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Been too long

When I last posted here, I’d just been made redundant from a job I loved, building a chatbot from scratch for Vodafone. I started the thing with an idea and a pitch, persisted and switched tack from an internal bot for staff to a public-facing bot and even took onboard the responsibility of building an agile squad to do it at the same time.

I wanted to capture the experience but little did I realise that I needed time to mourn. I’d invested everything into it, filling everyone around me with that same belief that it could be done and it could work.

Well, shock, it did work and that is testiment to the many hours of hard work from the team, support from the business and some very smart people at IBM. I’m proud of what we did and still sad that budgets seem to override everything else. But I’ve moved on, built more things and now feel ready to go back to that time and share the steps, successes and failings of building that bot. So, apologies if you were waiting for the next chapters but they’re coming.

Right now, I need to finish editing and laying out my local newspaper, which has been one of those things that has helped to rebuild but the energy and focus is back!

Typically, an agile squad will contain all the skills required to achieve your mission or solve the problem you’ve been given. However, as I developed a chatbot, it became clear that as well as UX, CX, frontend developer and Tech Dev Lead roles, we would have to create some new roles.

  • Cognitive Engineer – fairly well known role in the big players in the AI market – IBM, Microsoft etc but outside of those environs, Cognitive Engineer, while sounding super cool is a new role to most organisations. I’ll write about the role in more details in coming weeks but the key thing here is that they provide the technical know-how of the platform you’re using – configuring, developing etc. Alongside the frontend dev, UX and tech dev lead, they’re a crucial element in bringing your ideas to live.
  • Conversation Specialist – these does already exist outside of the tech world, they’re called scriptwriters, playwrights etc! These are the folks that can handle the mechanics of a conversation but also create the language and dialogue that make a conversation work, in this case between your customers and the chatbot.

These two roles work hand in hand once your research has been done, the answers to the problem found and now the chatbot needs to be taught to understand how to have the conversation with customers to resolve the issue.

The study of conversation is an area lacking in depth and attention but I’ve a feeling that this will change quickly over the coming years. It’s a study space that will lift from other creative spheres – scriptwriting etc but bring it into the business space. Persona or brand will of course play a part, and those skill exist in many businesses but the application here goes well beyond training frontline staff in how to have a conversation and into the technical and documented world of AI.

In my, somewhat limited experience, frontline staff are the perfect starting point when you’re looking to hire a conversational specialist. Their conversational skills, understanding of the brand they work for as well ability to relate to the issues customers have and how to solve them, provide the perfect starting point. The technical skills of conversational design and build are easily taught/learned and also vary from platform to platform. However, instinctively having the voice of the customer in their head means that conversations they design and build will resonate and work with customers – they have in the past!

So, how to hire someone into that role? I believe it’s 90% gut reaction to that person in a face to face interview and 10% on the answers they give to the questions below. As with any interview questions, there are no right or wrong answers but they’re simply designed to draw out whether the person in front of you has the right mindset as well as the skills.

Questions you could ask

Please outline what you think makes a good conversation?

Keywords to listen out for here are empathy, listening or active listening, respect, fun, interesting, engaging. Essentially, is the person equally aware of the other person, listening and not simply waiting for their turn, demonstrating empathy for the other person – though important that this can’t be simply showing an empathetic expression as your chatbot, unless you’re building a virtual human, will be only using text.

Extra points or anyone who picks out couplings like greetings etc but especially check-ins i.e. do you understand/know what I mean? And, also for affirmative endings thanks for talking, anything else I can help with and so on.

Give me an example of a bad conversation

Perfect follow-up and gives the person the chance to fill in the gaps, if any, from the previous question.

If “X” were a person, what would they be like?

A chance to check-in on your interviewee’s understanding of the brand involved and also fun question to let them imagine/personify etc.

Demonstrate how a “X” conversation with a customer would go?

Similar as before, a chance for the person to fill in gaps with a more practical example. So, they may be lousy at creating a character but still know your brand really well and explain how a “branded” conversation could/should go. Key elements being the greeting, tone, ability to keep things moving along (value) and demonstrate some of the elements they probably previously mentioned i.e. empathy, listening and being engaging. Essentially, for a frontline person, show me what you do on a day-to-day basis. Their people leader will be able to support their performance here.

Speaking a conversation is natural but how would you go about writing/creating a conversation to solve this [example] problem?

To the meat now. As I mentioned, there are various 3rd party sources/examples of this but what we’re looking for here is the ability to take the softer skills from above questions and start to build something using logical points such as decision point, conversation branch into something that both addresses the customer/example problem mentioned and resolves it – answer (information), direct to action point (fill out this form), or direct to answer with context i.e. if your bot isn’t plugged into customer data, the bot takes the customer to the self-service tool that can – app/website etc.

We’re hoping to see that your interviewee can step back from the actual conversation to understand the skeleton or structure of it for example a conversation branch where options could take the customer off on a tangent (that also needs answering) or a decision point (shall I send you the link to the form?). Even if they understand the top (greeting) and tail (farewell) and know there’s “stuff” in the middle, they’re onto it.

Key outcome is how was the customer helped through the conversation – answered/solved the issue, redirected or even if no answer available, connected to someone who can.

Tell me who your favourite 3 fictional characters are and how would they have a conversation about being stuck and unable to move forwards?

Another looser, more fun question that should illuminate more about the person i.e. which characters they choose and also what the conversations might be like. Especially interesting if they pick a character who’s not know for speaking a lot i.e. Batman.

Looking to see that the person can demonstrate at least 3 different character types or voices and the difference between them.

Extra points for good impersonations!

Finally, if your prospective conversational specialist is from your company’s frontline, the show me your weakness question i.e. when something went wrong what did/would you do?

Tell me about a time a conversation with a customer started to go wrong and what did you do to bring it back on track?

Again, a little bit of all of the above plus showing the ability to “save” a conversation, which given the way people use Bots is quite likely to happen. Should show a lot from the above questions, empathy, on-brand, and self-reflective i.e. they realised where perhaps they set the customer off down the wrong path using jargon etc and of course, how they saved it.


Got any more you would suggest or feedback on the above? Would be glad to hear from you.

Having recently been through the process of setting up an agile squad to support the development of a chatbot, I thought I’d share some of the key steps and roles that are part of that process.


Having enjoyed AI Day(s) here in Auckland, despite forewarning the team, it was clear that specific experience-based answers to the nuts and bolts of Chatbot design and build are not available, simply because we’re all still figuring it out!

So, in a series of posts, I will run through the key learnings, roles and actions required that have enabled me and my team to succeed in building a web-based text chatbot.

If you have any questions, please do feel free to get in touch. Naturally, some business-sensitive elements will be missing but I’ll do my best to be as transparent as possible.

Off we go!

Hasan Minaj – Homecoming King

So, I started with Seinfeld. A little coffee, a few laughs and a Ferrari. Good start to the day, and he’s talking to Hasan Minaj, who I know from the Daily Show. Sharp, fast, smart and damn funny. Talking about a special on Netflix, hmm, sounds fun, fire that up.

However, you really need a run up to this.

This is not not what you may be expecting, it’s so much better. Yes, sure it’s quick fire but the writing, emotion and honesty are breathtaking. Oh, and it’s really really funny.

The comedy touchstones of family, childhood trauma, the awkwardness and more are parsed through the life of an immigrant family in America but given current climate Hasan’s Muslim upbringing is doubly charged. However, his bridging of worlds serves to remind that we all tread parallel lines. There are some killer lines in the show but it works so well as a whole. Very well written, touching and I came away not only with a smile on my face but having learned, or rather been reminded of some home truths.

This show reminded me of one of my favorites, which is Robin Williams’ show in NYC ending with his son holding his hand. This is up there. Powerful, funny as heck, truthful, emotionally connective, and it’s exciting to see what Hasan will do next.

Streaming on Netflix now.

The Defiant Ones

Ah, the story behind Dr Dre and Jimmy Iovine. Been planning to watch this for a while, but busy busy with the chatbot world. Thankfully, Christmas brings break time and so I’m neck deep in books, film and tv, I want to catch up on.

I only really knew the headlines to their stories. Springsteen, music labels, East coast, West coast rap, headphones and billion dollar deals.

What this 4-part series does brilliantly is simple, get to the people behind the headlines and get those folks around the main protagonists to fill in the gaps. It helps when those folks are Gwen Stefani, Bono, Eminem and Snoop!

What emerges are the two main players could not be more different or more perfectly suited to each other. Iovine is clearly a business monster but blessed with an instinct like no other, while Dre is simply a genius who doesn’t take anything for granted and works so hard that at times it threatens his home life.

The music involved is peerless and every time you’re sitting back and saying wow, here comes another hit. Snoop? Bam, Tupac? Bam, Eminem.

Both are clearly forces of nature, but the way they click into gear with each other and reinforce each other is amazing to watch. All set against a backdrop of incredible money-making in the music industry (CDs), followed by the collapse (Napster) and then the shift into technology (headphones) and of course working with Apple.

Dre emerges as the easier one to know, who let’s folks in, who starts with emotion and people and learns business. While Iovine starts with business but is clearly still struggling with people.

A fascinating 4-hour watch that leaves you with the sensation that the story of these two is from over.

The Defiant Ones is available to stream on Netflix.

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