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Principles of Conversation Design

Principles and process for moving from GUIs to VUIs

Ben Sauer

Conversations are deceptively simple interactions to us human beings. While the machines are learning fast, a great conversational experience requires careful, deliberate design to avoid frustrating users. Just mapping the “‘happy path”’ isn’t enough.

The conversational landscape is changing fast. It’s no longer just voice and chat: with devices like the Echo Show emerging, we need to consider the future as multimodal.

Crafting a functional, appropriate conversation on these new channels calls for a different mindset. Our expectations of a conversation are higher than when we use a GUI. Your design will need to be more sensitive to context, and to what a user considers helpful. It , must also help users recover from errors gracefully.

Join Ben Sauer to explore the challenges unique to conversation design and learn how to overcome them using tested processes and principles. In this hands-on three-hour course, you'll learn key a grounding in key conversation concepts and best practices so that you avoid making rookie mistakes—like trying to copy GUI features directly into a new VUI.

What you'll learn-and how you can apply it

By the end of this live, online course, you’ll understand:

  • Key conversation design terms and concepts
  • Key challenges of conversation design and strategies for dealing with them
  • Suggested design processes
  • Principles for a creating a conversational experience
  • Why designing “‘voice-first”’ is the best way to go

And you’ll be able to:

  • Ask and answer the critical questions of voice interface design
  • Use generative and research methods to produce VUI dialogue
  • Create and edit dialogue
  • Rapidly prototype and test a voice interface using the Wizard of Oz method

This training course is for you because...

  • You're a product manager or owner who has managed a GUI product, and you want to create a VUI to meet your organization’s short- and medium-term ambitions.
  • You're a UI or UX designer with experience designing GUIs, and you want to learn how to create a VUI to expand your skills beyond the medium of screens.
  • You're a developer with a computer science background, and you want to learn how to create a VUI to ensure that what you build is user centered and well engineered.


Designing Voice User Interfaces (video)

Required materials and setup:

Download in-class exercises handout

Recommended preparation:

About your instructor

  • Ben Sauer is an independent design strategist, formerly of Clearleft. He works with organisations like the BBC, Pearson, Tesco, and TCS to raise their design game.

    He’s been speaking about and training people on the topic of voice UI for several years; particularly in how to rapidly prototype conversations. Teams at Amazon and the BBC use his methods. He’s also spent many hours at home removing the ridiculous things that his kids have added to Alexa’s shopping list.


The timeframes are only estimates and may vary according to how the class is progressing

Introduction to VUI design (10 minutes)

  • Lecture: Why the design of a VUI is so critical to avoid frustrating users; why the capabilities of machines still don’t match our own; what your ambitions should be when you design a VUI

Challenges in VUI design (10 minutes)

  • Lecture: Affordance and memory; context; multimodal considerations; bandwidth and time
  • Hands-on exercise: Take a number of pieces of information that could be spoken back to a user in response to a question and write a concise response using them

Design principles (45 minutes)

  • Lecture: The cooperative principle; how to confirm that your VUI understood something correctly; how to fail gracefully; error-recovery strategies; managing expectations
  • Hands-on exercises: Turn uncooperative dialogue examples into cooperative ones; create responses for when the system isn’t getting the expected input from a user

Break (10 minutes)

VUI design process (40 minutes)

  • Lecture: Establishing the case for VUI; questions you should ask yourself before creating a VUI; how to quickly understand what your users are doing and saying

Break (10 minutes)

VUI design process continued (40 minutes)

  • Hands-on exercises: Imagine that you have Alexa at work. You’ve got a meeting for an hour, and you’d like to capture the audio to listen back later—Determine how you would ask Alexa to do this; write down five words that describe the personality traits you would choose for the personality of your example VUI; write a confirmation message for a completed recording that exemplifies the character traits you’ve identified; write a dialogue for the most common use; use Wizard of Oz testing to see whether your ideas for dialogue actually work with users; map a complete set of entry points and states for the system, as well as what happens when things go wrong; start building the complete application

Wrap-up and Q&A (15 minutes)