Reflecting on 1 year as a full-time conversation designer

Celebrating my CxD anniversary with another blog post

blog post banner. elaineinthebay logo sits at the bottom. text reads, “CxD anniversary: reflecting on one year.”

Yesterday February 16, 2022 was finally my 1 year work anniversary at NLX! I say “finally” because this has been the only job in my life where I’ve religiously celebrated each work monthiversary as a major milestone. If you follow me on Twitter, you might’ve seen me post about it a few times (or maybe every single month for the past year).

I’ve previously written about where I was as a designer prior to joining NLX, as well as the lessons I learned after 6 months on the job, and now that I’ve made it to 1 year I figured I would share another set of learnings and update y’all on what it means to me to be a conversation designer today.

What’s changed since month 6

Teach a man how to fish 🐟

I initially joined NLX as the founding designer or more specifically, the only conversation designer at the company. A few months into my role, I was joined by my colleague, Cecilia Bolich, who came to my team with an amazing background in instructional design. A lot the work that came out of the team was a dynamic and evolving collaboration across design disciplines— a solid blend of function and delight. You can listen more about our design thinking perspectives in the coffee chat we recorded last year!

Well, to skip ahead a bit, my conversation design team was reduced once again to a team of one. The new challenge became: how to scale my efforts while we figured out how to grow the team.

I started with one lesson. It was a quick interaction between me and a colleague outside of my department. We were pressed for time, but I wanted to make sure I gave out a few tips & tricks on how to create a smooth and purposeful Voice Compass journey, instead of making all of the changes to the experience myself. It ended up being a great learning experience for the both of us! And it inspired me to keep going. Like my ex-coworker Cecilia loves to say: “Teach a man to fish.”

printed note reads, “Buy a man eat fish, He day, Teach fish man, To a lifetime.”
truer words have never been spoken /s

Since then, I have made it my personal mission to distribute knowledge across the company: knowledge about our conversational tools as well as conversation design best practices. I recognized pretty quickly I couldn’t be everywhere. I wouldn’t always be able to take every call or help out on every single project. What I can do though, is share the knowledge I have to as many teams as possible to ensure a level of consistency in our work output and to make sure everyone understands what makes certain conversational flows sound good. Between the start of 2022 and now, I’ve conducted 2 internal workshops, 3 design process walkthroughs, 1 all hands presentation (first slide included below), and I have a few more education related projects in the works.

presentation slide for elaine’s conversation design presentation to NLX. at the bottom, a note reads: “What does elaine do all day?”
what does elaine do all day?

It gets lonely at the top 😉

Conversation design is not a lonely role per se. Like any UX role, your work revolves around developing relationships and maintaining alignment with your stakeholders. Designs thrive on feedback, and if you’re a conversation designer, you need to be ready to not only explain your decision making, but to consistently ask for feedback as well. You’re never truly alone in the design process, but for my personal preference, I felt I was too far away from the *action*.

I didn’t have colleagues I could see every day. My team of 1 was floating in the space between “Product” and chaos. Suddenly, requests fell on my lap not in the form of a ticket (important because these can be tracked), but rather through word of mouth. It also gradually became harder and harder to maintain any semblance of a work routine. The majority of my updates were asynchronous and, working at a remote-first company, this was a little hard for me because suddenly the bulk of my interactions were strictly professional. Who would laugh at my memes?

a photo gallery of multiple screenshots of elaine in different google meet calls, spread out over the past year. some photos show elaine with a seasonal virtual background, like for halloween and christmas.
working remote-first be like

Lately (thankfully), this has changed. It’s good to remember to be vocal not only about your project needs, but your own professional needs as well. Which I did. Now… I have a team again! Conversation design is officially part of one of our product teams. Maybe this is a small update, but it’s been so fun working in sprints again. Plus, I love having daily standups! I missed people.

Work is work, even if it doesn’t get shipped 🛳

The hardest lesson I had to learn as a designer was to value my work, all of my work, including the designs that didn’t make the light of day.

The first 6 months of my role, a lot of my work was pre-sales. There was a consistent influx of projects with 1–3 weeks turnaround time. A few months back, that changed for me. As it usually goes with all startups, we work, evaluate, reorganize, and pivot if needed. And we grow! I may have joined as employee #8, but the team has grown a lot since. With that, the work gets redistributed in new ways. New works also starts rolling in.

My new workload had me working on more longer-term projects and really giving me the chance to invest the time, resources, and planning needed to execute conversational applications at a more mature level and larger scale. It’s been great, creatively. But at the time of the shift, I was super intimidated. Suddenly, I was being given all of this huge responsibility and I didn’t have a mountain of experience or shipped products to fall back on. Or so I thought. The more I worked on these new projects, the more I realized I didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. I could pull from bits and pieces of bot dialogues I had already written, reuse components, or clone parts of prior flows directly in the console.

Conversation design is tricky that way. Sometimes it’s hard to measure your growth because there is no direct visual representation of that progress. It’s not like UI design: where at a glance you can see someone’s mastery of visual design based on how cleanly content is laid out on screen, the intentional use of typography, and other key markers you can observe at a glance. Instead, you can measure your growth in conversation design by other factors: how quickly you can sketch out a new flow, how many templates you have to fall back on, and how strong your relationship is with your stakeholders, specifically with your engineering team, who will inform you of the technical requirements and limitations of everything you create.

Keeping strong relationships with everyone on a project will help you be more realistic about how much you can do on your own. Here’s an example list of questions I use to ground myself before starting anything new. If you can answer these questions, you’re on the right track:

  • Do I know how to seek out all of the resources I need to create this design?
  • Do I know who to reach out to in order to complete [x] task?
  • How early do I need to loop in [x] team(s) in the design process?
  • Who has access to my work, and what do they have access to? Do I need to accommodate for people outside of the company?
  • What’s the timeline for this project and when am I expected to complete each stage of the design process?
  • What are my stakeholders’ preferred conversational styles and how do I best communicate my design decisions using their language?
  • What do/will I need feedback on and how can I drive the discussion to get more concrete feedback on [x]?

What I’ve accomplished

Being a “public” persona, I’ve found it much more difficult to toot my own horn. I don’t like boasting about myself by nature, and sometimes when I get praised for something at work my gut reaction is to be like, “I just did my job, there’s nothing special about that.” Let me move away from that for a moment. Here are some things people have said about my work in the past year that give me the warm fuzzies:

Elaine is calm and assuring in front of the customer as well as knowledgeable and confident in her subject matter that the client feels at ease learning what has been delivered and why.

[She’s] a great communicator. You don’t become a blog goddess without having some skills in that area, and she excels in it.

She knows her onion, understands her audience, and delivers accordingly. If you ever get to work with her, you will be amazed.

Thanks for all your hard work and contributions to NLX. [Elaine has] made a palpable impact, not just not to the business, but also to our culture.

What I’m still learning

I’ve spoken quite a bit on the topic of what multimodal design means to me, but to be honest, I’ve only really talked about it from the perspective of a solo designer. Multimodal design, in general, is hard to scale. Now that I’m not leading every single design aspect of our Voice Compass journeys, from pixels to voice track, I’ve had to reevaluate how I think about multimodality and how I can support and collaborate with my teammates, in particular, the other designers on these projects. This is actually a really exciting problem for me. Every week brings new learnings and I can’t wait to see what refinements we’ll make to our design process!

This is also the point in my career where I’m asking myself (quite often) what distinguishes a junior conversation designer from a more senior conversation designer. I know it when I see it, but it’s hard for me to put it in words. It’s similar to how I feel when I review a bot prompt that is intended for voice but written for chat. I know it when I read it, but it’s hard for me to explain my rationale beyond saying something along the lines of: “when I listen to it in my head, it’s sounds off.” These are topics I’d love to explore in much more detail this year.

What’s next for elaineinthebay

Aside from my full-time job, I frequently share my day to day struggles and adventures as a conversation designer online. It started out as a diary of sorts, with no expectation that anyone would actually be interested in reading what I was sharing. It’s now grown into something much bigger than that. In the past year, I’ve: led 1 public workshop, given 6 live talks, done 3 video interviews, and been featured in 2 podcasts. Every other week I’m surprised by someone I haven’t met before dropping me a note saying they know who I am and like what I’m doing. It’s fun, it’s daunting, and everything in between.

At the moment, I don’t have any long term plans for elaineinthebay. I will continue as I have been: sharing content whenever I can, prioritizing first my health, my job, and my personal life. I recently shared plans of a new side project I’m working on for the conversation design community called convofolios, a place for conversation designers to showcase their portfolio and see examples of other portfolios that conversation designers have used professionally. It’s a stretch goal. I don’t know when I’ll be able to complete an MVP and officially “launch” the site, but rest assured that when I do, you’ll be the first to know.

One last thought

It’s been a whirlwind of a year and honestly, I’m extremely grateful to be where I am today. In any other job, I would be celebrating my 1 year work anniversary feeling relieved I hadn’t been terminated (that contract life though). I’m happy to finally be at a point in my career where I can put in my best absolute effort, not my best minimum effort. To anyone considering conversation design as a career, let me tell you: it may be be a lonely journey at first (especially if you’re working at a startup), but it’s so worth it.

The work of a conversation designer has value because it makes people feel valued (heard) and the world needs more conversation designers.

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