I have been lost in the world of virtual assistant design for sometime. A project that promised much – an assistant designed to aid students who wish to know how the university will make their study that bit more well… accessible.

The reality has been one of ‘birth by fire’ for the development team. As a result the UX phase of the project was demoted in importance.

Most folk believe the user experience should be the first part of the development phase. Gaining understanding on audience, narratives and intended outcomes can save a lot of time and money as well as ensuring objectives are met. I certainly think this is the case.

This resulting project has been an ongoing pseudo-philosophical debate about what a conversation is, if conversation repair is MVP, and at one point a revelation of the costing model attached to accessing the large cloud-based processing power. With few genuine iterations, more a waterfall development in truth the UX and design is thin and unremarkable.

However, I do have some general observations to make that I need to investigate. The first is how the process of reading is disrupted during a chatbot session. Traditionally in the west we are taught to read from the top left corner, across the page to the right, then down to the next line.

In a chatbot session, the conversation begins at the foot of the display area. We build up from the bottom, writing left to right in short bursts – each paragraph styled as if a comic book speech bubble. The two central charactors in the conversation, normally the site visitor and either a virtual or sometimes a real host. The conversation text and bubbles usually bounce from either side of the display area to represent the two parties as the are in dialog.

Some terminology; when we read, we fixate on a point and then move to another fixation point, the journey between the fixation points is called a saccade. We use our eyes to navigate through the text – or anything for that matter – to find the next point of interest as directed by our parafoveal view.

The rhythm of reading is managed by our own sense of timing. We develop our own preference and follow it up with an appetite to consume words. But on a chatbot our gaze is traumatized by a sudden rupture as the virtual assistant rips apart the routine, launches upward and disorients our time-honoured reading pattern.

The virtual assistant breaks the reading pattern in a radical way. Fortunately most readers are more than capable of handling this rupture. They seek out the point – outside of their parovofeal view, locate a fixation, and begin to saccade to another fixation for as long as they can before the rupture occurs again.

Hopefully I will get a chance to consider an improved typography for chatbots. Then I can move onto the other fascinating topics.

Other interesting challenges in reviewing the UX and design for a chatbot are things like the idea of navigating by speech alone. By mixing-up screen readers with chatbot speech. Creating a method for helping a visitor understand their progress through the chat given the dynamic nature of the user-journey.

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