The user interface that you’re familiar with today is called a Graphical User Interface (GUI) and was popularized by Xerox, Apple and Microsoft during the 1980s. Early computers were exclusively text-based, which meant that your primary interaction with a computer was driven by text inputs.
GUI helped computing become more intuitive, friendly, and accessible for the average person, and it’s presently the standard across all of our personal devices. In a broad sense, GUIs have evolved to become increasingly user-friendly and visually appealing.
But … there are shortcomings of the GUI. If you have ever tried to book a flight or a table at a restaurant, you may have experienced a series of inconsistently designed text boxes, drop-downs and poorly placed buttons. This is where user experience plays a big role, so that we may design an interface that can have the least issues. However, consider this – how easy would it be to type in something like this;
“Reserve a table for 4 at Farzi Cafe for tomorrow 8:00pm”
or saying something like this;
“Book tickets for 2 adults from Dubai to New York for 27th April 2017.”
This is the power of an emerging development known as the Conversational User Interface (CUI).
Guess what, it’s helped us realize that sometimes it can be easier to have a conversation with a computer than it is to tap, swipe and navigate our way through a poorly executed user experience.
The command-line aka the original conversational interface
The command line was the original conversational interface. You’d input a textual command, hit enter, the computer would execute the command and print the answer. Both inputs and outputs were textual.
Think about this, this is pretty much as a conversation. You tell a computer what to do by typing in some command and it informs you of the result in the form of text. the only problem is, not every “non-geeky” human being understood what to say and what to understand from the response. It was like, talking in a different language. Essentially – that is what it was. The language of programming and computers that was alien to many.
The rise of graphical user interface
Back in 1970, the smart people at Xerox PARC started creating a series of user interface paradigms, enabling users that didn’t know all the commands to work around it and enable them to work with computers by simply pointing a cursor to an object on a screen.
IBM was the first hardware maker that used DOS created by Microsoft as the operating system. Microsoft allowed other hardware makers to clone their operating system – still maintaining power over license hence becoming the gatekeeper for the operating system. Pretty soon DOS evolved into the graphical user interface we call Windows.
Apple’s world-changing Macintosh hit the market in 1984 and was the first commercially successful PC to use a graphical user interface (GUI), making it user-friendly.
Textual input became mostly used for entering a URL or typing up a document or email, not as the main way to interact with a computer. Instant messaging applications were more visual in nature and through time started supporting richer media for conversations such as emoticons, photos, video.
The shift from command line to GUI
From the 1970’s to the mid 1980’s – we strived to create interfaces that could help users interact with computers without learning complex languages. It seems that the graphical user interface was the way to do. From the mid 1980’s to early 2000, designers concentrated on building interfaces that allowed users to use a cursor to click and execute a task keeping typing to the minimum.
From interfaces that looked like this;
… to more intuitive layouts that were graphically pleasing and allowed for better interaction like these;
… and the trend continues today as well as designer’s strive to create interfaces that speak to the modern-day user over touch-based devices;
Enter chatbot’s and conversational UI
3 decades of designing for cursor-based interfaces, and we are back to text-based input as our way of interaction with computers. The only difference is – the language of communication is now human understandable first. The rules are reversed for language – it’s not humans who need to learn the language of the computer, it’s computers who are interpreting the way human’s speak and interact.
A great deal of why this happened has to do with the rise of mobile devices. With smartphones becoming our primary way of communication, we’ve started seeing more and more over-the-top (OTT) applications that mimic SMS’s core value proposition. Over-the-top messaging applications are slowly opening up APIs for integrating services for easy of conversions within 3rd party applications.
Chatbots utilize NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) and AI (Artificial Intelligence) to mimic the behavior of a response that is human suitable. Having mini applications in each message is especially convenient in conversational commerce and applications that drive workflows.
A step further, which we will explore soon enough, is voice based conversations that provide responses in the form of understanding human conversations in speech and responding in the form of a conversation that is audible. As demonstrated by Apple with Siri and Amazon with Alexa/Echo, voice can be a very powerful input/output mechanism for a conversational interface with a computer.
Ask yourself, is my interface conversational? It does not mean that your user interface has to be textual input or voice conversations. While designing bring in the human element and expect the person sitting on the other end of the computer as someone your interface needs to talk to, converse with and make meaningful suggestions.
We are Conceptualize, a digital agency based in Dubai and we love designing interfaces that represent human conversations.