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Designing conversational AI – The 5 decisions you need to make

Designing conversational AI – The 5 decisions you need to make

With the surge in voice-controlled devices, conversational interfaces for virtual assistants are already going mainstream.

But ask these 5 questions before you start.

1) Is a conversational AI assistant right for our brand?

Those brands that haven’t already dipped a toe in the water will probably want to start experimenting in conversational AI soon – either in excitement at the opportunity to engage with customers via a new and evidently very popular channel, or in fear of potentially missing out.

The key thing will be to identify the right context for any new conversational AI voice-driven service. That means answering questions like: who will be the users of the service? Why is this the best interface for it? Which task(s) will it enable? And which platforms and devices will be most appropriate? UX research will be key to getting the information to drive the right conversational AI decisions. (Read more about why UX research is so important.)

2) What should branded conversational AI sound like?

Companies have done a heap of work on honing their brand personality and ensuring a consistent experience between different channels. But most of that work has been applied to visual and text-based interfaces. Comparatively little effort has been spent on defining what the brand sounds like when it speaks to customers through conversational AI assistants or chatbots

Yet there’s a huge amount of evidence that people automatically attribute characteristics to a speaking voice, even if it’s not a human one. Put simply, if your brand speaks in a human-sounding voice, your customers will start to assume things about your brand based on that voice persona. Things like the persona’s apparent gender, its accent, the words it uses and the rhythm of its speech will all leave a lasting impression – which may be positive or negative.

The same goes for your conversational AI assistants. The tone and language your chatbots use will reflect how you will be seen and understood by your prospect.

Brand guardians must start to think deeply about the brand’s voice persona, and what style of speech best embodies the brand values expressed elsewhere in its visual and conversational AI interfaces. Consistency between written, visual and spoken elements of the brand will be essential to maintaining authenticity and generating customer trust.

3) Who should be responsible for the voice and conversational AI interface?

From our conversations with Fortune 800 brands, combined with what we’re seeing on forums, it looks as though brands are setting up dedicated teams to focus on new types of voice and conversational AI interface.

Brands should be careful, however, not to repeat mistakes made at the dawn of web, social and mobile, when dedicated teams working in silos ended up designing conversational AI and voice  experiences that were disconnected – both technologically and in look and feel – from other channels. We know customers want a seamless experience across channels, so these teams should be fully integrated with wider CX activities.

Another important consideration will be the UX skills required by the team. While a lot of UX theory applies across all interfaces, designing for a voice interface requires additional specialist skills that are very different from designing from visual interfaces. If you don’t have these skills in-house, you may well need external help with designing a smart, connected and conversational experience for your virtual assistant channel. We’d love to help.

  1. What’s our brand’s relationship with conversational AI like Alexa / Siri / Cortana?

As more brands develop services for Alexa and other virtual conversational AI assistants, it will prompt a critical question: Is Alexa the voice of our brand? And if not, what exactly is her relationship to our brand?

It’s critical because the research we conduct for VoxGen clients continually shows that people expect brands to feel consistent and behave in a consistent way. Alexa users expect Alexa to interact with them in a certain way, but they may expect something different of an insurance company or pharmacy.

If Alexa also becomes the voice of an insurance company (or many insurance companies), our research suggests it could sow confusion and mistrust. Importantly, CX teams may also feel a loss of control over the brand experience if Alexa (an external platform) becomes the “voice” of the brand.

For this reason, CX professionals will need to think seriously about what role the virtual assistant plays in the customer experience, and at what point – and how – it should “hand over” to a voice experience that’s created and managed by the brand. This will be a critical design decision, and one we’ll come back to in a future post.

  1. What’s the role of IVR in a world with multiple voice channels?

With all the current hype around virtual assistants, you could be forgiven for thinking that IVR may be on its way out.

But it’s important to remember that not everyone wants to engage with a brand through a voice assistant – at least, not yet. Many customers still pick up the phone: in 2016, for example, the UK’s Institute of Customer Service found that 43% of consumers use the phone to make inquiries.

While virtual assistants will quickly gain ground, IVR will remain an essential customer engagement channel for some time. For brands, that will mean creating a coherent voice UX strategy to ensure that IVR and virtual assistants all deliver a consistent and high-quality customer experience. That will mean understanding and applying principles of great conversational design across all channels where audiences interact with the brand using voice. For many brands, overhauling the existing IVR could be a great start point.

Voice-based interactions will take off in 2017, and the key to success will be designing interfaces and interactions that feel natural and give people the help they need. If you’re looking for an expert partner to help you apply the principles of good conversational design, let’s talk.

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