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Roles and skills

Nicky Birch of BBC and Rosina Sound and Kane Simms of VUX World talk about the skills needed to create great conversational interfaces.
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So really important skills to have, which is perhaps underrated, is writing skills.
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You need to write well, and this applies to chat bots and voice experiences as well. Without good writing, it all falls apart. And that’s understanding writing for audiences and understanding writing for conversation and really testing that over and over again so you can do things like when we wrote a drama. We did a drama called The Inspection Chamber ages ago. It was the first thing I did in voice, and we would have people in different rooms. We’d do this over remote. You’d have someone on a Zoom call or something, on a Skype call, and you’d just be testing everything so you can’t see them and making sure it felt really natural. But yeah, absolutely.
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I cannot emphasise how important writing is. John Blume from Google, one of the senior conversation designers, he’s been on a podcast recently. The phrase that he uses, which I absolutely love, is that we’re not judged based on our successes. We’re judged based on our failures. We’re not judged when we can successfully place a takeaway order and get the food delivered. We’re judged when we try and order a McChicken sandwich, and it doesn’t understand what was said. Or we try and ask for something that’s not on the menu. We’re judged in the times where we fail.
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And so one of the most important parts of creating a conversational experience is to figure out what all of the different things that a user might possibly say. You don’t have to be able to cater for it necessarily. You don’t have to be able to deliver on it right now, but you can plan for it. And so, if you know that there are things that are on your menu that you are not going to sell in this experience, but people ask for it, you can at least say, sorry, but we don’t actually sell a McChicken sandwich in this menu, but we do sell the xyz, which is a little bit similar. So we’re not failing them.
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We’re recognising what was said, but we’re just telling them that we can’t deliver it, and then we’re providing a bit of an olive branch and a suggestion to say, this is how you move forward. The kind of skill sets that you need within the team to create those kind of experiences - one, everyone has to have empathy 100%. As a designer, the very hard part is that you’re designing half of the conversation without the person who’s having the other part and playing the other part of the conversation. And so the critical skill set in all of this is user research.
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You have to be able to get and find users, put this thing in front of users, and learn how they use it, learn how they interact with it, and don’t be offended by what you learn. You take it on board, you empathise with the people that are using it, and you use that as your guide.
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There’s some software called Voiceflow that is free if you want to play around with it, and you can design, I think, a skill that publishes to Alexa and Google Assistant, too, and you can draw out the graph of utterances, responses, even can do things like understand state. So it understands what you’ve said before and how that has an impact on your answers later on. It’s pretty impressive, and it’s getting more and more users and more and more features built in. So yeah, Voiceflow is something well worth looking at if you’re not a developer, and you want to make a voice experience.
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If you can’t code, understanding what developers might want and how they might speak - how the language they speak and understanding just how a product team or a team of developers may work. If you were wanting to have an idea for a voice experience that you couldn’t build on Voiceflow but that you wanted to commission some people to make it, then being able to have that dialogue with developers is really important.
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Humour - when it comes to natural language and conversation, humour works very well. So yeah, just being able to understand the audience appreciation for a kind of humour, and light touch humour is important. Other things just like project management and basic digital design skills and how to run digital projects. A lot of people often have a background because it’s a relatively new field. They’ve come from radio or digital design, or what was multi-platform work, or games, that sort of thing. So when we first made The Inspection Chamber, we took quite a look from game design and also interactive theater. It wasn’t a branching path narrative.
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It was what we called a string of pearls where you kind of went round if you imagine a loop. Then as you go round, there’s a small bit of decision making that you need to do, and then you finish that. And then you go around to the next path, another bit of decision making, and then you go on the next part, and a lot of that plotting and planning has already happened through interactive theater. They thought about a lot of this, where the audience is, when the interaction happens, how do you move them onto the next journey.
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So between that and game design, which is really thinking about the sort of balance of when a user is - what they are achieving when and when they’re likely to exit the skill because they’ve had enough, or they’re bored, or it’s not working. And actually, what they did really well is balance that with, OK, let’s just push them on or give them some feedback or make it easy at this point. So yes. Game design, interactive theater, writing, and digital project management, and potentially, some audio production, those are all really useful skills.
No matter how sophisticated the bot or the interface, they’ve been developed by a team of people. Perhaps you’re interested in moving into this area yourself, or perhaps you’d like to understand a bit more about the development process.
Now that you’ve begun to familiarise yourself with the different types of conversational interface, we can explore the teams behind the tech, the skills that they have and the way they approach their work.
There are a wide variety of roles working with conversational interfaces – everything from personae development to sound design. Over the next set of steps we’ll explore this in more detail and look at some interesting examples of technology in development.
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Introduction to Conversational Interfaces

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