Two simple writing techniques that will help you design better voice applications

Katarzyna Kurzynska

Thu, July 4, 2019

Oren Jacob, ex CTO at Pixar, now CEO of Pullstring during his talk on conversational design at the Google developers conference I/O 2017 said:

“A way to thinking of designing conversations is to think of it as interactive screenwriting."

While working on the last voice project we took the advice quite literarily, we decided to support our design with two screenwriting techniques: Storyboarding and Character profiling.

It was an experiment, but it worked. Even better than we expected.

As a team, we wanted to create a new, immersive experience dedicated to the youngest Amazon Alexa's users (about 7-8 years old). We wanted to provide children with a good quality game that will connect education with play.


The initial idea was to create the game in the task of the day form: every day a user has one task to complete. It was supposed to target kids, so we decided that it should take a form of interactive storytelling. That we will try to bring magic into children everyday word.

We called it Daily Adventure.

Since we were building storytelling skill for kids it was somehow natural to incorporate writing tools into the process. But we believe that these techniques may be really helpful in building all kinds of voice applications.
Ok, so let's start with storyboarding. Before I explain to you how we run this, let's start with a brief introduction of the concept.

What is storyboarding?

Storyboarding process, in the form that is known today, was developed in the 1920s by a team working in Walt Disney Animation Studios. To understand why it was created let's look at how the process of creating animations looked back then.

First, a script of the story script was created. Then the script was passed to the team of animators. They needed to figure out a lot of on the fly: how characters were supposed to look like, lightning what camera movements to use, camera movements and many, many more. Often, the end effect wasn't great. And making changes was really, really expensive.

So in Walt Disney Animation Studios, they decided to validate what works and what doesn't before starting the animation process. That's where storyboarding stepped in.

A storyboard is a graphic representation of how your video will unfold, shot by shot. It looks a bit like comics.


Here's interesting video how the storyboarding looks comparing to final animation of Lion King Circle Of Life:

It seems complicated, doesn't it? I believe there's a separate profession for animations storyboarders. But in our context, it doesn't have to be.

How did we use a storyboarding?

So here's how we did it: we took a pile of sticky notes. We sat around the table. We put two cards: first - where the story begins, second - where we want to end it. Then we started figuring all the stuff happening in the middle and how the tasks will build the story. We weren't even drawing: we were just writing on the sticky notes. And that's it.

Simple, isn't it?

But nevertheless, we were able to grasp the whole story. We got the first prototype, which we were able to share. And which we could use to gather feedback.

We also got a valuable piece of documentation.

Everybody from the team took part in this small exercise: both designers and developers. And we had a lot of fun!

If you feel comfortable with drawing, you can play with adding some images. It will help you to get deeper into the story. You can see how this can be done here:

How did it go with character profiling?

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history said:

"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."

Usually, in the writing community, this is interpreted as a statement introducing the show, don't tell rule. However, I think there's more to that.
I believe that wat Checkov was saying, that in order to engage the reader we need to provide him enough details so she can feel, almost touch the scene.

One of the main parts of designing a voice application is creating a persona. It is a challenging task. We knew that if we don't do it right it will probably destroy the whole experience. And, as Chekhov said, the devil is in the details.


However, when designing persona we usually don't really dig deep into its personality. Just a brief notes about the tone of speaking, general characteristics. So how are we to create meaningful details?

We knew that writers address that problem using something called character profile. So we searched for some template and started filling it.
The template consisted of the following sections:

  • The Basics
  • Physical Appearance
  • Speech And Communication
  • The Past
  • Family & Relationships
  • Psychology
  • Present and the future

To be honest, at first, it felt like an overkill. It really did.
But when we finished we realized that even though we'd believed that we share the understanding of our persona we had completely different personalities in mind. How would it affect our design?

While filling the character profile we gained alignment. Not only between us, but also we left a valuable piece of information for another designer that might work on the project in the future.
It also gave us all those details that we could now incorporate into our narrative and make the persona more colorful.


So on our own skin, we felt that thinking of conversational design as screenwriting is beneficial. Using those two simple techniques helped us create a more engaging and authentic experience. It helped us gain alignment in a team.
These techniques may seem even trivial. But sometimes we underestimate the value of simple tools.

We encourage you to try them yourself. Let us know how it goes!

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