One of the purposes of Open for Ideas is to give you the information you need to solve creative challenges. We want to be so on-the-ball, that in this article we’re covering something that many of you won’t even have considered yet: chat bots. So we’ve asked Pete Trainor – author of Hippo –  to fill us in on all the things we need to consider when it comes to creating Ai assistants.

I’ve spent the last twenty years of my professional life digitising ‘stuff’. All sorts of… stuff. We took brochures and chopped those up. We digitised shops. We turned everything into 1’s and 0’s. We even had a pretty good go at digitising friendships and called it ‘social media’ (which was fairly unsociable of us when you stop and think about it). All the while, I’ve thought we might have been chipping away at humanity—putting glass between us and the things we want to achieve.

We even had a pretty good go at digitising friendships and called it ‘social media’

None of it really took into account the unique thing about being human; which is that no matter the gender, race, or religion of the person—unlike other beings—we have a sense of curiosity, we try to understand the meaning of life, search for acceptance and gratification, and get to grips and accept the inevitability of our mortality.

People are Chatterboxes. Have a Good Natter

Wouldn’t it be epic if we could just get back to having a good old-fashioned conversation instead of ‘browsing’ or ‘clicking around’? As a species we’re pretty good at doing that. We use conversations to make or maintain relationships, to share or receive information, and to persuade. That’s about the heart of it—we’re actually pretty basic creatures when it’s all stripped away. On the grand scale of things we are evolutionary babies; all of 200,000 years old for goodness sake. Modern civilisation as we know it is only about 6,000 years old, and even though we’re getting good at all this technical stuff, the best thing we’ve ever learned to do right from the off was to ‘have a chat’. We do it with combinations of spoken words, written text, nonverbal sounds, physical gestures, and facial expressions—and we’ve had a lot of practice at it. So why not digitise that instead? Amplify what we all do brilliantly, and stop creating lots of digitised ‘stuff’ that we don’t naturally understand. Do it for my mum. She hates the internet, but she loves talking!

The best thing we’ve ever learned to do right from the off was to ‘have a chat’

Your health needs it too—there’s enough research that shows people who talk more are often happier than those who don’t. Chatting is good for you. A good gossip every day releases endorphins that make you feel naturally happier. We can chat ourselves happy!

One of my favourite philosophers, Rollo May, got it pretty spot on when he said “communication leads to community, that is, to understanding, intimacy and mutual valuing”. So, who wants to talk?

[clickToTweet tweet=”Gossip releases endorphins that make you feel naturally happier. We can chat ourselves happy!” quote=”Gossip releases endorphins that make you feel naturally happier. We can chat ourselves happy!” theme=”style6″]

We’re Natural Born Chinwaggers

In general psychology, there is a principle called the availability bias, which means people perceive something to be more valuable the more they are aware of it. The tendency to overvalue what is—and undervalue what could be—forms the basis of much of people’s ethics. The judgment they make, and why they make them, come not from critical thought or personal experience, but from the mere existence of that something in society. As a result, things that already get a lot of attention tend to stay popular and often serve as the perfect point of entry. Like talking…

The current trend towards chat-bots and conversational experience isn’t a fad

This is predominantly why the ‘conversational experience’ just erupted in 2016 and caught fire in people’s imaginations in a very potent way. People were already ripe for it by virtue of being conversational creatures to begin with. We know how to chat. The current trend towards chat-bots and conversational experience isn’t a fad or fluke, it’s just a way of amplifying what we’re already pretty well equipped to do—talking. We’ve been talking to our devices for years, but it wasn’t until recently that they became able to respond with any kind of credibility—the perfect intersection between technology and humanity. Dialogue-based interaction, either spoken or written, using an electronic device is here and is not likely to go away. But of course with all these new ideas, the risk is that agencies and companies just dive on it as a fad without truly understanding the psychology behind what makes a good conversation; and that’s where #fails start to emerge. Much in the same way that companies the world over threw copious amounts of cash at us to ‘digitise all the other stuff’. It’s easy to forget that we’re not digitising behaviour—we’re behaving in a digital world. It’s time to go back to basics and learn to talk again.

Being Human is Harder than it Looks

As simple as a conversation might seem, conversational interfaces require designers and developers to leave behind current practices and adopt an entirely new mindset. The familiar design patterns we used when we were chopping up pictures and making them wobble won’t work in a conversation-driven interface. As visual design is demoted in favour of words, what you say and how you say it become more crucial than ever. When the conversation is the interface, suddenly the job is all about crafting the right words. Copywriters and scriptwriters rejoice.

When the conversation is the interface, suddenly the job is all about crafting the right words

Recent success stories like Amazon’s Alexa and’s Amy Ingram are great examples of a conversational technology that amplifies the personality of the bot. They spent a lot of time on the personality stuff so people would feel comfortable with it. But, with the rise of messaging platforms like Facebook Messenger, Telegram, and Slack—bots that communicate with people by sending and receiving messages for all sorts of uses—we are seeing a lot of hit and misses happen. This is because more often than not, there has been almost no time spent crafting the personality—the bit that makes Alexa work well. When you take the technical effort of getting a bot up and running away, what you’re left with is figuring out how the thing is going to behave in a real-time conversation—in other words, its personality.

The Ai’s available that we can use to power conversational experiences are reaching the point of being ‘OK’. No, they won’t pass the Turing Test (to pass the Turing Test an Ai has to be capable of lying as well as telling the truth!), but they really don’t need to. In fact, the current obvious flaws in Ai may be precisely what powers the bot revolution. They just need to observe and react to what’s being said to them, not lead or attempt to be smarter than they actually are. Conversational experiences are actually so flawed at present that mistaking a bot for a human is tantamount to being outwitted by a toaster. The time is ripe for conversational experiences, precisely because we can still identify it for what it is—we don’t feel deceived. As Asimov predicted, we like robots that can be readily identified as robots. The key to the conversational experience may be a transparently bot-like personality and the way it responds, not how smart it tries to be.

[clickToTweet tweet=”Mistaking a bot for a human is tantamount to being outwitted by a toaster” quote=”Mistaking a bot for a human is tantamount to being outwitted by a toaster” theme=”style6″]

The Best Parts of Being Human are the Parts you Share

Contrary to the implication in the title, conversational experiences don’t always have to be an actual conversation to hit the target. The term really refers to the back and forth interaction in which both parties come to understand each other. That’s the rub of what makes a conversation so good between two people—the back and the forth. Designing that flow and dialog is hugely complex and probably requires you hiring a really experienced social scientist to truly get it right.

But if you can’t afford to hire Dr Dan the Big Brain Man, then at least try and get your conversational experience right on the very basics. Remember that a conversation goes nowhere unless you have a partner who listens to what you’re saying and responds in a way that keeps the conversation going. A good conversation is constructed by a speaker and a listener each doing their part. A great conversation is constructed with respectful, interesting, and enriching content. You learn something. You teach something. Your knowledge increases. Your curiosity is piqued. You relish the time spent together.

A good conversation is constructed by a speaker and a listener each doing their part

If you focus on the following areas, you might get something more than a different type of interface shaped like bubbles out of your product.

Design your conversation to give information

This includes expressions of emotions and discussions of intent, as well as simple task-oriented requests—“Please give us more information so we can help you better.” Also, knowing when someone is giving you information is important because it leads to the question of what they want or expect you to do with the information. In the case of a customer telling you they are unhappy, they may be signalling that they want something to change—or they may just be venting and wanting to be heard. But if you don’t factor in the reaction to your request for action—it’s not a dialog, it’s just a prompt disguised as chat bubble.

Design your conversational experience to get information

Someone who says something in order to get information won’t necessarily pose it in the form of a question. “Tell me about…” is one way that a request for information can arrive in the form of a statement. The information being sought may be your opinion, your assessment, or your best guess. It’s not always going to be hard and fast facts that someone wants. They may be gauging the mood to ascertain your willingness to act before they ask you to do something.

Get someone to do something

It is imperative that the conversation you create is designed to get someone to do something. This is where we get into the guts of why people say things: to create actions on the part of other people. These actions are normally created by giving information—but in those cases, the desired actions may not be readily apparent. The person asking may be counting on a certain response. Other times, the speaker’s motivations are obvious: “come here”, as a parent might say to a child or “kiss me, fool”, as someone might say to a lover.

If you don’t design your conversations to make someone feel good, then don’t bother doing it at all

Make people feel good

If you don’t design your conversations to make someone feel good, then don’t bother doing it at all. Compliments are the simplest manifestation of this. It’s just common, human courtesy and all too often the experiences emerging that use the conversational paradigm leave out the basic courtesies that separate us from bovine.

Get people to talk about themselves

You have to encourage people to talk about themselves—mainly because it can trigger the same sensation of pleasure in the brain as food or money. People do love to talk about themselves once you tip them over the edge. In some of the experiments we’ve been conducting with conversational interfaces over the last 18 months, one of the things we’ve really started to observe in the data is that a lot of people are actually more comfortable speaking about themselves to a bot—even one that’s a bit dumb—than face-to-face or using voice. It’s because people don’t have to be spontaneous in their replies and because they don’t feel judged for the speaking skill-set they have. In a lot of cases, people also feel like they can communicate more effectively using words on a screen than in ‘real’ conversations.

We studied 140 volunteers using one of our mental health bots, {SU}. We told half of them it was controlled by a person—like a puppet. We told the other half it was computer-controlled—fully automated—and there was no human on the other end. The volunteers who thought they were talking to a computer engaged in less “impression management” and displayed emotions like frustration and sadness more freely and more quickly. People actually enjoy self-disclosure when it feels anonymous or safe.

Give feedback, ask questions

If you use questions to guide people toward the errors in the thinking process and allow them to come up with the solution themselves, they’re less likely to feel threatened and more likely to follow through. Don’t assume to know all the answers—you won’t, so ask for guidance and advice. New research shows that guidance seeking is a surprisingly effective strategy for exercising influence when we lack authority. In one of our experiments, when we focused the chat on the goal of getting a sale, only 8 percent of chats reached a successful agreement. But when we asked the buyers for advice on how to meet their goals, 42 percent reached a successful agreement. Asking for advice encouraged greater cooperation and information sharing, turning a potentially contentious negotiation into a win-win deal. Seeking advice is among the most effective ways to influence peers, superiors, and subordinates.

Open well

The opening gambit is also the key to all success. Get comfortable with Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Two-Question Technique’—always start by asking people about something positive in their life. Only after they reply should you ask them how they’re feeling about life in general. A positive answer on the first question will lead to them feeling more positive about their life in general when you ask the second question. Any emotionally significant question that alters a person’s mood will have the same effect.

By being specific and leading the conversation in this way, you can also overcome the single biggest flaw of the conversational experience—natural-language processing. Humans don’t speak or write in perfect grammar that is free of typos. They use slang and nuance to express what they want—aspects that can make even the most powerful computer struggle. Machines just aren’t good at engaging with all the quirks we’ve picked up over the last 200,000 years: accents, slang, bad grammar, and colloquial expressions. The main issue with natural language processing is that even if your Ai gets 80% of the sentences right, it will fail in the remaining 20% in a very stupid, non-human way. Even if your error messages are witty and fun, people will get frustrated. We’re getting closer to having machines that can understand those oddities, but we’re still quite far from it. Flip it—get the conversations perfect for the 20% of common queries and not the 80%.

Be a good gossip

Finally: Gossip (but positively). Research shows what you say about others colours how people see you. Compliment people and you’re likely to be seen positively. Complain and you’re likely to be associated with those negative traits you complain about. When you make small talk and gossip, listeners unconsciously associate you with the characteristics you are describing, ultimately leading to those characteristics being “transferred” to you. So only say positive and pleasant things about the focused situation, and you are seen as a nice person/bot. In contrast, any negativity, and people will unconsciously apply the negative traits and incompetence to the conversations (and ultimately you/your product). Bots have to make a negative sound positive.


Speech is a very important aspect of being human—a whisper doesn’t cut it.

Designing conversational experiences is really hard

Designing conversational experiences is really hard because the concept of a conversation is by its nature very simple and we pride ourselves in designing complex solutions to simple challenges. Building conversational interfaces doesn’t just come with technological challenges—like Natural Language Processing—it also has lots of social ones. As the designers of these conversations, it’s our responsibility to solve this part of the problem—to craft the perfect personality and conversation.

Remember this—you can’t get away from the value of human expertise, wisdom, and our unique problem-solving ability; it’s what evolved us to where we are today. So start planning your conversational experiences by powering them with real humans on day 1, doing 100% of the work. Introduce natural language powered bots later to automate the 20% of the most frequent questions, or just to do the on-boarding part. Then later—much later—when you have a trove of dialog data, you can move up the automation to take over more of the requests. Embrace the Mechanical Turk.

It may be our actions that define us, but it is our reaction that changes the course of things. Study what makes a good conversation not what technical platform is the biggest and cleverest and you’ll start to find the sweet spot for your idea.

Don’t be a bot; be humanistic by design. Don’t do things better, do better things. TrainorCorporate Creativityai,alexa,amazon echo,artificial intelligence,bots,chatbots,conversation,humanity
One of the purposes of Open for Ideas is to give you the information you need to solve creative challenges. We want to be so on-the-ball, that in this article we're covering something that many of you won't even have considered yet: chat bots. So we've asked Pete Trainor -...
Pete Trainor on Twitter
Pete Trainor
Director of Human Centered Design at Nexus
Pete Trainor is a digital disruptor, author, accidental polymath, mental health campaigner and founder of NEXUS Design in London. He talks all over the world on creative & social technologies & the physiological & psychological effects on their audiences. His recently published book 'Hippo - The Human Focused Digital Book' takes a philosophical look at technology and design and challenges us to look inwardly at the self when designing future experiences. Pete regularly appears in UK national and international press as an analyst on digital media, creative industries, emergent technologies, and tech markets. Pete also sits on the executive committee of The British Interactive Media Association, lobbying government on data and privacy issues. He has a very simple mantra: Don't do things better, do better things.