What is Conversation Design?

“Conversation Design is the process of designing a natural, two-way interaction between a user and a system (via voice or text) based on the principles of human to human conversation” (Aslet).

The quote above remains one of my favorite—a short, simple way to define it. But therein lies the problem… it’s too simple. You can trust me when I say that I’ve spent much of the last year of my life reading about conversation, design, and how best to marry these two concepts together in a way that is approachable, down to earth, yet still based on the latest research. The term “conversation design” has been somewhat hijacked by the AI community, when it should, in fact, continue to include old-school, person-to-person, conversation design as well.

I declare a rewrite!

Conversation Design is the process of designing a natural, two-way interaction between two people, within a group of people, or between a user and a system (via voice or text) based on the principles of human-to-human conversation.”

-Me (inspired by Aslet)

Good human-to-human conversation is needed now more than ever. As we move on to technologically-based conversation, such as AI, we cannot forget the reality that most of us are still stuck in wasteful, purposeless, uninspiring conversation, especially in our workplace meetings. We need to do better. In the next section, I’ll talk more about why.

But for now, let’s review what we already know. Regardless of whether our conversations are part of official meetings or our morning scrum, the time set aside to converse should have objectives; we should know who to invite (participants), we should have planned out what content will be considered, and in what venue (or office room) it will be held (Ertel and Solomon). Many companies will get a failing grade just on those basic necessities.

Yet we should be taking our workplace conversations to the next level. They should be strategic and focused. Achieving this requires a synthesis of styles, a balance between the arts and sciences. It requires trust, the skills of facilitation, support with great visuals, thoughtful, persuasive storytelling, all mixed with the knowledge of what connects human beings, and what we know makes us feel heard and seen.

Conversations should be viewed in the same light as any product or service—the outcome of thoughtful consideration of all the elements long before we enter the room, and then, measured and tracked for success. Designers are prepared to do this kind of work. They are already accustomed to applying methods to understand and capture experience, and can use many honed skills, tools, and methods to aid organizations attempting to achieve better conversation.

But I don’t want to over explain it here. I want you to go on the journey and discover it for yourselves.


conversation design
through this site

Section ONE

In Section I (this section), I will introduce you to the basics—who I am, how I got here, defining conversation design, why I think it’s needed, and who influenced me over the last few years as I prepared to tackle this thesis.

Section TWO

Up next, in Section II, we explore What is conversation? by defining and reviewing the latest research on human needs in conversation and building on this by examining how conversations with the self, the group, and the organization can together form identity and culture. We also seek to understand what forces undermine good conversational patterns and how formal interlocutor roles throughout org structures could serve as instrumental in transfer of institutional knowledge and help break down silos.

Section THREE

In Section III, we explore What is Design? by revisiting the last twenty years, which includes brief explanations and further opportunities to delve into some of the most well-known design niches (from participatory design to cybernetics). We examine a few methods from our deductive and conductive processes, analyze how designers turn abstract ideas into action, and finally, take a look at wicked problems and what role design has in today’s interdisciplinary teams.

Section FOUR

In Section IV, we connect conversation to design. Specifically, how do we use the aforementioned design tools from section III to capture the basic human needs we explored in section II. We discuss some essential elements designers need to consider when bridging these together, and end with asking: what value do we bring to organizations as a conversation designer?

Section FIVE

And finally, in Section IV, we button it up, starting with how important it is to take a systems approach to design, whether we find ourselves designing conversation or not. I’ll offer some pointers based on my research and experience as a whole-brain thinker on the valuable traits you can learn (if you don’t already have them!) to guide yourself through the beginning stages of holistic thinking. I also include some additional research in the form of articles, podcasts, and videos, if you would like to explore any of the topics from this site more in depth.