Conversational Interfaces

2 minute read

It annoys me when the marketing copy says that something is “interactive” when all that really means is that you can click on stuff. Buttons and hyperlinks: yes, they yield results (even when they don’t work properly), but is that enough to warrant the use of the word “interactive”? If I have watched a video, listened to audio or if I have otherwise acted as a passive consumer, I have not “interacted” even if I did push a button to begin that passive experience.

I’ve been thinking a bit lately about something called “conversational interface” as a way to go beyond the world of button-mashing-so-called-interactivity.

For now, this post is just a placeholder for the idea, with some notes.

(Random) Examples of Analogue Conversational Interfaces

When a patient visits a doctor, the doctor can begin to diagnose the patient by asking a series of questions. The answers to those questions can prompt other questions, and so on, until enough information has been gathered by the doctor, who can then make some sort of determination.

See also: the socratic method

I work in a museum and I notice that, aside from the computers, a lot of what goes on there is conversational: the help available at the museum’s front desk, a tour with a docent or a curator, the comment book (although the comment book isn’t as interactive it can be conversational)…

Fortune-tellers might rely on non-verbal cues to ascertain whether or not the yarn is being spun in the right direction. There are probably better examples of things that are non-verbal and yet “conversational”

One of my favorite examples of a conversational interface is the text of a bedtime story, as it is told to a small child. An inquisitive child is likely to ask questions, make requests for embellishments, offer up related anecdotes and so on until the end result is anything but a passive experience.

A Few Digital Examples

a search engine is somewhat conversational, in effect. You name for it the thing that you are looking for, and in response it will show you all the places where it has found a phrase similar to, or related to, the phrase you gave.

see also: the suggestion engine, which may need to begin by interviewing the user’s preferences, before it has data to use for making suggestions.

Some websites, online surveys and applications can take on the format of a series of questions and responses. Some of these are amazing, but the infuriating examples may be the best known, such as Microsoft Office’s “clippy” and “Anna” the Ikea help bot. Another perhaps more interesting bot is A. L. I. C. E. The Artificial Linguistic Internet Computer Entity.

Many new smartphones and GPS systems are starting to develop voice-driven interfaces, with varying results.

For a while, it was popular to play with the “20 questions toy” which was programmed to be remarkably good at playing a game of 20 questions.

Further Reading

Beyond the GUI: It’s Time for a Conversational User Interface

The Conversational Interface: Our Next Great Leap Forward

Conversational Hypertext: Information Access Through Natural Language Dialogues With Computers

The Conversation

A post about conversational interfaces isn’t so good without… conversation. If you know of any good examples of a conversational interface, either online or analogue, please let’s talk about it in the comments below. Thanks!