6 months of Conversation Design

6 lessons learned over 6 months of CxD

photo credit: Polina Cherkashyna from VTG

It’s been exactly 6 months since I joined NLX (yes, I scheduled this to post on my monthiversary— yes, I’m #basic like that). If you read my previous blog post on my journery into this field, you’ll know that my job offer came almost immediately after I became a certified Conversation Designer. I essentially went from “sure, you know about this voice ux stuff” to “you’re our expert in Conversational UX” overnight. On top of that, I was also celebrating the fact that I landed my first full-time role in the tech industry. Having been a contractor for almost 3 years, it was a huge win and a much anticipated transition.

Was I prepared for everything that was about to land on my plate?
Short answer: no. Long answer: still no.

The Dunning-Kruger effect is real

While I won’t go into the details of how I personally found the job hunt, the main takeaway I had from that experience was this realization of: wow, people seem to really want to hire me. This was a good thing. Knowing I could pass technical assessments and video interviews gave me a newfound confidence in my abilities. It let me start off my job on a high note. I was the first Conversation Designer hired onto NLX’s “Conversational UX” team (party of one!), but that didn’t faze me. I was on a mission to ship amazing conversational experiences and to “make bots sound more human.”

It wasn’t long before I was pulled onto several projects and started carving out my own design process. My main focus for the first month was to get to know the product and to find my own way of shipping things on par with the level of quality of our previous work. This was daunting. It’s one thing to design for conversational products, but it’s another to design for multiple modalities, especially because my visual design skills were not where I wanted them to be when I started prototyping on our Figma. I wasn’t sure what Voice Compass® under my supervision would look or sound like, but I knew I had a supportive team and a net of resources to catch me if I fell.

unfinished horse drawing meme
being a junior designer often means your imagination far exceeds the execution

I will say this though: when I realized I didn’t know as much as I thought I did, I actually breathed a sigh of relief. I had been working non-stop for a few weeks and the last thing I needed was an unchecked ego running my creativity into the ground. And once the moment passed, I fell deep into the Dunning-Kruger valley of despair. :-)

a visual representation of the dunning-kruger effect
elaine’s present day is slightly above the valley of “oh my gOd do i even kNoW anything???”

It’s not that I froze or felt stuck in my work— the thing about falling into the valley of despair is that every day feels like a version of Groundhog Day. You’re left to spiral into a faceless void of doubt. Multiple times a week, I’d simply turn to my husband and say, “I don’t even know what I don’t know.” I wanted to learn and grow and pull myself out of this pit of no confidence, but without direct senior mentorship, I felt a little lost on how to do that.

Fast-forward 6 months, I’m a different Conversation Designer than the one who went into the job. I own my work, and feel more sure about the direction my team is taking. I know which areas I need to improve on and am not afraid to turn around and ask myself, “Was this great? How could this be better?”

For anyone out there who has fallen victim to impostor syndrome or has ever felt lost in their CxD journey, here’s 6 tips I learned over 6 months on the job.

Month 1: Learning is everywhere 🌎

At NLX, we say, “Be brave.” In your first month on the job, you’ve got to allow yourself to bravely make mistakes.

If you’re making mistakes and giving yourself that space to process and reflect on your errors, I swear to you, it’ll make you a stronger designer. Remember: at this moment in time, you’re actually not the expert of anything. Refer to your team or company and ask them about the groundwork they’ve already done, ask about the workflow, and ask for resources if you need them. Assume that great ideas can come from anywhere and that your mentors don’t necessarily need to have “designer” in their job title.

At the same time, if you do need some extra CxD in your life that you may or may not be getting already from seniors at your company, you’re always welcome to join events in the #Voice community. Within a month of starting my job, I volunteered for Botmock’s CxD virtual summit. It was truly the highlight of my month. I got to spend an entire day learning from the experts and making new friends.

converssation design summit 2021 volunteer social media badge
my volunteer “badge”

Month 2: Before you’re ready, see it through 🏁

If you’re a perfectionist, this one’s for you. Sometimes, we may trick ourselves to believe that the best version of our work is an uninterrupted stream of consciousness that results in a perfectly polished end product. Let’s be clear: there’s no such thing as perfect, especially as it relates to conversational experiences. Language is constantly evolving and technology itself doesn’t stay the same. A huge part of design is iteration and the knowledge that you’re never going to get it right the first time around.

Deliver your work before you’re ready. Of course, you also have to do your due diligence and make sure your work is aligned with the aim and scope of the project, but rely on yourself to see a project through from start to finish. This is such an understated confidence booster. Just knowing I could deliver something solo has since helped me lead projects I otherwise might’ve been terrified to do.

My proud moment from this month was delivering the design for the AWS LATAM CPG & Retail Voice Compass journey. It was the first time where the entire design process was up to me— flow, voice track, UI, you name it. I made it a point not to get hung up on the details, and I’m so glad I did.

a voice compass journey for small business owners with little to no literacy

Month 3: Teach others, teach yourself ✨

Time in a startup moves so much differently than time spent at a large company. I was 2 months in when we invited my teammate, Cecilia Bolich, as the 2nd designer on the Conversational UX team, but by then, it felt as though I had been part of NLX for double that amount of time. I was so excited to finally get to work and collaborate with a fellow designer day-to-day— key word: collaborate.

Although I did lead the Knowledge Transfer (KT), I knew this was not the time for me to step into the role of team lead. For month 3, my focus was to ensure I was still developing my skills as a designer and learning from Cecilia as much as she was learning from me. I had so much fun from our jam sessions as we both figured out the nuances of playing around with SSML and keeping the end user in our design process.

I was so inspired from this process of learning while teaching, that it sparked a fire in me to start sharing what I knew with the online world. I presented my first public talk at the April 2021 Lingofest, joined WiV as an ambassador for the Silicon Valley chapter, and participated in the Digital Assistant Academy hackathon where my team placed 2nd!

promotional graphic for the chatbot Aura, a companion chatbot to get you where you need to go, safely. highlighted text reads, “2nd prize winner, hackabot 2021”
team blob’s winning chatbot, Aura

I had an absolute blast at the hackabot, particularly because none of my teammates were experienced in CxD. So it was up to me to share the most essential knowledge on how to make our Aura chatbot more empathetic or helpful without leading my team astray. I could not have asked for a better team, or a better judging panel. My framework started shifting here from “bots should be quirky” to “bots should do what they say” in large part because of Jon Stine’s advice to make conversational applications actionable.

Month 4: More than 1 way to ask for help 👋🏼

On the surface, I was a one-woman-show out to *make it* in Conversation Design. Behind the scenes, I had finally moved past the “I don’t know what I don’t know” phase and into the “I know some of what I don’t know— how do I turn it into something I know?” stage. The answer was simple: ask for help.

Help is not always transactional. It’s not always a Q&A or a 1:1 meeting. The best kind of help is always relevant to your needs and your style of learning. For me, it meant (finally) purchasing my first CxD-related book, Conversations with Things, listening to the Voice This! podcast (Erika Hall’s episodes honestly gave me life 😭), and asking for direct feedback at work. If you’re shy about performance reviews, keep in mind: you’re only as successful as you allow yourself to be. If you skip asking for feedback and subsequently, asking for resources that will help you do your job, you might miss out on a smoother workflow or miss finding that next inspiration.

laptop open in a car. screen displays the pdf file of Conversations with Things
reading ‘conversations with things’ on the go is my favorite pastime

What really took me by surprise is how well openness is received. When you’re transparent about your needs or where you’re at, people respond— they want to help. I truly believe I would not be where I am today without everyone who reached out to me and supported me when I needed it most.

Month 5: Take a break when you need it 🏝

It may be fun to go, go, go all the time, but humans weren’t made for that. You have to rest and reset your brain, especially if you work in a creative field. The best decision I made during month 5 was to use some of my PTO to visit my parents and set my mind at ease on how they were after a year of lockdown.

Outside of work, I was still hustling. To be honest, I wasn’t aware of how much work it was to create content and I definitely overextended myself. Not only was I appearing publicly doing a workshop with Voiceflow, and accepting interviews like “Coming to terms with AI”, I was also writing blog posts and holding 1:1s with junior designers who had reached out to me over LinkedIn.

Needless to say, after coming back from the first-ever NLX corporate retreat, I cleared my calendar and went on a 3 week-long CxD hiatus.

at nlx we work hard, play hard, and have retreats in estes park

Month 6: Communication is key 🔑

The most important skill a Conversation Designer can have is their discourse. You could be scripting the most natural, most impactful conversational product of all time, but if you can’t explain the ‘why’ behind your decision-making, who knows if your design will even see the light of day.

The most important skill a Conversation Designer can have is their discourse.

Being able to effectively explain your work to others is the most crucial skill a CxD applicant can have, but one that’s pretty tricky to interview for. As a Conversation Designer, you have to be ready to hop on a meeting and answer all kinds of questions about your design to multiple stakeholders. It’s not just about describing your work as you would to a fellow designer.

The thing that helped me develop this skill the most was to delve into the business side of things. Thanks to the foresight I had in month 4 where I opened the discussion on resources I may need to complete my job, I am now working my way through the Parsons Product Design Essentials online course. A conversational experience is in itself, a conversational product, and learning more about product thinking has helped me familiarize myself with concepts I need to communicate to the more business-oriented at my company.

If you’re transitioning into the field and just started the interview process, watch my latest resource down below! I recorded a video with Botmock on how to prepare for CxD job interviews.

this video is full of juicy tips & tricks ✨

One last note

The day-to-day of a Conversation Designer could look very different across different kinds of companies. Your role might look vastly different from mine and the tools we might use to upskill and deliver our work may have no real overlap. That’s okay. Find what works for you! There’s endless resources out there to get the job done.

Acknowledgements

It also takes a village to “raise” a Conversation Designer. Here’s a list of people who in some way, shape, or form, helped me out on my CxD journey and inspired me to keep growing.

Brielle Nickoloff— Thank you so much for co-founding Botmock, the tool that jumpstarted my CxD adventure. It’s been so fun getting to learn from you and Botmock webinars. I’m also super in awe of your patience and diligence to get my t-shirts shipped & delivered!

Anna Rosen — Thank you for introducing me to Voiceflow, but more importantly, thank you for listening to my concerns as a junior designer and giving me advice on how to succeed in CxD interviews. Your words did wonders for my confidence!

Bradley Metrock— Thank you for reaching out & giving me access to the This Week in Voice newsletter when I was feeling discouraged about making it into the field. Your small action lifted my spirits up when I was feeling lost.

Dr. Joan Palmiter Bajorek— I’m forever grateful to you for making the introduction for me to NLX! I’ve grown so much since the time you and I first chatted about the role, and I couldn’t have done it without you or Women in Voice.

Abi Muñoz— Thank you for believing in me and helping me navigate the terror that is applying to jobs. Your optimism really shone through our conversations and gave me the strength I needed to stay positive.

Tim Bettridge, Polina Cherkashyna, and Guy Tonye— Thank you ALL for being the best CxD instructors anyone could ask for. I can’t tell you how many of the course learnings actually helped me complete a task at work!

Maaike Coppens— You are such a huge inspiration to me. Thank you for your knowledge, kindness, and for shipping those Open Dialog stickers from such a long way! Happy to keep learning from your journey.

Austin Bedford— Thank you for keeping our blog interview real and for making the conversation go both ways! I learned so much from our chat and look forward to seeing more of your amazing talks!

Tess Tettelin— You are the reason I started blogging on Medium ❤️ I learned so much from your writing & twitter posts, I was like, “Dang, I want to be like her when I grow up.” Thank you for sharing so much with the community!

Meredith Schulz— I absolutely adored our conversation and constantly find myself going back to it whenever I feel a creative drought. Thank you for teaching me the best kind of inspiration can come from anywhere!

Hillary Black— I’m still so so happy WiV chose you as my mentor. I admire and love your honesty and all the work you put into giving back to the community! You definitely inspire me to keep trying my best every day.

The entire team at NLX :) You have definitely raised the bar on what it means to work in tech. I feel so lucky to be surround by such dedicated & brilliant minds. If I love my job so much, it’s because of you all!

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