For the past year, I’ve been paying close attention to what’s happening in the world of conversational interfaces and have been posting some thoughts and articles of interest on a blog called The Charming Device. Our computing devices are moving towards a paradigm that allows us to interact with them less like tech-heavy gadgets and more like people. As this happens, designers need to start thinking about what it means to create a digital personality.
What is a digital personality, you ask?
A digital personality is a sort of real-time character that emerges when you engage with a computing device that relies on a natural-language, conversational user interface.
After decades of brilliant work by countless researchers and programmers, we’re finally at a place where we can begin to communicate with computers using some of the same methods of interaction we use when communicating with our fellow humans.
Before we go any further, let’s just stop for a second and acknowledge that this is nothing short of a modern-day miracle and a science-fiction dream-come-true.
So virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are good examples of digital personalities that exist at the moment. But a digital personality doesn’t necessarily require vocal capabilities. Text-based chatbots, like the ones accessible in the Slack messaging app, or Lark’s fitness consulting app also converse with the user and express a personality.
We naturally attribute a personality to every interface we interact with – if it’s easy to use, it seems like a friendly helper, if it’s not, it feels like an annoying pest. Careful crafting of visual elements, and on-screen text can give an app or website a specific personality – in the sense that it conveys a certain attitude. But when a device, or an application begins referring to itself using first-person singular pronouns (“I”,”me”) it takes on the kind of digital personality we’re talking about here.
Why does a digital personality need designing?
By streamlining the input-output process, conversational interfaces can provide us with an intuitive gateway to today’s web services and devices and will be the key to interacting with the driverless cars, smart appliances and and yet-to-be-invented tools that will populate the increasingly-connected world of tomorrow.
But the success of any interface depends, almost exclusively, on how a user feels when they engage with it. Unless you’re facing a critical task with limited options for accomplishment (like paying a parking ticket or signing up for health insurance), your reaction to an interface that fails to meet your expectations will be to simply click the close button and move on.
In the case of a conversational interface – a somewhat novel experience in which a device is calling itself “I” and presuming to have an understanding of human language – the balance between delight and annoyance is quite delicate. As with any conversation, word-choice, tone-of-voice and timing of responses can either keep a relationship moving in a positive direction or cause it to end abruptly, possibly involving things getting smashed. Crafting the relationship between phraseology, functionality and visual feedback in order to form a satisfying user experience will require just as much design attention as all the icons, rollovers and wireframes that have led us to this point.
The ability to converse with computers on familiar, human terms presents us with countless opportunities for technological improvement and innovation. It’s time for us to figure out what we want these digital friends of ours to be like.