Chatbot Design: How to Improve Usability and Engagement

How well your chatbot design is implemented will determine whether users engage with it or abandon it before completing critical actions.

Chatbots have the potential to be a great way to engage with users if properly implemented. Unfortunately, poor chatbot design can often undermine the experience.

The Challenges and Opportunities of Chatbot Design

Even back in 2017, when I first wrote about chatbots, I was torn about their role. The marketer in me sees huge potential for engaging with customers at scale while still maintaining natural conversational interactions.

Chatbots also have the potential to shape the narrative and guide the user through the buying process.

However, the user experience professional sees a host of usability problems, including, but not limited to:

  • Expecting users to read a lot of copy.
  • Removing the user’s ability to scan and skip to relevant content.
  • Annoying users with popups that interrupt the user’s journey.
  • The limited ability of chatbot systems to understand natural language.

In this post, I want to recommend 7 steps you can take to mitigate the dangers of chatbots while ensuring you can still enjoy the benefits they can provide.

If you are interested in the platform I used to build the chatbot for this site, it is Landbot (affiliate link). I found it to be both easy to use and yet still flexible enough to do most things. Best of all, it is reasonably priced.

1. Communicate Scope

Before creating your chatbot design, decide on its role. Is it for customer support, sales, FAQs, or something else? You need to clearly and concisely communicate this to the user so they understand if it is for them or not.

If you fail to manage expectations, users will quickly become frustrated. That does not just apply to the topic of the chatbot; it also applies to its nature.

If people open a chatbot expecting to speak to a live person, they will enter the interaction unhappy, increasing their cognitive load, meaning they will be less likely to get the answer they want.

2. Consider Structure and Depth

Don’t allow the name to mislead you. Users do not engage with a chatbot to chat. They come wanting answers, and it is the job of your chatbot design to get them to that answer as quickly as possible.

To achieve this, you need to create a relatively flat structure. Otherwise, the user has to read through a lot of messages to get the answer they need.

This may also mean you need to limit the scope further so that the user is not overwhelmed with too many options at any one time. The more options you add, the more likely the user will make the wrong selection and go down a conversation thread that doesn’t have their answer.

Chatbot Design with limited options
Avoid overwhelming users with too many options when using your chatbot unless those options are extremely distinct.

Remember, a chatbot is not like a website. You cannot easily backtrack if you find yourself going down the wrong route.

3. Keep It Concise, but With Personality

Although you want your chatbot design to feel conversational, you cannot treat it as a conversation. That is because the user is reading it. It is not even like a chat conversation with a friend. They want quick answers, not a casual conversation.

Do not try and communicate everything you want to say in chat. Instead, keep it concise and offer links to web pages with more information as appropriate.

A webpage can be scanned for relevant information, while chat is linear, so for more in-depth information, a webpage is more appropriate.

Not that a chatbot design should be devoid of personality. It should still feel like a conversation with a human. Use casual language, write in the first person and use humor as appropriate.

Adding images, emojis, and other media can also help to add personality without giving the user more to read.

Chatbot design using images and emojis
A chatbot can use images and emojis to add personality without giving the user more to read.

4. Limit the Need for Users to Type Responses

As you start constructing the conversation for your chatbot, avoid allowing the user to type in open-ended responses.

Although the ability of these systems to understand natural conversation has improved over recent years, it is still a long way from perfect. It is liable to lead to users having to guess which particular phrase will trigger the right response.

Limiting data entry to multi-choice selections and basic information such as name and email address will also aid users on mobile devices where typing is harder.

5. Remember the User

Like any conversation with a person, your chatbot design should remember previous conversations as much as possible. That is especially true when the user has been required to enter data like their name or email address.

Example of a chatbot design remembering a previous interaction.
A chatbot should remember previous interactions.

A chatbot should not just maintain this information within a session (e.g., not being asked to enter their name more than once in a visit) but also across multiple visits.

Ideally, a user should receive a different greeting when returning and seeing the chatbot for a second or third time. You may even want to pick up where the user previously left off in the conversation.

6. Put the User in Control and Consider Placement

Although I can understand the desire, I would advise you to avoid displaying a chatbot on a website without users directly triggering it themselves. That means don’t show the chatbot on page load or even after a delay.

If you have designed your website well, most people will not want to interact with the bot. Therefore an automatically triggered chatbot will be an irritant. That is especially true on mobile devices, where a chatbot popup will almost certainly cover other content.

Chatbot notification design.
A chatbot that interrupts the user will increase chatbot engagement, but it will also drive away many who find it irritating.

If you want more people to engage with your bot, consider embedding it directly into a webpage rather than an overlay. Not only does this avoid the bot covering critical content, but it also makes the chatbot feel more like a useful feature of the site rather than an add-on.

7. Test and Gather Feedback

You will not create the perfect chatbot on your first attempt, no matter how many times you have created chatbots in other circumstances.

You will make mistakes in your build, ranging from typos to unintentional dead-ends. You will need to test your chatbot design thoroughly to find as many of these as possible before launch.

However, even once a chatbot is live, you will still want to carefully monitor the chats and associated analytics to work out how you can improve the experience.

Look for where users are dropping out, how far they are getting in the flow, and other behavior to build up a picture of what is working and what is not.

Also, consider asking for feedback at the end of the chat, as it may give you insights into improvements that you could make.

Whatever approach you adopt, it is important to remember that, like all digital channels, the best way to find success and maximize your return is through testing and iteration.

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