Writing for conversational user interfaces

Last year at Hubbub
we worked on two projects featuring a conversational user interface
. I thought I would share a few notes on how we did the writing for them. Because for conversational user interfaces a large part of the design is in the writing.

At the moment, there aren’t really that many tools well suited for doing this. Twine
comes to mind but it is really more focused on publishing as opposed to authoring. So while we were working on these projects we just grabbed whatever we were familiar with which we felt would get the job done.

I actually think there is an opportunity here. If this conversational ui thing takes off designers would benefit a lot from better tools to sketch and prototype them. After all this is the only way to figure out if a conversational user interface is suitable for a particular project. In the words of Bill Buxton
:

“Everything is best for something and worst for something else.”

Okay so below are my notes. The two projects are KOKORO (a codename) and Free Birds. We have yet to publish extensively on both, so a quick description is in order.

KOKORO is a digital coach for teenagers to help them manage and improve their mental health. It is currently a prototype mobile web app not publicly available. ( The engine we built to drive it is available on GitHub, though.
)

Free Birds (Vrije Vogels in Dutch) is a game about civil liberties for families visiting a war and resistance museum in the Netherlands. It is a location-based iOS app currently available on the Dutch app store
and playable in Airborne Museum Hartenstein
in Oosterbeek.

For KOKORO we used Gingko
to write the conversation branches. This is good enough for a prototype but it becomes unwieldy at scale. And anyway you don’t want to be limited to a tree structure. You want to at least be able to loop back to a parent branch, something that isn’t supported by Gingko. And maybe you don’t want to use the branching pattern at all.

Free Birds’s story has a very linear structure. So in this case we just wrote our conversations in Quip with some basic rules for formatting, not unlike a screenplay.

In Free Birds player choices ‘colour’ the events that come immediately after, but the path stays the same.

This approach was inspired by the Walking Dead games
. Those are super clever at giving players a sense of agency without the need for sprawling story trees. I remember seeing the creators present this strategy at PRACTICE
and something clicked for me. The important point is, choices don’t have to branch out to different directions to feel meaningful.

KOKORO’s choices did have to lead to different paths so we had to build a tree structure. But we also kept track of things a user says. This allows the app to “learn” about the user. Subsequent segments of the conversation are adapted based on this learning. This allows for more flexibility and it scales better. A section of a conversation has various states between which we switch depending on what a user has said in the past.

We did something similar in Free Birds but used it to a far more limited degree, really just to once again colour certain pieces of dialogue. This is already enough to give a player a sense of agency.

As you can see, it’s all far from rocket surgery but you can get surprisingly good results just by sticking to these simple patterns. If I were to investigate more advanced strategies I would look into NLP
for input and procedural generation
for output. Who knows, maybe I will get to work on a project involving those things some time in the future.

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