Interview with a Chatbot Conversation Designer

Our digital communications job insight series returns with a fascinating behind-the-scenes interview with Toni Ressaire. Toni has worked in technical communication and software development for many years, and is now also a trainer and consultant. She was the keynote speaker at the 2018 Technical Communication UK conference, held last September. And her company Info4design provides consulting and training for information development for AI devices, chatbots, automation and future technologies.

Here she talks about her growing work in the new field of chatbot conversation design: why it is a growth area, how you can break into the field and why robots are more fun than you might think.

You can also read more job Q&As in our ongoing Interview with a… series.

chatbox conversation designer Toni RessaireWhat is your job title?

Officially, I’m the president of Info4Design, a company I founded to help companies bring their content into the ‘now’ and ‘future’ via intelligent design. In practical reality, I’m a consultant and trainer.

What does your job involve?

I help companies understand and implement processes, tools and content that help them communicate with their clients in a digital environment. This could be anything from helping them create a content strategy for embedded software information and onboarding to designing conversational virtual assistants (chatbots). I also do training for companies that need to bring their teams up to speed on information development in this new era of AI and digital transformation.

What background do you need?

You need to understand content strategy, of course. In my particular work, you also need to understand contextual content, how machines read content, and how to develop content strategies in a contextual world.

Sounds vague, I know, but it’s a relatively new field that requires bringing yourself up to date on things like natural language processing (NLP), artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML). You don’t need to dive deep into these fields but you do need to understand their foundations because these are now driving how we develop content for today’s machines.

Why did you choose to work with chatbots?

Originally, my interest was in artificial intelligence and writing for artificially intelligent machines. I started doing research: learning about how the technologies were progressing and the role of content. I also had a client who wanted a chatbot for a software demo.

As I started building the bot, I became more interested in how AI and language interact. Working with bots offers the perfect microcosm for experimenting with how natural language processing and AI are progressing. As the technology develops, my chatbots can become more ‘intelligent’, so to speak. It’s not so much about the chatbots but how computing and algorithms can drive conversation – and more importantly, how can we use these technologies for conversations that are meaningful to users.

What is the most challenging part of the job?

The most challenging thing for me is the instability or lack of tools created specifically for content designers. I’m not a developer so I need tools that allow me to work with content at multidimensional levels. We are still in the infancy of this field so it’s still developing; it is also what makes it most exciting.

What is the best bit about being a chatbot conversation designer?

Working with ‘robots’. They’re a lot more fun than you may imagine.

What makes working with chatbots fun for you?

Part of designing a chatbot conversation is creating a personality. I don’t want my bots to be boring and impersonal. Creating bots that users want to chat with is quite a challenge and something of a creative process. I used to work in publishing. In this way, it’s like character development in a story.

What do you know now that you wish you had known then?

I wish I had studied computational linguistics so I could understand better why these bots don’t give me the answers I want!

What is the rate of pay?

Chatbot conversation design is such a new field, there is little salary information out there. A chatbot developer will make anywhere from $100-120K in the US but chatbot conversation designers are not developers. I tend to base my rates on those of an experienced consultant, around 600-800 euros per day.

Is there job mobility and security?

The need for content designers in this field will grow exponentially over the next five to 10 years. As companies need to move their content into artificially intelligent systems, they’ll need content creators who understand the environment.

What is your work environment like?

I work from home – just me and my bots – and travel to meet clients when needed. I work closely with another bot conversation designer; we play ideas off one another. I also work remotely with several colleagues scattered across Europe and the US. We share ideas and projects.

Any advice on training and development options?

I’m self-taught, although I’ve taken a few online courses from Stanford and MIT. You can find some on Coursera. For those entering university, I would look for a technical communication or other programme that offers writing for machines. And then add some elective courses from the computer science department for introductions to AI and ML.

For those already into their careers, read everything you can about the subject and look out for my new ‘Writing for Machines and Humans’ course, available soon via Firehead’s training section. The course will take you through a methodology for developing contextual and multidimensional content for machines.

Where do you see yourself in five years?

In five years I hope chatbots will be writing their own conversations, and I’ll be helping to guide and implement systems for truly intelligent bots that have some level of cognitive understanding.

Do you have a motto or guiding principle when you work?

Do what you love. I’ve always followed my interests, and it’s made my career fascinating and fulfilling.

Toni Ressaire is a technical communicator, trainer and consultant, specialising in information for software. Toni has some rather non-traditional uses for traditional techcomm tools. Toni is a founding member of the Information 4.0 Consortium and Tech Writers Without BordersShe founded Info4Design in 2012 to provide research and services around information delivery for AI devices, chatbots, automation and future technologies.