What is the difference between speaking with a person and a conversational interface?

Conversational interfaces Research


Conversational interfaces have led us to a new type of conversation. These conversations have a distinct purpose (more objective-based, like a tool) and things that make them good (much more functional than a human conversation).

What did they do?

The researchers had 40-minute interviews with 17 people. During these conversations, they asked them questions around 4 themes:

  • What are the characteristics of a good conversation with a human?
  • How do you feel about conversational interfaces (CI)?
  • Do the characteristics of a good human conversation apply to a conversation with a CI?
  • What are the scenarios where CI would be useful?

What did they find?

They looked at the interviews and found answers to the following questions:

Why do humans have conversations?
  • We want to socialize. Conversations help us get to know people, form social groups, and deepen relationships.
  • Conversations help us gather information to reach a goal.
What makes a good human conversation?
  • Common ground and understanding of the meaning and intent of what we’re saying.
  • Some level of trustworthiness. Without trust, it’s impossible to deepen the relationship through a conversation.
  • Active listening. We want to feel heard when we’re talking
  • Humour can be useful when it’s the base for more substance.
What is the purpose of a conversational interface?
  • CIs are tools. They cannot be more than that because we can’t make emotional connections with them.
What makes a good conversational interface?
  • Personalization. This is different for having common ground with a human because CIs don’t have individual identities. Good CIs understand your needs and cater to them.
  • Security, privacy, and transparency. Unlike human conversations, there is no emotional trust with CIs.
  • Accurate listening. People simply want their words to be understood.
  • Humour can be a novelty feature, but it isn’t necessary like in human conversations.
Can someone build a relationship with a conversational interface?
  • CI are tools. They aren’t something you would build a relationship with.
  • There is a weird master/servant dynamic with CIs. This is a difficult dynamic to overcome if the goal is to build a relationship with a CI.
  • People who suffer from isolation (including the elderly) could benefit from the companionship of a CI.

General thoughts on conversational interfaces

  • The power differential between humans and CIs is a huge obstacle to build a relationship.
  • The social aspect isn’t a big factor when people think of CIs. CIs are still very much thought of as tools, not something to become friends with.

So what?

There is a clear difference between the type of conversation someone expects to have with a human and with a CI. Conversations with CIs are a completely new type of conversation that have their own implicit rules and understandings. People won’t expect the same for a conversation with a CI than from a conversation with a friend. Unlike a human conversation, people seem to be interesting in speaking with CIs in public because of an element of social embarrassment and awkwardness.

Article citation

Clark, L., Pantidi, N., Cooney, O., Doyle, P., Garaialde, D., Edwards, J., … & Wade, V. (2019, May). What makes a good conversation? challenges in designing truly conversational agents. In Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1-12). Full article.