Erika Hall on the importance of conversation in design

When it comes to designing digital systems, there is always a risk of forgetting there will be humans involved and, as a result, making things more robotic than realistic.

With so many moving parts in the creation process, from visual design to content or front-end development, what’s the one universal model all of these can apply to ensure the interaction in the end is more human and humane than machine-like?

Erika Hall, co-founder and director of strategy at Mule Design Studio and author, believes conversation is the answer.

Speaking to me on this week’s podcast, Erika explains why human conversation should be applied as a model for all interactions with digital systems and why designers of all types should be more comfortable using language in their work to create more human centered systems and products. If you enjoy the conversation, check out more episodes of our podcast. You can subscribe to it on iTunes or grab the RSS feed in your player of choice.

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our chat. Short on time? Here are five quick takeaways:

  1. Conversational design as a concept is about looking at human conversation as a model for all interactions with digital systems.
  2. This can be applied in practice by taking a deeper look at the mechanics and principles that make human conversation possible and extending those to how you think about interaction and interface design to create a more natural experience for the end user.
  3. It’s about reprogramming the design process. Before you sketch or envision anything, you should sit down and talk through an abstract interaction between somebody in the world and what you want to design.
  4. Poetry is one way to adjust your mind to this way of thinking, as Erika explains: “… Poetry works in time and when we think about interactions, interactions take place in time but so often we design things graphically and put space first and foremost. You can make something that’s really beautiful as a spatial object but just takes a lot of time to interact with.”
  5. All in all, Erika believes you should think less about the value of the interface and more about the actual value of your system.

Adam: Erika Hall, welcome back to Inside Intercom.

Erika: Hi, it’s great to be here again.

Adam: Thank you for doing it again, you’re one of our few repeat guests. We have another guest with us in the studio. Do you want to introduce who else is here?

Erika: Napping in my lap is my lapdog, Rupert. He probably won’t be contributing too much to the conversation.

Adam: We had you back on in August 2016, so what have you been up to in the last year and a half? I know the workshops at Mule Design have taken off.

Erika: We’ve been running Mule Design for pretty much the entire 21st century. It’s terrifying when I say we started at the end of 2001, which is now a very, very long time ago.

I’m looking at human conversation as a model for all interactions with digital systems.

We worked with organizations of all descriptions from the earliest startups to multinational foundations and giant corporations. What we found that’s changed in the industry is organizations are building up internal design teams now and often quite rapidly.

Because we’ve gotten all of this expertise and had incredible adventures working with all of these clients over the years, we’ve developed a series of workshops and other training and consulting to help coach and mentor internal teams so that they can benefit from our mistakes and maybe develop that strong point of view a little faster and be able to have more strategic thinking. And do more of the thinking like an external agency, which can sometimes be difficult on an internal design team.

Adam: You’ve also been doing a lot of writing recently, which is one reason I’m really excited to talk to you. Your new book, Conversational Design, is out on on March 6. Congratulations on pens down.

Erika: Thank you so much. I am so excited to be done writing a book. I am so happy to be talking instead of typing alone, which is ironic because that’s one of the things I advise people not to do – sit alone in despair typing.

Copy is interface

Adam: What was the elevator pitch for the book when you came to your publishers? What were you were setting out to do? What was your thesis?

Erika: It all started a decade ago when I gave a talk at the Future of Web Apps conference in London about copy in the interface. It was called something like “Copy is interface” because I wanted designers to pay more attention to language and not just think “Oh, it’s visual design, it’s interaction design and we can lorem ipsum out the words.”

That talk went well and people were interested in it so I thought my first book would be on interface language.

Adam: Before Just Enough Research?

Erika: I was so involved at the client work and I just wasn’t quite ready to take on a book. Then I had the idea for Just Enough Research and I wrote that. I needed a little break after that. Then, especially given everything that’s happened in the industry with the rise of voice interfaces, messaging interfaces, chat bots and all of this, I thought no one has quite talked about what I was talking about in exactly the same way. So I thought there was still an opportunity and it seemed like the moment to go back to it.

Adam: When we say conversational design, we’re not just talking about what happens within a messenger. What falls under that umbrella to you? Because I think it’s a wider definition.

I’m thinking about taking a deeper look at the mechanics and principles that make human conversation possible.

Erika: I’m thinking about taking a deeper look at the mechanics and principles that make human conversation possible and extending those as a way of thinking about interaction design and interface design to make it more device independent and more natural for people in a way that doesn’t always involve talking to your computer or having a chat with your computer.

I’m looking at human conversation as a model for all interactions with digital systems because right now, we’re at a point where digital systems are inserting themselves into every realm of human activity. Every relationship, every transaction, it’s now possible to mediate it through a digital system and so to look at why interacting with people works as well as it does and applying those principles to interactions so that they feel human and humane and not like you’re having a bad interaction with a machine.

Conversation is the original interface

Adam: One of the things I really enjoyed about the book is it’s built on this principle that conversation is actually the original interface, which makes total sense. What is it about conversation that you feel is being lost today when you’re interacting with the digital experience? What are the core principles that maybe we’ve lost sight of over time?

Erika: One of the key principles is the idea of having a shared goal because that’s one of the things that makes conversation work between or among people. That’s a miracle when you think people are intelligent systems walking around and you can’t directly see what’s in somebody else’s mind but as long as you speak the same language, you can very quickly exchange information with them. If you’re in a strange city and you walk up to somebody on the street, you can ask them for directions and there’s a protocol that makes that possible.

There’s conventional phrases we use. There’s a tacit agreement that it’s okay to make that request. If you walked up to somebody on the street corner in New York and you asked them how to get to the Empire State Building, I don’t think anybody would be appalled or think it was strange for you to do that. It would be “Oh, that’s a totally okay thing” and you think well, what makes it work? What makes it okay to walk up to any stranger and ask them that question but perhaps not ask them another question, like not ask them a personal question? There are all of these unspoken rules.

You go to the system with an intent and that system diverts you.

If we look at what’s beneath those and say okay, how do we have a system that makes it very clear? Well, here’s what the system allows you to do. Here’s what’s okay to do. Here’s what won’t work. To think about how you establish that sense of a shared goal because that’s what makes conversation work.

If you were to ask somebody for directions and they were to spin off into another tangent and talk about architectural history, that would be strange and antisocial and you would never expect somebody to do that. That would almost be like a hostile act. If you were like “I need to get to my friend’s office, they’re in the Empire State Building. Can you show me that direction?” If that person were to waste your time, you’d think that was some sort of violation and that was actually kind of rude.

There’s so many digital systems that do that, right? You go to the system with an intent and that system diverts you, whether with advertising or giving you irrelevant information or not giving you the basic information you need to have a successful interaction. It’s really looking at why can it be so comfortable to interact with people and so much less comfortable to interact with computers and how can we make that more like a good interaction with another person because now we’re interacting with computers for things we used to interact with people for, like even ordering a pizza.

Adam: I think the directions example is interesting because there’s something that you didn’t explicitly say there but it’s heavily implied, and it’s trust. You’re trusting this person that you are making eye contact with and asking for help is going to guide you in the right direction. I think that’s something that’s particularly relevant today when we have digital systems that we work with for our finances, for healthcare and all of the things that are incredibly sensitive.

Erika: Absolutely. There are a lot of systems that violate those principles and not even intentionally, but because the designers and developers and writers don’t think about it like that, we still even to this day, even with all this talk about human centered design, we’re still designing in a very device centered way.

Even with all this talk about human centered design, we’re still designing in a very device centered way.

We still think screens first. Even when we think about having voice interactions, we’re still thinking about interacting with the device first rather than saying “let’s set aside whatever hardware, whatever software, and just think about what kind of exchange is going to happen between the system and the individual person, customer, user or human.”

Adam: Is this part of the reason why it seems like if I am speaking to Alexa, I can get some music played or some lights turned off but when it goes beyond that, there’s just so much of a struggle. It isn’t easier for me to accomplish my goal in a lot of ways?

Erika: Yeah. It really isn’t easier. Thinking about shopping is a great example because Amazon is just a machine for taking my money. Then they put this device in my home and I have one in the kitchen and I use it mostly to listen to music or podcasts when I’m cooking but even though I give all my money to Amazon, I can’t shop using Alexa and statistics show that relatively few people do, relative to the other actions like setting a timer, because it’s so much harder.

It’s so easy for me to flip open my laptop or tap a few buttons on my phone but it’s hard because you have to have extra information. You have to have visuals, there’s so many choices that you could possibly make to shop and the implications are significant, right? Jeff Bezos will get more of my money and that doesn’t happen if Alexa accidentally plays the wrong song. I’m not going to be out $100 as opposed to thinking I’m ordering one box of detergent and accidentally getting 100.

Reprogramming the design process

Adam: What do you think it is that’s driving that impetus to go straight to sketch and design for screen rather than taking a step back and analyzing what is the agreement that I am entering in with the person on the other side of this conversation, and the goal of what it is they’re trying to accomplish? Why the jump to screens?

Erika: Interactive design still comes out of graphic design and industrial design and it’s still very artifact driven. That’s still how we conceive of work, right? We’re working with things, we’re making tangible things, whereas a lot of design is thinking through the ideas and the concepts and things that are expressed in words. And the start of the design process should be sitting in a room and talking but we’ve defined that either as meetings, which everyone hates and we just don’t think of sitting around and talking as design work.

Interactive design still comes out of graphic design and industrial design and it’s still very artifact driven.

Designers haven’t been taught that that’s part of design work. Design is about “I create some sort of artifact,” even if it’s a schematic or a diagram. When that happens, it’s easy to evaluate the polish of the artifact or the appeal of the sketch rather than thinking, is this a good idea? Does the idea have value? That’s where you have to start as a designer and you have to be able to express that in words.

Adam: When you look at the artifacts, you see a lot of old school literary examples, the type of stuff we learned and the classic education sense coming up, which is not conversational writing for a system or an interface. What other types of examples of writing can designers look at for inspiration on how to do this well?

Erika: Designers should look at poetry and this might sound funny because what happens is when you start to think about designing something new, you look at other apps or you look at other websites and you see the same sort of bad practices and the same poorly thought out concepts and people are talking about innovation and solutions and systems and using all of these vague words.

You can see companies and products and services have borrowed this same language. You have to step away and look at examples outside of that if you want to be unique and powerful with your concepts and your language.

The reason poetry is so good is poetry works in time and when we think about interactions, interactions take place in time but so often we design things graphically and put space first and foremost. You can make something that’s really beautiful as a spatial object but just takes a lot of time to interact with.

The other thing that poetry has is often very concrete language, a real economy of language. Most often one of the objectives of a poem is to pack a lot of meaning into a very compact space.

Adam: Every word matters.

Erika: Every word really does matter and often the word can have meanings on several levels. Looking at poetry can pull you out of the cliches of interaction design and just start to get your mind working in different ways and thinking about life and time and all of the things that you’re working with.

So often we design things graphically and put space first and foremost.

When you’re designing an interaction for somebody, what you’re actually doing is demanding their attention and their time and a part of their life. You want to make the most of it and so that’s a great place to look.

Also, jokes are a great place to look. Because comedy is enjoyable and it’s hard. It’s very difficult to be a good comedy writer and it’s often something that’s done in collaboration.

Comedy writers sit around a table and work through jokes with each other to see what lands and there’s an expectation that the bar is very high to be funny and that it’s okay to put things out there and say, “in my head that was really funny and it didn’t work at all”.

Taking it to that level as opposed to “I made something beautiful” and didn’t pay attention to how I was using time or how I was using language and so I prioritized the wrong aspects of the experience.

Adam: The other thing that I like about that stand-up comedy example is that it’s always evolving. When I picture the non-conversational way of creating copy for the web or for digital products, it’s the designer or the content designers or the writer off on their own. There’s just a bunch of comments and track changes and then the copy is approved and it’s out of their hands and it’s this waterfall process down to the next person rather than this evolutionary collaborative process. How can we improve collaboration between writers and designers?

Erika: It’s a matter of getting in a room together and talking. That’s something that because of our education and our work culture, it doesn’t feel like work.

Especially with writing, there’s a sense that it has to be precise and it has to be final and it has to be approved. If you think about the code that goes into our systems, that would be ridiculous to think about code like that – to say “the code has been approved and there are no revisions.” But when we’re talking about our online services, of course, everybody realizes Google is different probably every single day, Slack is different every single day.

Google is different every single day, Slack is different every single day.

The code is constantly evolving and I think we need to think about the words in the same way, to say, “Well, this was the best way to write this particular message or phrase or this particular response today but now we thought about it a little bit differently and we’re going to change how that power system talks to our users” and just have it be this constantly evolving process.

Because we borrow from the same sort of literary approach that we learned in school and learned when we’re being trained as writers and it’s instantiated in our tools.

Part of the problem is we don’t have tools for working in this way. We have tools for tracked changes, leaving comments, passing a document back and forth, but we don’t have tools that we feel. There are tools but they’re not blessed for use as design tools.

I’d say speech-to-text recording and transcription is really good now so you could just sit in a room, have a conversation, record it, transcribe it and pull your interface out of that. But that is a scary crazy process that seems like “You’re making that up” and it doesn’t look like work, it doesn’t feel like work and it sounds like you’re trying to get around doing your actual job.

Minimal meaningful conversation

Adam: You have this concept you highlighted in the book that’s part of the early discovery process. You call it minimal meaningful conversation. Can you walk us through what the minimal meaningful conversation is and what the collaborative process is for putting it together?

Erika: It really is starting. Before you sketch anything at all or envision anything, you sit down and talk through an abstract interaction between somebody in the world and what you want to design. You need to think about your customer and envision their need. How would it occur to them that they needed something? How would they encounter you? What would their request be? How would you respond to that request in a way that would help them as quickly as possible in the same way that you can imagine somebody asking for directions.

Thinking that through and saying, “What would a successful interaction be that would be very satisfying and very intelligible and very fast?” Because a lot of designers still underestimate the importance of speed.

A lot of designers still underestimate the importance of speed.

This is something that Google gets right. Using Google’s search engine, the interface has barely changed at all over time and I think one of the reasons is because it’s so fast to use.

If you type in a search term and you get the wrong results, people don’t even think. I’ve seen this in usability tests watching people use search. People don’t register that there’s a problem if they get bad search results because the response is so fast and it also educates the user on how to get the better response. Users can type in three things to get closer and closer to what they’re actually looking for and never register that there’s been a failure because the system is supporting them.

If you go back and you step away and say okay, you’re not going to draw anything. You’re going to sit down with your annoying colleagues and you’re just going to talk it through before you prototype anything. You’re going to have to understand what’s going on in your prospective customer or user’s mind. You’re going to have to think deeply about what can we offer that’s valuable and how can we get it to them very quickly to help them meet their goal.

Then once you have that sort of clarity, only then should you be talking about, “is it an app or is it a website? Or is it going to be more comfortable for them to type aloud?” You’re only going to be able to understand what mode and what artifacts make sense once you think about the person’s context totally apart from any sort of device.

Adam: Now I can understand how we get to these interfaces that are conversational on the surface but not conversational in practice and why I’ve now had to go through a 20 step decision tree to maybe get my flight changed.

If responses are constrained on the system side, the choices have to be constrained on the front end.

Erika: Exactly. Because with the way people work, you can be on the phone with somebody and say “I want to go from Atlanta to New York” and that’s really intelligible, but if the responses are constrained on the system side, the choices have to be constrained on the front end and that’s what will make it fast and successful.

Adam: Who in terms of the principles that you believe makes good conversational design? Who can we look at and learn from? What are some good examples?

Erika: Google is very good even though it doesn’t seem conversational on the surface. The way that interaction with Google search is so fast and gives you good feedback, and the goals of Google Search as a product are well-aligned with what somebody needs in terms of searching.

Slack is good in terms of making it feel human to interact with your co-workers, even though you’re actually just typing at each other and seeing little avatars. It can still feel like you’re in a room with your friends, your colleagues or your co-workers.

Adam: Even the language in their onboarding feels that way too.

Erika: If you go back and you look at Flickr – the photo sharing site that Stewart Butterfield, the founder of Slack, co-founded and then sold to Yahoo – even though that was a site about images, it was still very conversational and language was an important part of what made it feel like a system that was created by humans for humans.

The importance of naming

Adam: With every piece of written work, there’s something that gets left on the cutting room floor. What’s one thing that you left out or would have emphasized more if you didn’t have to stick to a page count?

Erika: First of all, I have to thank my editors for restraining me and for killing all the things I wanted to keep in that process. One of the things that got cut way down or possibly totally eliminated was thinking about naming.

Humans are terrible at remembering things and computers are really good at remembering things.

Names are very important because those are the hooks that people have for interacting with any sort of product or service. Because humans are terrible at remembering things and computers are really good at remembering things. If you want somebody to use your product or service and especially if you want people to tell other people about it.

It’s so funny how much businesses talk about the net promoter score, which is how likely are you to recommend this to a friend, but they don’t name products or services or pricing tiers to help people do that.

I love looking at the way that companies set up their pricing with basic, basic plus, basic plus extra super max, and there’s nothing in the way that they named those to help people understand what’s in them.

The same thing happened with a lot of startups because startups often choose their names based on what domain is available and they don’t think, is this a name that’s easy to pronounce? Is this a name that’s easy to remember? Is this a name that doesn’t make you feel like an idiot saying it out loud? I call that the dog park test. Would you be comfortable shouting this across a room and not feel like an idiot?

Those are the oral properties of language that are related to conversation because we’ve been talking for 150,000 years and only writing for maybe 6,000.

Thinking about what it’s like to say and to speak the name is very important and often thought about in the wrong way by marketing people – again, optimizing for the wrong things, optimizing for how it looks on paper or for being clever.

One of the best examples is Xobni, which is Inbox backwards, which is a total printed written joke. If you say it out loud, it sounds like a pharmaceutical name that nobody could ever remember.

People treat names like something that will only be written or typed.

Even if you’re writing for an interface that you expect people to interact with by typing and reading, you have to say it out loud and you also have to do that for accessibility reasons because there will always be people who switch modes.

There will be people who will have things read to them that are written, or who will have things that are audio captioned with closed captioning. So you always have to work in a multimodal way. Names is probably the greatest point of failure around that, around product names as people always treat them like something that is going to be written or typed.

That dropped out a little bit. That’s an area where a great example is, the financial services company that invested in a fantastic name and they had to pay for that domain.

I know they had to pay a lot of money for it but that was the centerpiece of their whole design system that involved minty green colors and human language and it all turned on making that critical product choice of their name up front.

Conversational Design

Adam: Say five years from now, what are you hoping people will do or think about differently as a result of reading this book?

Erika: I would say think less that the value is in the interface and more on what actual value is in the system. For example, don’t think “I’m making a chat bot.” Don’t think “I’m making a voice interface.” Don’t think “I’m making a mobile app” but think “I’m creating a system that provides real value to people that can be expressed in words that’s as easy or easier to interact with than having a friendly human being there ready to do your bidding.”

Adam: I’m going to help get this done better, faster and easier than another solution.

Erika: Exactly.

Adam: The book is Conversational Design. It is out March 6th. Where can our listeners go to pre-order the book or just generally learn more about what you’re up to, maybe where you’re speaking, what Rupert’s doing?

Erika: What Rupert is doing is definitely on Instagram. It’s if they want to have us come in and shout at their internal design teams in a very friendly and helpful way and the book is available directly from

Adam: Great. Awesome. Erica, thanks so much. Rupert, well behaved. Our first podcast dog.

Erika: Thank you so much. It was fantastic to be back.