Branding Bots Part 2: Designing Personas for Chatbots & Voice Interfaces
This post is part two of a three-part series on branding bots. Read part one on voice and tone here. We’re diving into how the elements of branding can manifest in conversational interfaces and how companies and products can craft their bot to communicate their brand well.
What is a persona?
In part one of Branding Bots, we discussed how to use voice and tone in conversational interfaces. Persona is the vehicle that delivers the voice and tone of your interface. Persona is all the characteristics of your brand and how it’s expressed to the user. Typically when we think of persona, we’re thinking of a particular character that embodies the brand. Not every brand needs to develop a separate character for their bot, but the characteristics that the bot expresses should be defined.
You may be building the persona as the primary brand mark or as another element of the brand used for specific situations, like in bot dialogue. A well thought-out branding process is necessary to build a strong persona. Research about your audience, competition, and market are essential to creating a persona that resonates with your users.
Why is a persona important?
In conversational interfaces, it’s common to develop a character or mascot as the persona. Because conversational interfaces are… well… conversational, a character is a handy device for engaging in dialogue with a human. Having a conversation with a defined character is easier to do than having one with a company name or logo. Folks empathize more with characters that have traits similar to their own. In fact, humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize objects and characters that they're having a conversation with, especially in a voice interaction. Building and controlling that character is better for your brand than leaving it up to the user's imagination.
A character or mascot may not always make sense for your brand, and that’s OK. You should still pay attention to the way that your brand is communicating and make sure voice and tone are consistent.
The psychology of personas
There are a few psychological devices that you can use to craft your bot's persona. These can help you design and test a persona for your bot to find what is most useful to your audience.
Themes and forms that are a part of our cultural biases can play a major role in building personas in a brand. Psychologist Carl Jung developed the concept, and his idea derived from thinkers and philosophers before him like Kant and Plato. He thought that characters or archetypes are immediately familiar to us because they are innate in our culture. Archetypes help set expectations and give your brand broader meaning. We have been using them in storytelling for ages, and you can still see them in films and stories we tell today.
Brands like Nike use the Hero archetype while the Harley Davidson brand uses the Outlaw archetype. A persona can build on these familiar themes to engage with your audience more effectively. A brand does not have to choose only one archetype and it can use aspects of a few of them together.
Malcolm Gladwell talks about stickiness in The Tipping Point; it’s the ability for ideas, or in this case, a persona to become crystallized in pop culture. The six elements that are important in creating a sticky brand are Simplicity, Surprise, Concreteness, Credibility, Emotion, and Story.
Storytelling can be quite compelling if you move past the buzzword and put in the work to build a great story. Using the elements of storytelling has been an effective means of communication for millenia, and we can employ it in creating a bot’s persona. Stories can help users understand complex ideas and help them more deeply empathize with the persona. The elements of storytelling are Setting, Plot, Characters, Invisibility, Mood, and Movement. Cabbage Patch Kids became the 80s toy craze that it was because their brand developed stories for their dolls, complete with a birth certificate and adoption paper for each doll.
The baby-face bias is the propensity for humans to be attracted to forms that have baby-like features like big eyes, small noses, high foreheads and small chins. We can see this effect even in non-human forms. Think of little Groot from The Guardians of the Galaxy - totally baby face that makes you go “Awwww.” Think about using the Baby-Face Bias when building the avatar for your brand as it may help users forgive your bots mistakes, too.
Similarity Bias is the tendency for humans to like and trust other people and things that are similar to them. Wired for Speech describes a study in which introverted and extroverted subjects interacted with voice interfaces that exhibited introverted-ness and extroverted-ness. Those who interacted with the interface that matched their disposition (introverted subjects interacting with introverted interfaces) were more likely to rate the information those interfaces delivered as credible. Knowing your audience and their personality traits could have a significant impact on your brand's personality.
As you develop your character, you have to consider its gender or lack thereof. In a chatbot interface, gender can be ambiguous and doesn’t need to be clearly defined. The persona may never acknowledge gender at all, which works well in a text-based interface. However, interfaces that users experience through voice will have a gender associated with them regardless of the brand’s intent. Humans are wired to assign gender to voices. Even if there is a gender neutral persona, the voice of the persona often dictates how the user perceives it.
It’s also important to consider the social implications of gender while creating a brand. Discussion of sexism is varied and vibrant in the context of bots. Brands should carefully consider gender, or lack thereof, and how that weaves into the brand story. Designers should be cognizant of how gender relates to users. Brand owners and designers should prepare themselves to field questions and have conversations about the chosen gender of their bot.
💡 Tip: The persona of a chatbot should never lead users to think that it’s an actual human. It should be clear to the users that they are speaking with a bot. Designers should be especially cognizant of times when a user might expect to be speaking with a human but are actually speaking to a bot, like in support situations.
Elements of personas in conversational interfaces
Now let’s talk about the UI elements available in conversational interfaces to express a persona.
Display name or invocation name
On a platform like Facebook Messenger, the display name of the page your bot lives on will be the name that shows up in a chat conversation. Many brands consider building a new brand personality for a bot, but may not be ready for that personality to take over their social media presence. Some consider creating new Facebook pages, or they stick with their primary brand before diving into persona development.
On voice interfaces, the bot’s name is called the invocation name, because this is what users will say to direct Google or Alexa to talk to your bot. Alexa and Google place some restrictions around the invocation name. Some of those rules are that they have to be real words, but not one-word names, cannot be common phrases, cannot be proper nouns, must be unique, and must be phonetically distinct. Consider these factors before building a persona that won’t work as an invocation name.
On Facebook Messenger, the avatar you set for your Facebook Business Page will be the avatar of the bot in conversation. The avatar should be the same as the persona, but that may create some friction between your established brand and the new bot persona on social media profiles (just like the display name).
Voice interfaces like Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa both have avatars shown in their bot libraries, and Assistant uses avatars in the conversation threads in the app. The avatar sets the first impression and can be used in many places to communicate your brand, like email, so building a great avatar is important.
For the two leading voice interfaces, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, there are different offerings for synthesized voice.
Alexa has a defined female voice that designers and developers cannot change. Alexa is the assistant that users are asking to carry out the particular action your skill provides. It places your bot in the domain of Alexa's persona, and the general assistant asks your bot to perform the task.
Actions on Google provides a set of four voices designers can choose to use in an action. While the Google Assistant maintains the same female voice, third-party Actions on Google are allowed to respond in a different voice. The available voices include typical male and female voice ranges. Google Assistant acts as more of a DJ, serving up the various bots users request, and handing over control to those bots until the users achieve thier goals.
I suspect that voice selection will become more varied as voice synthesis gets better and better. Check out Lyrebird, a voice synthesis API that can mimic actual human voices. The voices our interfaces use will become as varied as all of our voices, so the possibilities could be endless.
Hearing the voice interface is the only way to judge the medium. I find that it’s helpful to play-act your voice interfaces to help sketch out your persona. If you can build a prototype to hear the bot’s personality in the synthesized voice, that help you better judge the effectiveness of your persona.
Persona that moves the brand forward
Like any design process, building a persona can be daunting. Good brand designers should be able to help guide you to make sure your persona is consistent and that it aligns with the qualities you want it to express. Even if you are only using the devices we've discussed to give internal guidance, a solid persona will help users identify with it.
At Voxable, when we start to build a persona for a bot, we usually start out with a thought experiment: “If this piece of technology were an actual character or human that was carrying out these tasks, how would they talk to the customer?” This experiment helps us understand the domain of the persona and the situations to which it may have to react. As we dig into research about our users, competitors, and market, we start to get a better sense of what personality traits we want our persona to embody. Keep in mind that you can always test your persona with users. Because voice selection may be varied and broad, user testing a prototype will help you understand how it affects your audience.
Stay tuned for part three of Branding Bots, where we talk about the key moments that can make and break your bot’s branding.
We’d love to hear your thoughts on branding bots and how you’ve used voice and tone to communicate through them. Hit us up on Twitter @voxable.
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