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Conversational Design

I just finished reading Erika Hall‘s excellent book Conversational Design. Hall is a technologist who is interested in making digital systems more human-centered. The idea of conversational design is to use human to human conversations as a model for designing human to computer interactions. The issue of communication using digital systems has been a huge topic of discussion on my campus lately and so I found Hall’s insights useful. Because I’m not really interested at this moment in human-computer interactions, I’ll focus on what Hall says about human to human interactions. Her comments apply whether humans are interacting face to face or using some sort of mediation (the written word, video, recorded audio, etc.) for the communication.

In particular, Hall summarizes the work of language philosopher Paul Grice, who posited four maxims of conversation (that he called “conversational implicature“). These four maxims may seem like common sense but I think we don’t always think of them explicitly when we are in conversation with others so they bear repeating.

  1. Quantity: Make your contribution as informative as is required. Do not make your contribution more informative than is required. In other words, give people just enough information.
  2. Quality: Do not say what you believed to be false. Do not say that for which you lack adequate evidence. In other words, be truthful. But, Hall says, this is about more than just not lying. “It’s about being authentic and transparent about one’s agenda.”
  3. Relation: Contribute to the conversation in a way that is relevant to the purpose of the conversation.
  4. Manner: Be brief, orderly, and unambiguous. In other words, get to the point, be logical, and be clear.

Hall adds a fifth maxim taken from the work of professor of linguistics Robin Lakoff, who studies the relationships between gender and language: Be polite. Lakoff proposed three parts to the politeness principle: Don’t impose. Give options. Make the listener feel good.

It is astonishing how many communications I engage with every day that do not follow these maxims. I think there are a number of reasons for this. Take the maxim of quantity, for example. In order to give just the right amount of information, you need to understand what your listener (or reader or viewer) is interested in. This requires careful consideration of various audiences and their needs rather than simply doing an information dump. But I think we often don’t even think about what we’re communicating, why we’re including the things we are and not including the things we aren’t, and what the recipient of our communication might want to know about the topic at hand.

I’m currently working on the open educational resource to be used in our new “Tackling a Wicked Problem” course that will be required of all incoming first year students at PSU. It’s nice to have the maxims stated so succinctly so that I can keep them in mind as I write.

Hall’s book goes on to explore how these maxims can be applied to the design of interactions between humans and digital systems. It’s a short, informative read that follows its own suggestions.

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I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in astrophotography, game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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