Category Archives: Dialog Design

Dialog Design tips and topics.

Design and Business – The skills you’ll need in the future

I recently ran across the fantastic short film “Design the New Business” which you can watch online. It talks about the trials and tribulations designers and business people go through when they work together in new ways to solve challenging problems facing businesses today (sounds familiar?). In particular, I really appreciate the fact that it covers business and designers outside the US: The Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, UK, which in my opinion gives a much broader perspective on the state of design nowadays.

Few key points that stroke a chord with me:

1) Fail to Learn

Days of designing in the vacuum are gone. We need to experiment – see what works and what doesn’t work as early as possible so we can switch and adapt. We as designers have to change and find new ways to do things. That’s the only way we’re going to be able to create value for people, and for our partners and customers. Also, we need to realize that design isn’t linear (which becomes pretty obvious in multi-modal projects), meaning solutions nowadays have to consider different users, with various needs and lifestyles, as well as external systems we all need to interact with.

2) Skills for the Future

What skills will we need in this new world? How do we stay relevant and demonstrate the value of design to businesses? Fact is aesthetics are no longer enough. Any company that just worries about redesigns, improvements and optimizations is not going to survive for very long. Aesthetics are but just one outcome of the design process. Pure observations without interpretation are useless. And because it is as much about numbers as it is about users, social insights and understanding should be feeding the design so that it concentrates on creating something new, that satisfies the needs and desires of users, that yields an engaging experience that fulfill their expectations, while at the same time making sure they have a positive impact on our customer’s business bottom-lines.

3) The Era of Service Design and Innovation

Prices and Products are easily imitated, so I guess the key form of differentiation for us [Virgin] moving forward will be experience innovation.

Applying proven solutions from the past to new problems doesn’t work anymore because problems are now different (please read as – “VUI design solutions we’ve implemented in the past might not work anymore!!!). The solution that allows you to think differently is Design. One interesting way of thinking mentioned in the book is that during design, we should start by exploring multiple solutions and problems, and that the last thing we should define is the problem we’re trying to solve, to make sure we identify the right one to pursue. On this point, I feel that we very often rush to identify the problem with the [fill in the blank – requirement, prompt, grammar, text, code, etc.] instead of taking a step back and exploring the universe of solutions and problems.

And of course, design cannot happen in isolation anymore; designers now have to work with cross-functional teams, that take into account lots of variables, until the design reaches a good level of maturity and is ready to go out into the world.

Finally, here are some links for further reading based on some of the things discussed throughout the movie:

Enjoy, and would love to hear your thoughts on these ideas, your experiences, etc.

The Golden Circle – How to inspire users

I was recently listening to a talk by Simon Sinek about how great leaders inspire everyone to take action. His premise is pretty simple yet very powerful, and can be better understood by looking at his “Golder Circle” and its three layers: The core “why” (the cause), the middle “how” (the value proposition) and the external “what” (products or services).

He discovered that leaders (both individuals as well as companies) think, act and communicate in the exact opposite way (or direction) than everyone else, starting with the “why” instead of the “what” as mostly everyone else does. When you start from the outside, you deal with reasons and logic with the hope of triggering a reaction. But when you start from the inside, you deal with emotions and beliefs which drive decision making and then simply use the facts and data as justification.

The power behind this idea is that communicating and interacting with others that share your belief (the “why”), you trigger gut decisions that change behaviors. At that point, the “what” becomes somewhat irrelevant.

Thinking about this in the concept of prompt design, I realized that most prompts follow the same uninspiring sequence of what-how-why where we first tell users what it is that’s going to happen, how they are going to interact, only to hope that they understand our reasons and play along with the system — so we shouldn’t be surprised if users push back and run for the operator option.

Does this seem familiar?

“Please listen carefully to the following choices (what) before making a selection (how)(why).”

I think that by inverting the order on some of these prompts, we can connect with users more easily. If you notice, some of the latest pre-transfer designs already follow a similar phrasing structure:

“So that I can transfer to the right person (why) please tell me (how) what’s the reason for your call (what)

So I guess we shouldn’t be surprised that these types of prompts have much higher acceptance rates.

Think about it. If you combine this concept with the new age of transparency, why can’t companies and their systems be up front and say “We believe that you should decide how to interact with us. We believe in using technology to reduce our costs so we can pass the savings to you and our self-service solutions reflect that. So please tell me, what can I help you with?”

The importance of irrelevant choices

I was recently watching a presentation from Dan Ariely regarding the nature of human decision making and how we all are “predictably irrational”. The example I found most interesting and relevant was a little experiment he ran based on an ad for the Economist magazine and the various subscription choices it offered.

Here’s the setup; suppose you’re offered three options:

1) Digital edition: $59
2) Print edition: $125
3) Print AND Digital edition: $125

Which would you pick?





Well, he found that 84% of respondents chose option number 3 (combo), 16% preferred option number 1 (digital only), and no one selected option 2 (print only). Which did you choose?

Now, considering those numbers, option 2 is irrelevant to users, hence can be removed, right?






(by now you probably know this is a tricky question). He did exactly that and repeated the experiment with the two remaining choices. It just so happens that after doing that, 68% of respondents chose option 1! Even though we could all argue that it was the obvious (less expensive) choice, the interesting part is that the previous option 2 – the one that no one chose – made a huge difference on people’s choice.

This really made me think in terms of UI design. We often find ourselves trying to define which elements belong in a menu, how to order them, and which items to remove/replace with others more “relevant”.

Should we blindly assume that choices with no or very little usage have no impact on the remaining choices? Is there a way we can improve the performance of all “relevant” choices by adding irrelevant ones as part of the set? Could it be that our brains are better tuned to compare choices in pairs so that when two out of three options are easy to compare we tend to make that comparison and chose one of those options, even if by doing that we end up ignoring a third choice even if it aligns closer to our goals and priorities?

Very interesting stuff. Here’s the full session for your viewing pleasure:

Are designers really necessary?

The role of “experience” designers and “user interface” designers has been much harder to justify than other designer disciplines such as graphic design or industrial design.

For that reason, I find it interesting that the topic of value added by designers has been coming up more and more often, particularly when customers are pretty adamant about designing systems/interactions themselves simply because they “know the business” or have been doing maintenance on an existing system “for a long time”.

Even amongst peers there has been debate recently about whether the industry has been either making systems “hard to build” in an attempt to retain control over those systems and to create dependency (aka. keep the money flowing) or not being as diligent when it comes to educating customers and allowing them to maintain their systems themselves.

In my opinion, I don’t think there any sort of industry conspiracy going on nor I see designers making things harder than they need to justify their jobs or to serve a hidden agenda.

I think part of the problem relies on the fact that our profession isn’t as well defined or as structured as other design professions, meaning that in our midst we have linguists, psychologists, engineers, designers, sociologists, cognitive scientists, human factors practitioners, etc. that even though share similar goals, can tackle a problem from very distinct approaches, with their own processes and even “vocabulary” which can explain some of the confusion customers might experience.

I think the other culprit is the current economic environment. Companies might be inclined to pick one technology over another simply based on cost, not on customer experience or interaction capabilities. Furthermore, companies are squeezing their budgets as much as they can while trying to keep more control over their projects.

I’m convinced that if they could design the solutions themselves, they probably would, but the truth is they simply can’t. But they don’t realize they can’t! So that’s where I think designers like us come into play to help them learn about our design processes and methodologies in a way that they may be confident enough to contribute, which in return allows designers to obtain very rich feedback out of them.

I really liked the way Mark Baskinger explained the differences he sees between industrial designers and interaction designers:

“[Customers] may think they are directing, but really what they are doing is learning, and as a designer we’re interpreting their direction as sort of boundaries, wishes and desires we can operate within to really challenge the opportunity and do some really good design.”

I think that if designers are conscious about this situation and continue to play the role of sounding boards that customers can leverage to bounce ideas off of, help plan strategies and the guide them through the process, the ones that will benefit the most are the ones that really keep us all in business — our users.

The Art (and Humor) of Error Messages

Error recovery strategies and the verbiage around them has always been a hot topic of debate. We’ve all heard the classical “I’m sorry I didn’t hear you.” and “I’m sorry I didn’t understand you.” messages that are normally implemented as global prefixes to further attempts to help users get back on track. Some other designers prefer to eliminate this generic approach and opt instead for a more context-sensitive alternative, where based on the possible cause of error, you could very well eliminate them completely and simply attempt to reprompt the user in a more natural way, with maybe a slight change in intonation to convey the meaning of “Hello, are you listening to me?” in a subtle way.

In regards to the content of the error messages themselves, we’ve all heard that they should not simply be repetitions of what the user has already heard, but rather slightly different variations based on the context and possible cause of the problem in the first place, so as to try to help them recover: is it due to a noisy environment? is the user providing me more information than I’m requesting? are they struggling to find it? do they need more time? are they getting confused by what I’m asking?, etc.

Of course, errors are nothing new and are particularly prevalent in the software and web world, where the value of the message and its ability to help users recover is very often dubious (or flat out ridiculous), resulting in bad user experiences. Some examples:

“Unknown Error -1″

“Keyboard error (press F1 to resume)”

“Wrong parameter”

“An unexpected error occurred, because an error of type – 110 occurred.”

“It is not necessary to dial 0 after the country code for this country.” (If they know that, why not simply recognize it, remove/ignore the 0 and move on?)

Some others here and here.

With that in mind, I have to say I found it very refreshing when my Firefox browser recently crashed and I was presented with the following message:

I found a few interesting things about it that made me think about my own error prompts:

  1. It’s unexpected - talk about user expectations. You know having an error (or crashing in this case) is not fun. Yet the unexpected style distracts you and in my case made me feel a little better about the situation (ok, ok, I’ll admit it, it made me smile)
  2. Even though it had a funny side, it was still useful. It clearly states what the problem was in terms I understand (my windows and tabs), plus it gives me a possible reason for the problem which might help me avoid the problem in the future (a recent web page)
  3. It provides solutions on how to fix it

Reduce the negative impact of an error + clear description of error + clear explanation of the possible cause + alternatives to solve it. When was the last time your error messages achieved all these goals?

Objectified food for thought – Part 1

As you know, I enjoy looking at other fields that might have design elements that could be leveraged in a speech and multimodal world.

My latest discovery was the film “Objectified” by Gary Hustwit. Even though the documentary is centered around the topic of Industrial Design and the process by which well known products are designed, created and injected into the marketplace, there are some great quotes by various designers that I couldn’t help but feel compelled to share with you and analyze in an attempt to find a way to apply them to our field. With so many quotes, I though this might be better off divided in parts so people can add comments and share their own insights and experiences. Let’s get started:

“What we really need to do to design is look at the extremes – the weakest, with arthritis, the athlete, the strongest, the fastest – because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself.” — Dan Formosa, Design and Research, Smart Design

Wow, what a way to start this topic! After readings this one, I couldn’t help but feel a little guilty about perpetuating the common design approach of the 80-20 rule. We try to capture what 20% of the population which will use 80% of the features might do, add support for a few other common “corner cases”, and ignore the really obscure and unlikely scenarios altogether. This point definitively made me wonder what if… what if we were to do it backwards, design by looking at those extremes - the distracted caller, the multitasking mom, the user that requires extra time to process the information or respond - and letting the middle take care of itself.



Case in point, the creation of the Oxo kitchenware, a peeler originally designed for people with arthritis that turned out to be more comfortable and easier to use for everyone!


“What we’re really always looking for whenever we design are ways we can improve the way people do things or improve their daily life… without them really even knowing, ever thinking about it.” — Davin Stowell, CEO & Founder, Smart Design

Another quote from Smart Design, but this time addressing the reasons behind our designs. How often are we really looking for ways in which we can improve how people do things or improve their lives? How often can we articulate this need and help evaluate it in the context of other seemingly more important needs such as completion rates, retention and automation? Can we really tell we designed something that not only solved someone’s issue or allowed them to complete their task but that in fact had a positive impact on them without them even knowing? Quite a challenge (and intrinsic motivator for me)!

“Good design should be innovative. Good design should make a product useful. Good design is aesthetic design. Good design will make a product understandable. Good design is honest. Good design is unobtrusive. Good design is long-lived. Good design is consistent in every detail. Good design is environmentally friendly. Good design is as little design as possible.” — Dieter Rams, Former Design Director, Braun

I think Mr. Rams said it perfectly. Seeing what goes on inside the minds of product creators behind brands like Braun and their philosophy definitively makes me appreciate the responsibility of a designer.

That’s it for part 1. Stay tuned for more quotes and nuggets of wisdom. And if you get a chance, watch the movie, you won’t regret it (and your users will appreciate it)!

Where did my option go

During any Requirement’s Gathering process, one of the hardest yet most critical steps involves finding out the features that will be offered to the users. Figuring out the final set normally involves talking to agents, listening to the different business units, looking at statistics, etc.

Furthermore, if the customer is migrating from an existing system to a new one, part of the process also involves reevaluating the set of features currently being offered to determine which ones should be migrated and which ones should be eliminated for good (which very often becomes a challenge by itself since customers tend to feel that by doing so, they are “loosing” functionality)

Some of the tools available to us include performing a Usability test on an existing system, doing a benchmark analysis to compare features offered by competitors, looking at usage data to determine the frequency of usage of each existing feature, or setting up focus groups or customer surveys to explore the likely usage of new features.

So yes, there are way to figure out how often they might use a certain feature or what they might think about it, but how do you gauge how deeply your users care about those features?

Well, while watching a recent Burger King stunt (an interesting mix of market research and marketing) in which they made one of their US branches a “Whooper Free Zone”, and recorded via hidden cameras the reactions of their customers upon being told that they were no longer serving Whooper sandwiches (see video below).

This stunt made me think about a tool that designers don’t use very often: Subtraction.

By that I mean that very often we run complex studies and champion-challenger scenarios (aka A-B designs) to figure out what the best combination of items might be, or what the impact of adding one more choice will have on a user base. But how often do you test the impact of removing a choice both from a performance as well as from an emotional perspective? (and no, I’m not talking about those bad designs where options are so buried down or words are so poorly chosen that it’s almost impossible for users to find what they need or realize what they need is in front of their eyes (or ears).

So, next time you’re thinking about your users and the options they need, consider subtraction as one more tool in your ever-growing UI toolkit. And if you’ve used before, I’d be very interested in knowing what your results were.

See you at SpeechTEK 2009

Oh yeah, it’s that time of the year again. If you’re planning to attend this year’s SpeechTEK in New York, please stop by and say hi.

Also, you can now look at the final version of the program. In particular, I would like to invite you to the following sessions:

  1. Introduction to Voice User Interface Design (STKU-2)

    Sunday August 23rd, from 1:30 PM to 5:00 PM. This workshop is designed to quickly get those new to VUI design up-to-speed so they can make the most of the Principles of VUI Design track at the conference

  2. Efficient Design (B102)

    Monday August 24rd, from 11:15 AM to 12:00 PM. Here we’ll talk about “Truths and Myths About Reusable Designs”. How can you design for reuse? Can user requirements be captured the standard way?

  3. Bilingual Spanish/English Design (B301)

    Wednesday August 26th, from 10:45 AM to 11:30 AM. Here we’ll talk about “How to Present Names of
    Geographical Locations in Spanish Systems”. Yes, listening for and capturing names of places seems like a trivial task, but what factors should be considered when making translation/pronunciation decision? What do those decisions say about you and your company?

Safe travels, and see you there.

ROE is the new ROI

Someone recently brought to my attention the fantastic keynote presentation by Bill Buxton (the author of Sketching User Experiences) from this year’s Mix 09 event.

The concepts and ideas mentioned by Bill — particularly the notion of ROE or Return On Experience — resonated so much with me, that I think his vision should help anyone in the Design profession feel awesome about what they do (even though most people still don’t really understand what is it we do) and feel energized about the potential and future of any User Experience profession.

One of the points I completely agree with is the notion of learning from the past (both successes and failures) and figuring out how to exploit that past, not in the sense of simply copying what has been done before, but to figure out how relevant the core concepts might be, and figure out how to bring them over to our time, age and circumstance. As he points out, that’s the real definition of Creativity, Design, and of course, ROE.
The second point I loved, had to do with Experiences. He makes the point of how in the past everyone focused on the products and the services, but now we need to refocus and be aware that the real differentiation now comes from what a product, image, or sound might trigger in us! And figuring out the origin of the feeling we’re trying to provoke in our users is the real art of what we do.

“How can we tailor what we’re making to generate those feelings?”

The third point I want to mention is his assessment of how nowadays the Interface is just as important as the Object, yet it is really hard to sketch/prototype interfaces as fast as we do products in rapid iterations. He also added that it is not about a device/product/service, it is about the whole ecosystem (think iPod + iTunes). And along this idea of prototyping, he points out that going through multiple iterations is the essence of Design, in fact, that is the only way to explore a more broad design space compared to the typical process of choosing a single direction and spending time and effort refining it.

I think he summarized his concepts in a beautiful way:

“Our job is not to answer questions. It’s to ask the right questions to get us to the right question that would get us to the right answer.”

What do you think? How many different variants have you done lately for each of your designs?

You can watch the full presentation here, or download it from here (Windows Media Audio/Video file, 748 MB).

Making Documentation actually useful

I was recently reading an article about the future of wireframes in the context of user interface design documentation. Wireframes have been used mostly for visual elements and became a critical building block in the early days of the web.

But since I like drawing analogies between other UI fields and the VUI field, there were a few quotes that struck a cord because of their universality:

“The object was to create as many wireframes as possible, of every screen in the entire site, in big, monolithic and hugely detailed chunks. Rather than exploring different approaches to the information and structure of the site, the emphasis became entirely focused on using all of the time available to build a collection of wireframes, regardless of whether they were the right wireframes.”

Ouch, how much of that is still taking place nowadays? You create as many “detailed individual states” as possible sometimes loosing track of the real intent of the document. Nevertheless, some of those risks can be lowered by using a layered approach where you start as simple as possible and then start adding details to the design that make sense from a design perspective and that help clarify the overarching intent; for example: starting with a high-level, 1-page interaction flow, then adding details in the form of sample calls, which then evolve into detailed flows and become the source for an initial or “skeleton” specification document (containing mostly initial interactions, without error strategies) which after various reviews (including Usability) become a complete or “full” specification document.

“Why hold the information in a document that’s no one wants to read?”

Thank you, thank you, thank you. How many times designers have to create alternative “views” of their documents because some groups may not be able to use (or care) about certain aspects of the design, which might be buried with other details or is presented in a format that is neither usable nor efficient. But of course, the question that begs to be answered is “What’s the ideal document the developer would like to see to build a system from?.” Suggestions anyone?

“In a previous life at a big ‘old style’ new media agency, there often seemed to be a one tool fits all approach to projects. This applied to information architecture too.”

I’m sorry to say some of might still be living that life. Methodologies/Systems anyone? I totally agree with the notion of finding out what’s the best tool for a particular project. Not every project requires the 12-step program, and not every customer processes information the same way.

“The best sites are those where there’s a seamless divide between the look, the content and the experience.”

This one I would like to borrow and extend as a closing statement: “The best systems are those where there’s a seamless divide between the look, the sound, the content and the experience.”

Time to rethink our current documentation practices…