Conversational Design · An A List Apart Article

By Prosyscom
In March 15, 2018
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Texting is how we talk now. We talk by tapping tiny messages on touchscreens—we message using SMS via mobile data networks, or through apps like Facebook Messenger or WhatsApp.

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In 2015, the Pew Research Center found that 64% of American adults owned a smartphone of some kind, up from 35% in 2011. We still refer to these personal, pocket-sized computers as phones, but “Phone” is now just one of many communication apps we neglect in favor of texting. Texting is the most widely used mobile data service in America. And in the wider world, four billion people have mobile phones, so 4 billion people have access to SMS or other messaging apps. For some, dictating messages into a wristwatch offers an appealing alternative to placing a call.

The popularity of texting can be partially explained by the medium’s ability to offer the easy give-and-take of conversation without requiring continuous attention. Texting feels like direct human connection, made even more captivating by unpredictable lag and irregular breaks. Any typing is incidental because the experience of texting barely resembles “writing,” a term that carries associations of considered composition. In his TED talk, Columbia University linguist John McWhorter called texting “fingered conversation”—terminology I find awkward, but accurate. The physical act—typing—isn’t what defines the form or its conventions. Technology is breaking down our traditional categories of communication.

By the numbers, texting is the most compelling computer-human interaction going. When we text, we become immersed and forget our exchanges are computer-mediated at all. We can learn a lot about digital design from the inescapable draw of these bite-sized interactions, specifically the use of language.

What Texting Teaches Us

This is an interesting example of what makes computer-mediated interaction interesting. The reasons people are compelled to attend to their text messages—even at risk to their own health and safety—aren’t high-production values, so-called rich media, or the complexity of the feature set.

Texting, and other forms of social media, tap into something very primitive in the human brain. These systems offer always-available social connection. The brevity and unpredictability of the messages themselves triggers the release of dopamine that motivates seeking behavior and keeps people coming back for more. What makes interactions interesting may start on a screen, but the really interesting stuff happens in the mind. And language is a critical part of that. Our conscious minds are made of language, so it’s easy to perceive the messages you read not just as words but as the thoughts of another mingled with your own. Loneliness seems impossible with so many voices in your head.

With minimal visual embellishment, texts can deliver personality, pathos, humor, and narrative. This is apparent in “Texts from Dog,” which, as the title indicates, is a series of imagined text exchanges between a man and his dog. (Fig 1.1). With just a few words, and some considered capitalization, Joe Butcher (writing as October Jones) creates a vivid picture of the relationship between a neurotic canine and his weary owner.

Fig 1.1: “Texts from Dog” shows how lively a simple text exchange can be.

Using words is key to connecting with other humans online, just as it is in the so-called “real world.” Imbuing interfaces with the attributes of conversation can be powerful. I’m far from the first person to suggest this. However, as computers mediate more and more relationships, including customer relationships, anyone thinking about digital products and services is in a challenging place. We’re caught between tried-and-true past practices and the urge to adopt the “next big thing,” sometimes at the exclusion of all else.

Being intentionally conversational isn’t easy. This is especially true in business and at scale, such as in digital systems. Professional writers use different types of writing for different purposes, and each has rules that can be learned. The love of language is often fueled by a passion for rules — rules we received in the classroom and revisit in manuals of style, and rules that offer writers the comfort of being correct outside of any specific context. Also, there is the comfort of being finished with a piece of writing and moving on. Conversation, on the other hand, is a context-dependent social activity that implies a potentially terrifying immediacy.

Moving from the idea of publishing content to engaging in conversation can be uncomfortable for businesses and professional writers alike. There are no rules. There is no done. It all feels more personal. Using colloquial language, even in “simplifying” interactive experiences, can conflict with a desire to appear authoritative. Or the pendulum swings to the other extreme and a breezy style gets applied to a laborious process like a thin coat of paint.

As a material for design and an ingredient in interactions, words need to emerge from the content shed and be considered from the start.  The way humans use language—easily, joyfully, sometimes painfully—should anchor the foundation of all interactions with digital systems.

The way we use language and the way we socialize are what make us human; our past contains the key to what commands our attention in the present, and what will command it in the future. To understand how we came to be so perplexed by our most human quality, it’s worth taking a quick look at, oh!, the entire known history of communication technology.

The Mother Tongue

Accustomed to eyeballing type, we can forget language began in our mouths as a series of sounds, like the calls and growls of other animals. We’ll never know for sure how long we’ve been talking—speech itself leaves no trace—but we do know it’s been a mighty long time.

Archaeologist Natalie Thais Uomini and psychologist Georg Friedrich Meyer concluded that our ancestors began to develop language as early as 1.75 million years ago. Per the fossil record, modern humans emerged at least 190,000 years ago in the African savannah. Evidence of cave painting goes back 30,000 years (Fig 1.2).

Then, a mere 6,000 years ago, ancient Sumerian commodity traders grew tired of getting ripped off. Around 3200 BCE, one of them had the idea to track accounts by scratching wedges in wet clay tablets. Cuneiform was born.

So, don’t feel bad about procrastinating when you need to write—humanity put the whole thing off for a couple hundred thousand years! By a conservative estimate, we’ve had writing for about 4% of the time we’ve been human. Chatting is easy; writing is an arduous chore.

Prior to mechanical reproduction, literacy was limited to the elite by the time and cost of hand-copying manuscripts. It was the rise of printing that led to widespread literacy; mass distribution of text allowed information and revolutionary ideas to circulate across borders and class divisions. The sharp increase in literacy bolstered an emerging middle class. And the ability to record and share knowledge accelerated all other advances in technology: photography, radio, TV, computers, internet, and now the mobile web. And our talking speakers.

Chart showing the evolution of communication over the last 200,000, 6,000, and 180 years
Fig 1.2: In hindsight, “literate culture” now seems like an annoying phase we had to go through so we could get to texting.

Every time our communication technology advances and changes, so does the surrounding culture—then it disrupts the power structure and upsets the people in charge. Catholic archbishops railed against mechanical movable type in the fifteenth century. Today, English teachers deplore texting emoji. Resistance is, as always, futile. OMG is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary.

But while these developments have changed the world and how we relate to one another, they haven’t altered our deep oral core.

Orality, Say It with Me

Orality knits persons into community.

Walter Ong

Today, when we record everything in all media without much thought, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a world in which the sum of our culture existed only as thoughts.

Before literacy, words were ephemeral and all knowledge was social and communal. There was no “save” option and no intellectual property. The only way to sustain an idea was to share it, speaking aloud to another person in a way that made it easy for them to remember. This was orality—the first interface.

We can never know for certain what purely oral cultures were like. People without writing are terrible at keeping records. But we can examine oral traditions that persist for clues.

The oral formula

Reading and writing remained elite activities for centuries after their invention. In cultures without a writing system, oral characteristics persisted to help transmit poetry, history, law and other knowledge across generations.

The epic poems of Homer rely on meter, formulas, and repetition to aid memory:

Far as a man with his eyes sees into the mist of the distance
Sitting aloft on a crag to gaze over the wine-dark seaway,
Just so far were the loud-neighing steeds of the gods overleaping.

Iliad, 5.770

Concrete images like rosy-fingered dawn, loud-neighing steeds, wine-dark seaway, and swift-footed Achilles served to aid the teller and to sear the story into the listener’s memory.

Biblical proverbs also encode wisdom in a memorable format:

As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly.

Proverbs 26:11

That is vivid.

And a saying that originated in China hundreds of years ago can prove sufficiently durable to adorn a few hundred Etsy items:

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Tao Te Ching, Chapter 64, ascribed to Lao Tzu

The labor of literature

Literacy created distance in time and space and decoupled shared knowledge from social interaction. Human thought escaped the existential present. The reader doesn’t need to be alive at the same time as the writer, let alone hanging out around the same fire pit or agora. 

Freed from the constraints of orality, thinkers explored new forms to preserve their thoughts. And what verbose and convoluted forms these could take:

The Reader will I doubt too soon discover that so large an interval of time was not spent in writing this discourse; the very length of it will convince him, that the writer had not time enough to make a shorter.

George Tullie, An Answer to a Discourse Concerning the Celibacy of the Clergy, 1688

There’s no such thing as an oral semicolon. And George Tullie has no way of knowing anything about his future audience. He addresses himself to a generic reader he will never see, nor receive feedback from. Writing in this manner is terrific for precision, but not good at all for interaction.

Writing allowed literate people to become hermits and hoarders, able to record and consume knowledge in total solitude, invest authority in them, and defend ownership of them. Though much writing preserved the dullest of records, the small minority of language communities that made the leap to literacy also gained the ability to compose, revise, and perfect works of magnificent complexity, utility, and beauty.

The qualities of oral culture

In Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, Walter Ong explored the “psychodynamics of orality,” which is, coincidentally, quite a mouthful.  Through his research, he found that the ability to preserve ideas in writing not only increased knowledge, it altered values and behavior. People who grow up and live in a community that has never known writing are different from literate people—they depend upon one another to preserve and share knowledge. This makes for a completely different, and much more intimate, relationship between ideas and communities.

Oral culture is immediate and social

In a society without writing, communication can happen only in the moment and face-to-face. It sounds like the introvert’s nightmare! Oral culture has several other hallmarks as well:

  • Spoken words are events that exist in time. It’s impossible to step back and examine a spoken word or phrase. While the speaker can try to repeat, there’s no way to capture or replay an utterance.
  • All knowledge is social, and lives in memory. Formulas and patterns are essential to transmitting and retaining knowledge. When the knowledge stops being interesting to the audience, it stops existing.
  • Individuals need to be present to exchange knowledge or communicate. All communication is participatory and immediate. The speaker can adjust the message to the context. Conversation, contention, and struggle help to retain this new knowledge.
  • The community owns knowledge, not individuals. Everyone draws on the same themes, so not only is originality not helpful, it’s nonsensical to claim an idea as your own.
  • There are no dictionaries or authoritative sources. The right use of a word is determined by how it’s being used right now.

Literate culture promotes authority and ownership

Printed books enabled mass-distribution and dispensed with handicraft of manuscripts, alienating readers from the source of the ideas, and from each other. (Ong pg. 100):

  • The printed text is an independent physical object. Ideas can be preserved as a thing, completely apart from the thinker.
  • Portable printed works enable individual consumption. The need and desire for private space accompanied the emergence of silent, solo reading.
  • Print creates a sense of private ownership of words. Plagiarism is possible.
  • Individual attribution is possible. The ability to identify a sole author increases the value of originality and creativity.
  • Print fosters a sense of closure. Once a work is printed, it is final and closed.

Print-based literacy ascended to a position of authority and cultural dominance, but it didn’t eliminate oral culture completely.

Technology brought us together again

All that studying allowed people to accumulate and share knowledge, speeding up the pace of technological change. And technology transformed communication in turn. It took less than 150 years to get from the telegraph to the World Wide Web. And with the web—a technology that requires literacy—Ong identified a return to the values of the earlier oral culture. He called this secondary orality. Then he died in 2003, before the rise of the mobile internet, when things really got interesting.

Secondary orality is:

  • Immediate. There is no necessary delay between the expression of an idea and its reception. Physical distance is meaningless.
  • Socially aware and group-minded. The number of people who can hear and see the same thing simultaneously is in the billions.
  • Conversational. This is in the sense of being both more interactive and less formal.
  • Collaborative. Communication invites and enables a response, which may then become part of the message.
  • Intertextual. The products of our culture reflect and influence one another.

Social, ephemeral, participatory, anti-authoritarian, and opposed to individual ownership of ideas—these qualities sound a lot like internet culture.

Wikipedia: Knowledge Talks

When someone mentions a genre of music you’re unfamiliar with—electroclash, say, or plainsong—what do you do to find out more? It’s quite possible you type the term into Google and end up on Wikipedia, the improbably successful, collaborative encyclopedia that would be absent without the internet.

According to Wikipedia, encyclopedias have existed for around two-thousand years. Wikipedia has existed since 2001, and it’s the fifth most-popular site on the web. Wikipedia is not a publication so much as a society that provides access to knowledge. A volunteer community of “Wikipedians” continuously adds to and improves millions of articles in over 200 languages. It’s a phenomenon manifesting all the values of secondary orality:

  • Anyone can contribute anonymously and anyone can modify the contributions of another.
  • The output is free.
  • The encyclopedia articles are not attributed to any sole creator. A single article might have 2 editors or 1,000.
  • Each article has an accompanying “talk” page where editors discuss potential improvements, and a “history” page that tracks all revisions. Heated arguments are not documented. They take place as revisions within documents.

Wikipedia is disruptive in the true Clayton Christensen sense. It’s created immense value and wrecked an existing business model. Traditional encyclopedias are publications governed by authority, and created by experts and fact checkers. A volunteer project collaboratively run by unpaid amateurs shows that conversation is more powerful than authority, and that human knowledge is immense and dynamic.

In an interview with The Guardian, a British librarian expressed some disdain about Wikipedia.

The main problem is the lack of authority. With printed publications, the publishers must ensure that their data are reliable, as their livelihood depends on it. But with something like this, all that goes out the window.

Philip Bradley, “Who knows?”, The Guardian, October 26, 2004

Wikipedia is immediate, group-minded, conversational, collaborative, and intertextual— secondary orality in action—but it relies on traditionally published sources for its authority. After all, anything new that changes the world does so by fitting into the world. As we design for new methods of communication, we should remember that nothing is more valuable simply because it’s new; rather, technology is valuable when it brings us more of what’s already meaningful.

From Documents to Events

Pages and documents organize information in space. Space used to be more of a constraint back when we printed conversation out. Now that the internet has given us virtually infinite space, we need to mind how conversation moves through time. Thinking about serving the needs of people in an internet-based culture requires a shift from thinking about how information occupies space—documents—to how it occupies time—events.

Texting means that we’ve never been more lively (yet silent) in our communications. While we still have plenty of in-person interactions, it’s gotten easy to go without. We text grocery requests to our spouses. We click through a menu in a mobile app to summon dinner (the order may still arrive at the restaurant by fax, proving William Gibson’s maxim that the future is unevenly distributed). We exchange messages on Twitter and Facebook instead of visiting friends in person, or even while visiting friends in person. We work at home and Slack our colleagues.

We’re rapidly approaching a future where humans text other humans and only speak aloud to computers. A text-based interaction with a machine that’s standing in for a human should feel like a text-based interaction with a human. Words are a fundamental part of the experience, and they are part of the design. Words should be the basis for defining and creating the design.

We’re participating in a radical cultural transformation. The possibilities manifest in systems like Wikipedia that succeed in changing the world by using technology to connect people in a single collaborative effort. And even those of us creating the change suffer from some lag. The dominant educational and professional culture remains based in literary values. We’ve been rewarded for individual achievement rather than collaboration. We seek to “make our mark,” even when designing changeable systems too complex for any one person to claim authorship. We look for approval from an authority figure. Working in a social, interactive way should feel like the most natural thing in the world, but it will probably take some doing.

Literary writing—any writing that emerges from the culture and standards of literacy—is inherently not interactive. We need to approach the verbal design not as a literary work, but as a conversation. Designing human-centered interactive systems requires us to reflect on our deep-seated orientation around artifacts and ownership. We must alienate ourselves from a set of standards that no longer apply.

Most advice on “writing for the web” or “creating content” starts from the presumption that we are “writing,” just for a different medium. But when we approach communication as an assembly of pieces of content rather than an interaction, customers who might have been expecting a conversation end up feeling like they’ve been handed a manual instead.

Software is on a path to participating in our culture as a peer.  So, it should behave like a person—alive and present. It doesn’t matter how much so-called machine intelligence is under the hood—a perceptive set of programmatic responses, rather than a series of documents, can be enough if they have the qualities of conversation.

Interactive systems should evoke the best qualities of living human communities—active, social, simple, and present—not passive, isolated, complex, or closed off.

Life Beyond Literacy

Indeed, language changes lives. It builds society, expresses our highest aspirations, our basest thoughts, our emotions and our philosophies of life. But all language is ultimately at the service of human interaction. Other components of language—things like grammar and stories—are secondary to conversation.

Daniel L. Everett, How Language Began

Literacy has gotten us far. It’s gotten you this far in this book. So, it’s not surprising we’re attached to the idea. Writing has allowed us to create technologies that give us the ability to interact with one another across time and space, and have instantaneous access to knowledge in a way our ancestors would equate with magic. However, creating and exchanging documents, while powerful, is not a good model for lively interaction. Misplaced literate values can lead to misery—working alone and worrying too much about posterity.

So, it’s time to let go and live a little! We’re at an exciting moment. The computer screen that once stood for a page can offer a window into a continuous present that still remembers everything. Or, the screen might disappear completely.

Now we can start imagining, in an open-ended way, what constellation of connected devices any given person will have around them, and how we can deliver a meaningful, memorable experience on any one of them. We can step away from the screen and consider what set of inputs, outputs, events, and information add up to the best experience.

This is daunting for designers, sure, yet phenomenal for people. Thinking about human-computer interactions from a screen-based perspective was never truly human-centered from the start. The ideal interface is an interface that’s not noticeable at all—a world in which the distance from thought to action has collapsed and merely uttering a phrase can make it so.

We’re fast moving past “computer literacy.” It’s on us to ensure all systems speak human fluently.

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