Innovative companies face a new challenge: writing dialogue for Conversational UI.

Now that chatbots are taking over, writing has captured its place at the heart of the product.

Dialogues help customers get from a to be faster. It helps them get jobs done, while at the same time building brand value and loyalty.

But writing dialogue for chatbots is a tricky thing. It seems easy since most of us text and talk all day but writing a purpose driven dialogue is a different ballgame.

It’s not even the same sport.

Every sentence has to drive the conversation forward.

And every message needs to bring the user closer to his goal.

It requires the skills of a ux-writer and creative writer.

What makes a great dialogue

In real live we chit-chat about all sorts of things. We discuss silly stuff around us and interrupt each other mid-sentence. No biggie… we’re used to it.

Most of the time, our conversations flow naturally.

But with chatbots it’s different. It’s like real life messaging – but not just quite yet.

It’s where well written dialogue meets customer experience.

Novelists, playwrights and screenwriters are king at writing dialogues. In fact, they’re the only ones that ever had to string a few words together naturally.

They understand how to use dialogue to unfold a story and guide a hero on his journey. They use dialogue to show instead of tell.

How novelists, playwrights and screenwriters use dialogue

In fiction and screenplays, dialogues tend to have three functions:

> they advance the story
> tell us something about the location
> tell us something about the characters

Good writers make sure that each sentence has at least two of the above functions. So instead of just advancing the story, the sentence could also tell us something about the character or location at the same time

Champaign and lobsters... 
Remember when we did these deals under a bridge?

The old days. I miss those. Shady as hell... Remember Fat Tony?

There they are. 
Let's do this last one and then we're out for good. 

You loaded?

If we take these three functions and apply them to chatbot writing, than we can say that dialogue for conversational UI:

> advances the customer journey
> understands context to make it more personal
> tells us something about the brand

To make our dialogues useful and engaging at the same time, we should aim to serve multiple purposes when writing dialogue.

It generally means that we need a strong and recognisable character that is useful and really understands the customer’s context.

Let’s get to work. Here are a few simple guidelines that help you get on your way when writing dialogue for your new chatbot.

Time to buckle up!

Preparations for writing dialogue for Conversational UI

Nobody just sits and writes. You need a game plan. A strategy.

Preparing a dialogue for Conversational UI

Create a character driven identity

Who is your chatbot? It can be anyone that represents your business. Think of it as an extension of your brand.

Like writing a marketing persona, you need to clearly define your chatbot as a character. The character makes the bot come to life and helps customers understand who they interact with.

When you describe your character, you want to write a tone-of-voice document as well. You probably have this for your business, but the trick is to transform that and make it useful for the chatbot. After all, a chatbot talks different than an organisation.

What type of words does your character use and which would he never use? Is your character young and fun. Or a savvy lawyer. It all influences the way your character talks and interacts with customers.

Think of this way: characters in a Quinten Tarantino film talk different than those in a Pixar film.

Let’s be clear, your chatbot doesn’t need an avatar or really pretend to be a person. However, having a clear understanding of where the dialogues originate from help in the writing process.

Define your goals

Each dialogue serves a purpose. Your customers have a certain job they want to get done and your dialogue should help them get there faster.

It’s a method to help your customers get from start to finish. Before you do anything else, you need to understand your customer and know which problem you’re solving.

Sketch a flowchart for your dialogue

You’re getting closer to actually writing. However, before you write a single word of dialogue you need a flowchart of the dialogue.

No need to get fancy. Paper and pencil will do the trick.

The flowchart gives you an overview of all directions your conversations can go. Every message can be answered in more than one way and all scenarios need to be covered.

Example of a flowchart

Pick a scenario

Once you have the chart figured out, there’s another step that most writers skip. Even though multiple scenarios are part of the same chart, each scenario is a conversation on its own – and should be treated as such.

So when you write the dialogue for one path within your chart, don’t even think about the other ways the conversations could have gone. Each customer only has one conversation. And on his journey he has nothing to do with someone else’s journey.

Your flowchart contains multiple scenarios. But each user only experiences one scenario. It's important to remember this when writing dialogue.

Writing dialogue for Conversational UI

You’ve done your preparations, it’s time to get creative. Let’s write a cool and engaging dialogue that helps your customers. The analytical part of your brain can take a rest, it’s time to bring out the poet.

Writing dialogue for Conversational UI

Speak in your brand’s voice

You have a flowchart so you know what to say. Now you just need to figure out how to say it. The tone-of-voice document is your starting point and now it’s important to make sure you speak the way your customer expect you to speak.

If you’re a millennial focused brand, don’t speak like an insurance agent. If you’re an insurance agent, don’t get too jiggy with it.

Seriously, every word matters. It even matters how long your bot ‘types’ before it answers.

Always speak one-on-one

You may be a company, but your bot is a person – at least it’s pretending to be. Make sure you speak one-on-one and don’t fall in trap of communicating as a company.

It’s not: ‘we are happy to help’. But: ‘glad I can help out’.

Dialogue for Conversational UI is short

Remember: it’s a conversation. Don’t be the one talking all the time.

Use short sentences.

Break up your answers into different messages.

Don’t drag on and on with long answers that tell the whole story. Break it up and share a little. There’s always the next message.

Look at your personal chat history. Most conversations are made up of smaller messages.

Short is natural.

Keep advice step driven

It’s a bit like our previous point. When you give advice, keep it short and step driven.

So when someone asks to reset their password, don’t say: Go to the password setting screen… and fill in your email address… and then request a new password… and then check your email for a link that allows you to reset the password etc…

Smaller messages:

Need a new password? No problem. 

I've got you covered.

Click here to get started.
Fill in your email and request a new password. 

You should get a message in your inbox with a link to follow. 

Easy as cake. 

Don’t skip character reaction

People have emotions and react to each other. Sure you’re writing for a bot, but the bot can still show some empathy.

Instead of just exchanging information, it should respond to someone’s situation with empathy and a little character. Make your chatbot come to life!

Don’t go overboard with humor

You don’t want to sound too formal so the obvious thing is to throw in a few jokes. Get creative, sure, but don’t try and be the funniest person on the internet.

Users will get annoyed with you, especially if your repertoire is limited and you misunderstand some of the questions. You’ll wind up looking silly.

Easy on the jokes.

Dialogue for Conversational UI is meant to be helpful, don’t turn it into a gimmick.

Admit defeat gracefully

No way you’re going to get it right all the time, and that’s OK. Nobody has a recognition rate of 100%.

The question is how you deal with it when your bot is stuck or simply doesn’t know the answer.

I don't know the answer. Please rephrase your question and try again.

Sure that’s an option but it’s not very elegant. Neither is:

An unknown ERROR occurred!

Be graceful about your defeat.

Oops. I didn't get that. 

I'm a bot and I'm still learning... 

Want to try rephrasing the question? 

I'm known to be a quick study. :)

After writing dialogue for Conversational UI

Almost there. Just not quite done yet.

Before you hit the publish button and call it a day, there’s a few more things we need to do to get it right. Writing dialogue for Conversational UI isn’t that easy.

After writing dialogue for Conversational UI

Read your dialogue out loud

Sometimes you put all your effort into writing a good dialogue but it still seems off. The best way to discover this is by reading your dialogue out loud.

Don’t whisper. Put some energy into it. Make it sound like it’s a normal conversation. You’ll quickly discover if something needs another polish.

Like crime writer Elmore Leonard wrote in his famous rules for writing:

If something sounds like it’s written, I rewrite it.

– Elmore Leonard

Analyse customer journeys and interactions

Congrats, your chatbot is live!

It’s a great day. Time to celebrate.

Now it’s time to analyse how your customers engage with it. Does it increase conversion on specific customer journeys, and where are the drop offs during conversations?

You send the chatbot live, now you need to track everything it does.

Always run ab-tests

Simply tracking isn’t enough. Your chatbot needs to get better. The quickest way to get this going is by using ab-tests.

Create a well defined experiment and run different variations. What happens when you use an emoji? What happens when you don’t?

Only one way to find out.

(Soon we’ll have a separate post on taking a ux approach to writing dialogue and testing everything – everything.)

Keep tweaking your dialogue for Conversational UI

The work is never done. As long as your customers engage with your chatbot it’s your job to keep improving it. Keep tweaking, keep testing, keep making it better. You chatbot can be the easiest way for your customers to interact with you, let’s also try and make it the best way.

Final thoughts on writing dialogue for Conversational UI

Here you have it: a few tips on how to write better dialogue for Conversational UI. If you take these guidelines, your chatbot should come to life and provide massive value to your users.