6 Steps for Creating a Smooth Chatbot Conversation Flow

Conversation flow is the effortless progression of ideas and responses in a conversation. A natural exchange of invitation and inspiration to speak occurs making for a smooth and comfortable experience.

Unless you’re a chatbot. Or socially awkward. Then your conversation skills may need a little TLC.

When creating a chatbot, writing a script that flows is an important part of the design process . People are accustomed to the sophisticated speaking style of digital assistants such as Siri and Alexa, and consumer surveys show that people expect bots to have human-level conversational abilities – from intelligence to humor .

Your chatbot may give a first impression of your company, so you don’t want it to be inept. If your bot speaks and performs well, it could ease the workload off of your agents and create a positive brand perception.

I’ll explain how to create a script that mimics the flow of human speech and put my advice to the test by writing my own example script along the way.

Putting conversational UI into perspective

Conversational interfaces steadily crept into our lives. When you call your bank, the automated voice assistant asks you to make requests using phrases rather than the dial pad. We speak to Alexa like she’s a real person standing in our home. We’ve come a long way from “You’ve got mail.”

A Conversational UI gives the privilege of interacting with the computer on human terms.

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As a result, no one has patience for crappy chatbots. Conversational UI set the intelligence bar high, so scripts require extra care.

Writing for conversational UI isn’t a simple process; it requires a lot of creativity and planning ahead. Mariana Lin, writer and creative director for Siri, compared it to writing for an absurdist play . You’ll create a character with goals, but there’s no telling what the other characters will do.

1
Decide the chatbot’s purpose

The first step to writing your conversational flow is to determine your chatbot’s purpose. That’s right, just because your chatbot isn’t human doesn’t mean it’s safe from being asked about its job.

What does it do for a living? Does your chatbot assist customers with their purchases or is it the equivalent of a Walmart greeter?

What will your audience use it for? Speedy tasks like checking a shipping status or long-term goals like fitness tracking?

How much effort will it make? Will it regularly send reminders to users or pop up every now and then to celebrate when they meet a goal? Or is it a hit it and quit it type of deal, like checking it for weather updates or game stats?

Write a pseudo CV for your chatbot. List its duties and skills. Focus on its strengths.

For example: I’m creating a chatbot named Ola, like Olaplex . It’s a hair salon bot that lets users schedule and modify their appointments.

Ola’s duties include:

  • Monitoring each stylist’s calendar and presenting openings to the user
  • Asking the user which service they need (cut, color, styling, etc.)
  • Modifying appointment dates and times at the user’s request
  • Canceling appointments
  • Sending appointment reminders via push notifications

2
Give your chatbot a persona

Before you can begin writing your script, create a backstory for your chatbot. This is a technique often used in fiction writing , but it will add authenticity to your bot and help you find its voice.

For instance, if you were in a creative writing class and asked to write a story about a girl, you may be lost for words. What kind of girl? Why?

However, if you were told that the girl is fifteen and dealing with her first break-up, you might have an easier time imagining what she looks like, sounds like and what she’s feeling.

Your chatbot’s persona will help you determine the tone, writing style, maturity and politeness you’ll use in your writing. It doesn’t have to be compelling; your chatbot could simply be a hipster beer snob or a chipper bank teller.

cartoon image of woman holding a mobile phone

For your chatbot to be believable and effective, connect it with your brand. A chatbot with a witty and emoji-heavy script may not suit a law firm. Your chatbot represents your brand, so make it look and sound like part of your team.

Ola, my salon bot, is a stylish, sassy Portuguese woman. She’s blunt, funny and loves to gossip.

3
Create a conversation diagram

In messaging, replies are short. Poorly written chatbots send walls of text with an overload of information but real conversations don’t work this way. Chatbot replies should generally be brief and cut to the chase. John Mayer explains it best .

Write your script in fragments to stay organized and make brainstorming easier. An easy way to do this is by creating a conversation diagram .

Conversations have elements, and a diagram will help you map out every possibility of what your chatbot could say. The elements you may use in a chatbot conversation are:

  • Greeting: Used to say hello or start a conversation. Formality is dependent on relationship (return versus new users).
  • Asking: For engaging or seeking information. Helps keep the conversation going.
  • Informing: Giving information that is either requested or pertinent to the conversation.
  • Checking: Testing the user’s understanding. Restating details and information for clarity.
  • Error: When the chatbot doesn’t understand or fails to fulfill a request.
  • Apologizing: Politely acknowledging the chatbot’s shortcomings. Should be brief and serve as a bridge to alternative solutions.
  • Suggesting: Presents the user with relevant actions or options.
  • Conclusion: A clear end to the conversation.

Visual elements count as well such as GIFs, emoji, pictures or videos.

Keep your customer’s journey in mind when you map out your conversation elements and diagram. What kind of experience do you want to create? Will interactions be quick and professional or conversational and casual?

You’ll create diagrams for multiple conversation types, and they’ll all likely follow a similar speech pattern.

With your drawing tools of choice and a conversation type in mind, create a flow chart outline. Using simple boxes and arrows, map out a greeting or two, potential user responses, chatbot answers and so on. If you have live chat , you can look through your transcripts to find frequently asked questions for your chatbot to answer.

Once you have your material on deck, you can start labeling your diagram boxes. Give them simple names like “Greeting 1,” “Greeting 2,” etc.

For Ola, I started out by drawing a diagram by hand. I made a few rough sketches of possible conversation flows before settling on something usable.

image of hand drawn conversation diagram

Drawing on paper has its benefits: it’s quick, it’s easy and it doesn’t have to be so precise. But I found that it was difficult to truly visualize Ola without having her diagram and words written on screen.

I used my drawing as a guideline for creating a cleaner diagram in Sketch . Creating the boxes and writing the texts took some time, but I now have a diagram to work with. Being able to move and resize the boxes is a huge benefit for building conversations.

image of empty conversation diagram

I created my final diagram with the best possible conversation scenario in mind, but I’m aware that it doesn’t cover all the ways a chat could go wrong. Error messages are a key element for your bot to have, but aren’t necessary when you’re first finding its flow.

4
Let it all out

Now that you have a structure to work with, you can start writing conversation scenarios. Depending on your bot’s purpose, you may have to write quite a few.

The trick is to keep messages short — hence the diagram boxes. Try to imagine you’re texting someone in real time when writing your script. Abandon your curse of knowledge and put yourself in the user’s shoes.

It’s also important to keep the pacing in mind. Even though you can’t draw pauses, consider them when writing your elements. A conversation with a therapy bot may move slower than a street traffic reporting bot.

Writing and fine tuning your conversation flow could take some time. Don’t worry about getting it right the first time - just write down every possible thing your chatbot could say and keep it or scrap it later.

For Ola, I wrote a basic script for booking a hair appointment, since that’s what she does best. I filled in my predetermined diagram and here’s how it turned out:

image of conversation diagram

The words are there, but it’ll take a few revisions to get the voice just right. The diagram helps me visualize the progression of the conversation and will aid me when building my bot. All I have to do is add the fun, human-like details that will make it *chef’s kiss.*

To achieve this, I highly recommend watching and listening to characters or people similar to your bot persona. For Ola, I watched videos of Portuguese women speaking to get a feel for their language flow. I also used the site WordHippo to look up some simple Portuguese words or phrases I could sprinkle in my script.

For more help, check out this post on best writing practices to get your mind on a creative track.

5
Put your conversation flow to the test

As you write and rewrite your script, I recommend reading it out loud to yourself. And I don’t mean under your breath while sitting at your desk, but like an actor at a table reading.

cartoon of brain with chat bubble

Hearing your writing makes it easier to spot errors or awkward moments. Try doing this with a partner who is unfamiliar with your chatbot. You get used to hearing the character voice you’ve concocted in your head, but an outsider’s perspective will determine if it comes through in your writing.

There is also software that lets you create and test your chatbot . Interact with your bot in real time to get an idea of its flow. It’s like seeing a play performed on stage versus just reading the script. The pacing and delivery makes the words come alive.

Software like Landbot.io and Motion.ai give you a customizable conversation diagram to build your bot with, so your pre-planned diagram will speed up this process.

I used Landbot.io for my conversation flow. The interface was intuitive enough to test what I had written, but limiting concerning the user’s input. But I get to see my script in action, which is pretty cool.

The conversation flow writing didn’t end here. I made tweaks and adjustments while I previewed my bot. I showed it to members of my team to get second opinions on my word choice and whether or not Ola was a convincing Portuguese character.

Outside input will help enrich your chatbot’s script, especially if you’re not used to creative writing.

6
Wrap up the conversation

Ending a chatbot conversation may seem like a wasted effort. Because they’re not talking to a real person, users may feel inclined to skip the niceties and just close the page.

But real conversations have endings, even if they’re not always “goodbye.” When writing your script, try to avoid dead ends and leaving the user hanging.

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Here are some sample ending phrases I wrote for Ola:

  1. I’ll be around if you need me, amigo. Don’t be shy.
  2. Ai meu Deus, lots to do! I’m off, shout if you need help :)
  3. Let’s chat more often! I’m always on the clock.

These types of phrases end the conversation, but imply that the chatbot is still around. It mimics what you would hear from a shop assistant in real life.

Finding your chatbot conversation flow is the easy part

Once you’ve found your chatbot’s voice, the conversation possibilities will be endless. But writing them all down and organizing everything into diagrams will require a lot of your time and effort.

If you play around with today's best bots , you’ll notice a range in chat capacity. You can speak to chatbots like Replika and Insomnobot 3000 for hours and hours.

But long scripts don’t always equate to good conversation flow. Insomnobot 3000 can talk a while, but it’s incoherent. The travel bot Hipmunk only understands specific prompts, but its casual, on-topic responses are written in fragments to mirror messaging. This more accurately resembles human conversations.

Don’t feel pressured to write an entire novel for your chatbot. The phrase “less is more” applies here, especially if you use your bot in customer service . Just say what you need to say...but with love.