Talking With—Not At—Your Website

We were intrigued recently by a Medium post from Tomaž Štolfa of Layer which explored the evolution of what he called “conversational interfaces” from DOS to the desktop trash can to instant messaging to more recent arrivals like SMS and Slack.

His conclusion? Nearly every product or service online today “has or will soon have messaging as part of the experience to drive retention, engagement and transaction volume,” he writes.

I agree with Štolfa’s thoughts—but I’d take them a step further. I’d argue, in fact, that the idea of “having a conversation” can be expanded far beyond developing the best possible messaging interface to reach your customer.

Instead, I believe we can think about a conversation in its purest form, outside the confines of a messaging app or a command line interface. I’d argue that, at their best, websites allow us to have a conversation with a machine. Whether it’s doing our taxes on an online interface or navigating a corporate website for information, we’re interacting intuitively with a site. We are—in effect—doing the same thing that we do when we talk to humans in real life: asking questions, looking for answers, and responding to information.

As a digital agency, we spend a lot of time thinking about “what’s next” in the web ecosystem. But when we put aside flash-in-the-pan web design trends and focus instead on the fundamentals of what a website should do, it’s easier to boil down the ultimate goal: we need to make the process of using any site we design as personalized, as simple to use, and as beautiful as possible. We need to, basically, create the ideal conversation between website and user.

One way to think about this is to think about how we translate conversations we have in the real world to the digital space. An example of this translation in action is our work on the Neighborhood Trust financial planning app.

In that case, we were asked by Neighborhood Trust to figure out a way to keep their low-income clients engaged with managing their finances when the wait times to meet with a financial advisor were so long (sometimes advisors could only meet with clients once or twice per year.)

It was a classic case of a good conversation that simply didn’t happen often enough: clients were eager to talk to a human being about their financial issues and seek out advice, but when they could only have one or two conversations per year, all momentum they had built up simply ground to halt.

We were faced with the challenge, then, of translating that in-person conversation into a digital space.

Neighborhood Trust invited us to sit in on their counseling sessions, allowing us to study how their counselors interacted with clients and the impact that face-to-face interaction had on their outcomes. Armed with that information, we then took it a step further, working with a pool of users to test out the ways they intuitively navigated websites and digital information.

Putting the two together, we were able to develop an interface that most closely approximated the real human conversation—but was uniquely digital, offering access to resources at the touch of a button that wouldn’t be so easily accessed in person.

We learned some important lessons from this project, including that the ways that people interact with information online are as varied as the ways they interact with each other in real face-to-face conversations. But by taking the time to truly analyze these interactions for patterns and trends, we were able to create a product that brought the benefit of counseling to thousands of people when they weren’t able to meet someone face-to-face.

This leads me to my overall advice for brands in 2016 and beyond: the future is wide open for truly conversational brands—companies that invest in both digital and real-world efforts at not just speaking to customers, but listening to them, too.

Listening isn’t just something you do once, at the beginning of a customer interaction, and then never again. Instead, just like the best websites, listening is at the core of the user experience. You need to listen to your customers in advance, during their transaction, and again afterwards. And, like a good conversation, you need to adapt to what they are telling you.

It’s not rocket science. We’ve been doing it since the dawn of time. It’s called a conversation.

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