How To Become a Conversation Designer

Photo by Dan Farrell on Unsplash

Of all the questions I get asked about conversation design, “how do I become a conversation designer?” is the most common.

There is no simple formula, unfortunately. I know conversation designers who used to be linguistics professors, professional musicians, stand-up comics, and electrical engineers. There’s no one path.

That being said, there are things you can do to pursue this as a career. I’ll outline a variety of strategies, and provide resources and suggestions.

First, a bit about my own journey. I’ve been interested in talking to computers since I was a kid, which I wrote about recently in my article A Conversation with my 35-year-old chatbot. But it was not until I was in my late 20s that I found out it could be a career. I got a job at Nuance Communications, one of the very first companies to bring speech recognition mainstream. It did this via automated phone systems (IVRs) that allowed callers to speak to a computer, rather than pushing buttons. Nuance is still around today.

I learned a ton during my time there that I still use in my day-to-day job. Some people sneer at IVRs and say that today’s voice assistants are nothing like them, but they actually have a lot in common. And there are some high-quality IVRs out there.

There was no “conversation design” major when I went to college (and there still isn’t), but my undergraduate degree in cognitive science turned out to be good preparation. Why? Because it was about understanding humans.

In general, there are two key qualities that a good conversation designer must have:

  • A curiosity and respect for how humans communicate
  • An understanding of the technical limitations of speech recognition and NLU (Natural Language Understanding).

I’ve seen terrific writers who write wonderful conversations, but are too complex to actually be built. And I’ve seen very technical people who write a prompt that asks a “yes/no” question but didn’t allow for responses like “sure it is”.

Where should I begin?

Again, there is no one path. But there are various ways to start gaining knowledge in this field. Here are some resources to get you started.

Some companies are starting to offer more formal coursework as well, such as CareerFoundry, Voxable, and Conversation Design Institute. A few more options are listed in this article by Polina Cherkashyna.

Then what?

When you’ve absorbed a bit of information, it’s time to start creating your own designs. First, spend some time thinking about use cases. There are things that make sense to do on a conversational interface, and things that could be done just fine (or better) on something else. Don’t just create a new experience: figure out something that would add value and solve a real problem.

Next, it’s time for the conversation designer’s version of UX mocks: sample dialogs! These are potential paths between a user and the system. They’re kind of like movie scripts.

Don’t skip this step. It’s a great way to flesh out ideas and find issues early on. And don’t just write them — read them out loud! Preferably with someone else, who will help you spot flaws. They don’t need to be perfect: in fact, even experienced designers rarely write perfect sample dialogs from the beginning. Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Also, remember to think about the unhappy path. With speech recognition and NLU, things will go wrong. They just will. And you need to be able to get people back on track.

Now, the really fun part: prototyping! Don’t worry, you don’t have to be able to code. You can use tools like Voiceflow and Botsociety to bring them to life and try them out.

Once you’ve got something up and running, find people to try it out! They’ll spot issues that you didn’t think of right off the bat. And that’s ok! Creating conversation designs is an iterative experience.

What about a portfolio?

Nowadays, many jobs require a portfolio in addition to a resume. You might be wondering, how can I create a portfolio for conversation designs, especially when a lot of them are audio-only?

There are lots of ways to show your knowledge. You can include iterations of sample dialogs you’ve written. Conversational flows. And videos of your prototypes. When I look at a portfolio, I want to know how someone thinks through a problem, not just see a shiny finished product.

Today’s conversational systems are multi-modal. There are voice-only devices like smart speakers, voice-forward devices like smart displays, and intermodal (both typing and speaking) like mobile phones. Thinking through how your design will change for each surface is an important skill.

For some examples of real conversation design portfolios, checks out this article.

Finally, when you are looking for jobs in the space, don’t assume you have to be at a large company like Google or Amazon. I learned so much at startups, and got to wear a lot of hats. Also, many companies are looking to hire conversation designers but don’t use that term in their job postings. Search under voice user interface, chatbot writer, and content strategist as well.

Conversation design is a growing career space. Lots of companies, from startups to big brands, are getting into voice and text-based experiences. It’s a great time to be a conversation designer.

Now, go forth and build something!

Cathy Pearl is the author of the O’Reilly book Designing Voice User Interfaces, and head of conversation design outreach at Google. She’s had 20 years of experience designing conversational interfaces for IVRs, apps, and assistants. See more of her writing / talks at cathypearl.com.

Design manager on Google Assistant @ Google. Author of "Designing Voice User Interfaces" from O'Reilly (More at https://cathypearl.com)