. Humans don't always understand each other, but we have a knack for getting back on track when we don't.

Namagiri Anand: From your perspective, how do you envision the future of Conversational Design?

Cathy Pearl: I think it will become much more known, just as companies who want to make a good website hire professionals. We'll have classes and certification.

Namagiri Anand: Let me ask one last question: What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

Cathy Pearl: I have had a variety of good advice but one that sticks with me is to always take the meeting. That is, don't just say no automatically--find out more about what the opportunity is and consider saying yes.


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