Design Has Always Been a Conversation (Sort Of)

How and Why Designers Should Master Conversational User Interfaces

The graphic design world has benefitted greatly from the rise of graphic user interfaces (GUIs): these have made design tools like Illustrator and InDesign accessible to designers and enabled the industry to design in ways we never could before. In addition, it has opened-up wholly new design jobs (like websites) that didn’t before exist while, at the same time, killing-off some that were the bread-and-butter of the graphic design industry (like annual reports). It’s taken designers awhile to get used to these tools and projects and awhile for the tools, themselves, to give us some of the control we’ve come to rely upon in design.

Now, a new paradigm is on the rise and it offers the same kinds of opportunities and disruption—perhaps, more than ever before. The conversational user interface (CUI) will be the new way we interact with digital services and systems—not exclusively, but still greatly. To be sure, this may be more of an end-user experience than a change of our tools. It’s doubtful that we’ll be controlling design tools with conversation, but our customers will be increasingly conversing with their customers and that impacts what kinds of opportunities we’re given—and how many. In other words, the impact will be on the projects available to us.

Starting now, communication designers need to learn to build conversational systems, not merely visual ones. We’ve been talking about brand “voice” for years. Now we need to deal with actual voice: words, phrasing, intonation, timbre, accent, personality, emotion, etc. That’s going to take some new skills for designers who want to keep on the “cutting edge” and take advantage of these projects.

There’s one other issue we’ll need to grapple with. I hate to be a Cassandra but nearly every company in the world is in such a weak position with regard to this paradigm (and unknowingly so), that this one development could spell the end to the value of any company that doesn’t have the economic or technical resources to build its own Sir, Alexa, or one of a handful of commercial voice systems available. I’ll spare you the technical details but know that a voice bot or video bot requires sophisticated programming and constant machine learning services available in order to run. In other words, they’re expensive and require massive amounts of data. Unlike the Web, where standards and open source allow any company to build its own website or other digital presence (or hire one of us to do so), conversational systems have few standards, no open source (yet), and no platforms like a Squarespace or WordPress to ease the process.

What does this mean for our clients? Well, imagine Chevrolet wanting to put a voice agent in its cars. They might license Amazon’s tools (like others have already done) so that Chevrolet drivers get in and say “Alexa… when is my next service?” Aside from the fact that most, if not all, of the design job just went to Amazon, what just happened to Chevrolet’s brand? Once their drivers start addressing their cars with “Alexa…” who is the relationship now with? How soon before Chevrolet becomes a hardware OEM (original equipment manufacturer) for Amazon? Now imagine every one of your clients in the same boat. If they don’t have the resources to build their own CUIs and their customers start demanding to converse rather than tap and type, they, too, must turn to Amazon, Google, Facebook, Tencent, Baidu, Alibaba, Samsung, or Microsoft. Really, that’s nearly the entire list of CUI platforms offering voice services to companies (Apple, for example, does not).

Yep, that’s where we’re headed. Nearly every brand may lose direct relationships with their customers, as these are increasingly mediated by Alexa, etc. It’s already happened on Amazon’s marketplace, where Amazon competes with their own vendors with their own brands. All of that disintermediation that served our industry so well (and profitable), is poised to be re- intermediated around 10 companies globally and that’s not good for anyone: us, our clients, every company or organization in the world, nor end-users.

This is why I’ve spent the last 2 years leading SEED, a small, growing band of awesome developers to develop the solution to this impending brand disaster. We’re building an open- source, independent alternative to the “big 10 CUI platforms.” SEED is a project that will allow anyone to come to a marketplace and license the CUIs, tools, components, and services they need to build and maintain their own conversational agents and, by extension, keep their customer relationships, hold and build their brand value, and own their own data (users get to control their own data, too). It’s not what I was trained to do. It’s not what you were trained to do, either. But, it may be the only thing stopping 10 companies for owning nearly every customer in the world. I know that sounds like an epic science fiction film but we know of no other solution to this being built.

It could be said that all design is a kind of conversation with customers/users. We create communications that, hopefully, spur reaction, interaction, and conversation—with people, if not with culture. Now is the time to make that more true than ever. If designers didn’t react to interactive media, learn new skills, and dive into new projects, the design world would have shrunken considerably.

The last time the paradigm shifted, it profoundly affected the design industry in every way. Some designers opted-out but very few survive that took that path. This time, the shift will have more impact and require more attention and learning. The stakes are higher, as well, both for us, and our clients. With this shift toward CUIs, that’s going to happen again, only worse, so you should consider either scaling back your work or pivoting again and learning to design new things.

Here’s how to get started:

1. Erika Hall has written an excellent book on the subject:

2. Take an interaction design class at a local or online design school or start with the conversational design tutorials at:

3. Dive in and start experimenting with CUI tools such as:
Dialog Flow

About Nathan Shedroff
Nathan Shedroff is the executive director of Seed Vault Ltd, a Singapore-based platform building an independent, trusted bot economy on the blockchain. He is a design pioneer turned entrepreneur and an international educator, speaker, and consultant. Nathan was the founder and chair of the ground-breaking Design MBA programs at California College of the Arts (CCA) in San Francisco, CA.

Image by Design Has Always Been a Conversation (Sort Of) | AIGA San FranciscoRobert Zunikoff