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Nov 26, 2020

Personality is Not Optional in Chatbot Design

Celene Osiecka
Celene Osiecka

Sr. Director, Conversational Design

Personality is Not Optional in Chatbot Design

“No response is a response. And it’s a powerful one.” That adage’s sentiment is also true of chatbot personalities: Whether or not you create it intentionally, every conversational system inescapably has a personality. Its character is felt throughout customer interactions so you’d better make it count.

This point was made repeatedly in a panel chat I recently hosted for [24]7.ai. I’ve captured some of the discussion below. You can watch the hour-long presentation as on-demand webinar: Personalities in Conversational Interfaces.

“Language is not neutral,” said Dr. Joan Palmiter Bajorek, CEO of Women in Voice, a global initiative to celebrate, amplify, and empower women in the voice tech industry. “It has a personality, whether it’s intended or not, so the conversational designer has to have one in mind.”

That opinion was echoed across our prestigious panel of conversational design experts. “People will always perceive a personality,” said Margaret Urban, Staff Interaction Designer at Google. “It doesn’t actually matter what technology you’re working with. You see faces in trees, in locks on your doors, in the things in your sink.”

“We are programmed to put personality into the world around us,” Urban continued. “It’s important to recognize when you’re designing for that, that there are different ways to manage it.”

Only Human: Our Deep Need to Anthropomorphize

The concept of anthropomorphizing nonhuman entities is anything but new, or high tech. In fact, Greek philosopher Xenophanes coined the term when referencing regional relationships with the gods.

Neuroscience indicates we use similar brain regions when thinking about human and nonhuman behavior, which may be why we add a human face (and name) to everything from pets to pots and pans. When it comes to conversational design, we crave chatbots that act human—it’s a major part of creating a satisfying and engaging customer experience.

“We name our pets, so we have some emotional connection with them, or we name our cars, and we talk to them,” noted Shyamala Prayaga, Digital Assistant Product Owner at Ford Motor Company. “We do all these things, which means we in some way connect with these devices, although they’re bots or artificial intelligence systems.”

Prayaga said the need to humanize devices is linked to the interaction and our need to connect. “That is the very same reason why we say ‘sorry’ or yell at these devices when they're not doing things properly. Because we are unconsciously making those kinds of relationships with these bots.”

From Emotive Human Speech and Back Again

Personality in conversational interfaces began with actual humans; as it evolves, conversation designers continuously try to recapture that experience for customers.

“In the early 2000s, we went very deep on defining the idea of persona,” said Warren Oshita, Senior UX Writer at [24]7.ai. “One of the most important ways we tried to convey that was using voice talents to record the audio.”

Oshita noted how in those early days, using a voice actor made it easier to add tone and convey emotion. Of course, that doesn’t scale very well, which puts the practice outside the reach of most systems. Still, he encourages conversational designers to review those practices and seek ways to do the same using today’s technology.

Through AI technology and machine learning—perhaps using text-to-speech tuning technologies developed by companies such as Speech Morphing or Voicery—chatbots are taking on some of the more human characteristics of language and becoming more emotive. “You can make it more empathetic, more affirmative, more apologetic,” Prayaga said. “And all that adds to personality. When someone says, ‘my dog just died,’ you are not going to have an excited tone.”

More than Words: The Anatomy of Personality

Just like with human interaction, a great deal more than mere language goes into a user experience and, by extension, the personality that users perceive.

Getting the voice right is essential, and it must be appropriate for the application to engage the user. However, Brooke Hawkins, Conversation Designer at MyPlanet, noted that ‘personality’ is reflected in more than speech when it comes to kiosks or multimodal interfaces: “It’s the color of the theme, the avatar, the font you’ve used.”

“Everything shapes that personality,” Hawkins continued. “Not just the voice or the speech, but all the components you put together to give an impression to the user.”

There’s Never a Second Chance to Make a First Impression

Just as people need to dress for the job they want, chatbots need to ‘wear’ the right personality—from tone to color choices to their emotions to the accuracy with which they express it all.

“When you meet someone for the first time, you immediately form an opinion about them based on how they're dressed, how they speak, the tone and pitch of the voice,” Prayaga noted. “Everything, right? All these things together form a personality. That holds true with voice assistants or conversational interfaces, anywhere you have an interaction. And if there is a disconnect, people spot it very easily.”

Want to Learn More?

Read my next blog: Chatbot Personality Design: Top Considerations.
 
Or the blog after that: Too Human for Humans: Ethical Issues in Chatbot Personality Design.
 
Watch the full panel discussion as an on-demand webinar: Personalities in Conversational Interfaces.
 
Dive into our AIVA conversational AI technology.
 
Or contact us at [email protected]

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