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Conversational UX Design

This spring at the U of M’s MinneWebCon I heard Doc Searls (a co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto) talk about efforts to shift from a mindset of vendors managing customer relationships toward one of customers managing vendor relationships. It is a radical shift in thinking for a culture that has grown around a hierarchical structure where capital markets are built on the backs of an entire class of workers whose labor is highly managed and prescribed.

The interactive revolution is challenging the inertia of this system by repositioning the relationship between the public and the institution. Ironically (albeit predictably – if you are a McLuhan follower), the very mechanisms of this revolution are still catching up with their own ideology. Mass culture naturally applies old methods to the new medium until it has figured out its true potential and meaning.

Thus the early days of the Web saw a proliferation of brochureware, taking the stuff we already had and just presenting it in a different medium. Today we see a proliferation of what I call broadcastware – and let’s face it, pushing video through an interactive channel is not so different from pushing a billboard. These engagements don’t utilize the true potential of adaptive, social technology. To tap the potential, we must open the platform and provide mechanisms and personal tools rather than messages. And to do that, we need to ask users for a deeper engagement early in the process. As Albert Einstein said, “information is not knowledge.”

There is no lack of conversation about the importance of early engagements in site experiences. Registration forms, sign-ups, and the like qualify for this kind of interaction. Initiatives like OpenID  are underway that hint at a possible future where the dreaded registration process becomes less painful by consolidating your online identity. RFID technology and other ambient recognition will go a long way toward creating deeper relationships without much input required. But there will always be a need for dialogue, and if we are to have a meaningful conversation with our users, we have to facilitate the conversation with an interface that welcomes them with open arms.

The standard way of inviting people to the conversation is with a carrot and a stick, hiding the most important parts of the conversation behind sparkly objects and hoping that the users really really want to talk to us. This requires us to clearly spell out what is commonly called a value proposition (the carrot). Already, we find ourselves slipping into our bad marketing habits. We are back to our old tricks, telling instead of showing. We’re like that guy at the party who only listens to you until he can return to talking about himself, sending a clear message that you are not important – you are interchangeable with anyone else who will endure his greatness. We have long been treating conversations with our customers as transactions, withholding the goods until we have a signed prenuptial agreement with the user. Where’s the romance in that?

Let’s skip the paperwork and get straight to the romance. When I have an experience online that invites me into an open conversation, it reveals itself to me and teaches me about how to use it with every interaction. Now I’m sure you can think of a hundred reasons why this is a bad idea. Especially if you’re a corporate lawyer (no offense). But as consumers, we are living in the world of what is, not the world of what if. Our time is valuable and our attention is overwhelmed by the saturated media space. So if you make it easy to talk to me, I will immediately be a lot more likely to keep talking.

A great example of conversational interaction design can be seen in the registration process on There is no sales proposition – the first page you see beckons you to start using the tool. If you really want to, you can go see the 21 reasons why you’ll love tumblr. But you don’t have to. You can just dive in.

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This idea is carried through into the smallest parts of the interaction. The example text in the URL input field shows you immediately that you’ll have your own web address with your username as the sub-domain. The label on the button shows you that you’re doing this so you can create a blog post, reassuring you that you are moving toward your goal.

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Next thing you know (literally), you are being prompted to create your first blog post. By simply starting the conversation, you have begun creating content and taking ownership of your actions.

Uploading an image, continues teaching you how to use the interface by focusing your attention on a real interaction rather than an instruction manual.

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And now that you have some content posted on your new blog, you are prompted to name it and personalize it.


You can then easily follow other people you know who may have a tumblr blog.


Tumblr puts the actual interaction with their service front and center. They turn the registration process into a learning process where users learn by doing what they came there to do. So the question becomes, do you give people fish, or teach them to fish? Human psychology has shown us definitively that learning by doing produces the deepest imprint on our memory and behavior. It is far and away the most engaging way to teach, and this kind of interactive learning produces knowledge rather than just information. And knowledge, not information, creates a feeling of ownership. By asking users to engage on a personal level, we are creating a relationship based on shared ownership of knowledge and value. And best of all, it doesn’t feel like work. Actions really do speak louder than words.

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