How to become a conversation designer— according to a great one

In the immortal (and situationally problematic) words of Nike, “Just do it.” That’s the best advice out there for anyone interested in the exciting, rapidly growing, and well-paid career path of conversation design.

I can say that because I’ve spoken to many conversation designers over the past few years and the only thread that unites all their stories is that there isn’t really a uniting thread. Some people were sales reps, others were botanists, marketers, Salesforce administrators, analysts, and filmmakers who had an innate curiosity in dyadic (two-way) systems, and were accidentally exposed to them.

From there, much of their success was determined by knowing how the tech worked so they could design within scope (it helps to find an engineer who’ll teach you). But the rest was just logic puzzles. And lots of people like logic puzzles.

To illustrate that journey and offer some hopefully helpful advice, I share what I’ve heard and seen from others. And I’ll tell it by following the story of Nicholas Laing, Conversation Designer at JPMorgan Chase, who I think is a wonderful example of the entrepreneurial type who didn’t wait for an invitation to join. He just did it.

You are welcome here—people stumble in from everywhere

While the data doesn’t exactly exist yet, I’d bet that people’s backgrounds in this field are pretty diverse. Just an anecdotal scan of conversation designers on LinkedIn reveals people who’ve been chemists, art directors, volunteer coordinators, content writers, client development directors, and UX architects—and these folks now work at (variously) Well Fargo, Amazon, Cigna, and the blue-chip list sprawls on and on.

Which is to say, there’s far less of an established path than in mature industries, and if you want in, you can find a way. Nicholas did. When a door didn’t just open, he built his own.

Back in 2017, he was a student grappling with the realization that engineering wasn’t quite for him. He tried lots of things, including launching his own smart-home consulting business, where he’d interview homeowners about their needs and, based on the family size, usage, habits, and desires, tell them what sort of smart locks and appliances they’d need.

But he quickly discovered his work was being judged on something he couldn’t control.

“I realized that the key to the whole thing working was the virtual assistant,” says Nicholas. “Whether that was Google or Alexa or whatever, that’s what really determined people’s satisfaction. And I was looking at the App Store thinking, wow, there just aren’t that many useful apps or skills for my purpose out there.”

So, he took it upon himself to start making them.

It helps to be unusually curious, and follow that curiosity

Okay, as I write and continue to scan LinkedIn, I am realizing one trend. People seem to come from one of two disciplines—and then round out whichever they’re missing. They either like to build, and thereafter learn to write, or they like to write, and thereafter learn to build.

Just take Azfar Rizvi, conversation designer at ADP and formerly a filmmaker. As he explained in an article about his career, “I realized how transferable my skills were from screenwriting.” Once hired, he had to learn the tech.

Whereas Nicholas pursued it from the technical side.

“The first skill I made, I just started out of pure curiosity,” he says. “I was just seeing what I could do with the technology. I built a game, like a choose-your-own-adventure book that included all sorts of sound design and voiceovers.” Nicholas entered his game in a Google competition and won best student app, and second place overall.

“At that point, I thought all right, I can see that there's clearly a need for people to build these kinds of skills,” he said. “That was my initial foot in the door. But it did take a lot more work to go from building skills for fun to doing it professionally.”

You have to like problems, puzzles, and challenges

You never really think about how unbelievably complex conversations are until you get into designing them. There’s actually a study about this called the Dunning-Kruger effect: the less someone knows about a task, the easier they think it is. Take a random person off the street and let them write an assistant. They’ll create something. But will it be useful? Very likely not.

And if you peel back the curtain for them—if you show them that no, real conversations are multi-threaded and yet people remember context. That actually, it’s rarely about just the literal exchange of information, and has much more to do with the relationship, cooperation, maximum quantities, and manner, those people tend to react in one of two ways:

  1. Run away from it—“Okay, enough.”
  2. Run toward it—“Wait, how can that be?”

Conversation designers tend to be people who run toward. They’re the individuals who aren’t offended when people hate their assistant—they’re curious. They’re inspired by the existential futility of trying to detect sarcasm. They are giddy with excitement when they’re able to contextually translate an utterance like, “Haven't you had enough?” to understand the implication behind that question.

Or as Nicholas puts it, he’s just a person who really loves problems.

“Sure, I loved seeing successful conversations,” he says, “but the ones that really propelled me to keep building and improving were the ones that were going wrong, because I was like, there's a better way to have these conversations.”

"The ones that really propelled me to keep building and improving were the ones that were going wrong, because I was like, there's a better way to have these conversations."

Always be building your portfolio

Are you trying to start out working at a tiny company, or a massive enterprise? Both are valid routes, but you’re going to get very different learning experiences at each.

A small startup will give you unparalleled access and authority right from the start. Your bosses may not know any better than you, and because there’s no legal team or other departments, you can launch and fail as fast as you like. Of course, that requires you have a high tolerance for ambiguity, because probably, nobody’s checking your work.

Then there’s starting at very large enterprises with well-developed processes and millions of users on their many assistants. Here, you’re not going to get the end-to-end view you would at a startup where you may be both designer and developer, but you will get something else: guidance. As a junior person on a big team, you’ll be safeguarded from mistakes, have mentors, and get to learn one small piece of the assistant puzzle really really well.

And if you’re like Nicholas, you’ll do one, then the other.

“I realized that employers want to see a record of your work, and that I had to build a portfolio and network in this space,” he says. So he started reaching out to people online with the title asking if they’d be willing to do an informational interview. Many replied and said they’d be thrilled.

“I love this community. There's so many people who are just so receptive to giving feedback or taking 30 minutes for a call and then letting it run over,” says Nicholas. “There are so many good people willing to help, and that’s a key resource when you’re trying to get into this space.”

Then, while watching a conversation design competition, Nicholas had the idea. He Googled the companies he was watching participate, and sent them a simple note:

That landed him a few roles working, in his words, “Basically for free,” but got him hands-on experience building real assistant products. “That was my big break—launching a product that went into production with real customers.” That in turn led to a job at Drift and not long after, at JPMorgan Chase.

“What got me those roles was that when interviewing, I was able to actually talk about the things I had built both personally for fun, but also, the teams I was working on and building conversational applications for them,” he says. “They were like, ‘You did this just for the joy of it?’ Employers loved that.”

Final advice from Nicholas? Think about what your assistant does for the world

Assistants have the unique power of scaling the power of conversation instantly, to potentially millions of customers. And the question is, what sort of conversations do you want to be creating? And for what purpose?

“What’s really important for me personally is the goal of the assistant that you're building,” says Nicholas. “I realized that at Chase, in finance, with global reach, there's a lot of potential for impact in terms of financial education and literacy and helping people manage their money, which is just something I wouldn't have been able to do elsewhere. On a day when it’s hard to wake up, if you’re building an experience that has potential to help people, that’s deeply, intrinsically motivating, and a big consideration for me.”

“On a day when it’s hard to wake up, if you’re building an experience that has potential to help people, that’s deeply, intrinsically motivating.”

What’s next for you?

Know that you’re welcome. Stay curious. Feed your love of puzzles. Never stop building that portfolio, and give a lot of thought to what your assistant does. And, keep at it—just because you don’t have the background today doesn’t mean you can’t break in, or that thousands of conversation designers on LinkedIn wouldn’t be thrilled to do an informational interview and walk through your portfolio with you.

To quote Nike, just do it, and ask for help. It’s a wonderful community that wants to see you find your way.

Which, by the way, have any resources people should know about? Shoot me a note and I’ll add the relevant ones to the list below.

Helpful resources:

  • Know Amazon’s white paper inside and out.
  • Read Google Assistant: Conversation Design.
  • The Conversation Design Institute offers courses.
  • Try applying early and get practice talking to recruiters—big companies often outsource the first conversation to recruiting agencies, and while those people are well-meaning, they won’t have a great grasp on what you actually do. It’s a whole different kind of conversation.
Check out how to write an effective Conversation Designer job description + template.

The art of presenting conversation design work

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