Book Review & Notes on Conversational Design by Erika Hall

The review and notes on Erika Hall's Conversational Design. Have you ever thought of starting your design with words, specifically by writing a conversation script, instead of drawings? This is what Erika Hall recommends in her book Conversational Design - to design the content before designing the container, so it doesn't need to be squished into the container.
Cover of Conversational Design by Erika Hall (Credit: abookapart.com)

A few months ago, I was walking in the park with a friend’s two-year-old son. And an oak leaf, dancing on the wind, landed in front of us. I picked up the leaf and showed it to my little friend, saying “Look, an oak leaf!”. Being an immigrant, I have only recently started recognizing the trees here by their leaves, so I get excited. And oak leaves are so beautiful! 

 This is what this altUXR new series – Book Reviews feels like. As if I am sharing treasures I find, big and small, with all of you. Thank you for asking for this series.
The posts in this series will be a bit free form. Some might be a short blurb, other times a summary of the main idea, or an example where I tried out something that I learned from a book. We will start with user research or design books and then see where the path takes us. If you want any book recommendations or reviews on a specific topic around/beyond research & design, also let me know. 

Today we will look at a book by Erika Hall, the co-founder of Mule Design Studio and the author of Just Enough Research and Conversational Design

Just Enough Research

Erika’s first book Just Enough Research is a witty and concise introduction to user research and commonly used user research methods. I would recommend it if you are getting started in user research or if you want to learn to articulate and communicate better about user research.

Conversational Design

Today’s book review is about Erika’s second book – Conversational Design.
Though it might sound like a book for designing voice UIs or chatbots, the book is intended for overall interface design including copy.

When you design, where do you start? Do you begin by drawing? For example, drawing a rectangular frame and adding other geometric shapes? Have you ever thought of starting the design with words, specifically by writing a conversation script? This is what Erika Hall recommends in her book Conversational Design – to design the content before designing the container, so it doesn’t need to be squished into the container like the image below.

The central idea of the book to me is:

 First, imagine and write the conversation you would have with the user if there were no interface.
Then use this conversation to guide the rest of the design. This includes selecting the medium of interaction, the visuals, the language, and the interactions.

Towards the end of the book, Erika also gives a set of questions to guide the conversation script that you write.

  • How will the customer express their need? How will you understand their intention?
  • What exchange happens at this point?
  • What does the customer have to give you in order for you to solve their problem?
  • What choices do you give them?
  • How do you close the conversation impressing the customer that you gave them something of value?
  • How do you leave the door open to future interactions?

A deeper dive

Overall, the book is witty and the idea that an interface is a conversation with the user is articulated very well. But I feel that it needs more examples, especially beyond web apps, e.g., for complex systems or systems for professional users.
 So after I finished reading the book, I talked to colleagues and friends to look for examples. A colleague pointed me to the Content-first design approach, which is related but not the same.

If you want a deep dive into this topic, here’s my article published by The Startup. It contains notes from Conversational Design, how it relates to content-first design, and a link to the article on methods for evaluating the copy and content of an interface.

What kind of conversation is your interface having with your users? Comment below and in the next post we will look at Steve Portigal’s book on interviews.

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