Openings (Inge updated this)

Conversation openings are a standard way of starting a conversation.

This section and the next pages describe the parts of an opening and examples of openings. In the OpenDialog platform, the opening is implemented in the Welcome conversation.

Openings are important

Every aspect of conversation design is important and the overall goal is to provide an engaging and intuitive user experience.

The opening however, is particularly important for a number of reasons:

  • User's familiarity with the virtual assistant as a channel to communicate with a brand. Many users have used chatbots in the past; according to one source ( 88% of respondents had at least one conversation with a chatbot in 2022. While that is encouraging, it doesn't mean that all users are familiar enough with assistants to feel entirely comfortable with them. Think about how comfortable many users now are with websites and mobile apps. That wasn't always the case however. Most users are only just starting to become comfortable with virtual assistants

  • User's perception of virtual assistants and willingness to use them has been improving. (need reference). However, many users have had poor experiences with conversational assistants and may be hesitant to use them, instead favoring other channels

  • The opening is the start of the conversation, and sets the tone for the interaction. As such, there is a lot of focus on getting this part right. There is a visual aspect to text-based interactions that matters, but the language and dialogue itself are critical, along with the personality and tone

The first impression a user has goes a long way towards their acceptance and continued use, throughout the single session and influencing their willingness for future interactions.

Transactional versus relational mode

When someone is in a transactional mode, they are motivated to get to the actual transactional need quickly. As a result, they may skip parts of a common opening sequence to jump right into the first topic.

Here is an example of a bot in transactional mode:

< user launches bot on a retail website >

Bot: Welcome! Here's what I can help you with: order status, store hours, and a shopping assistant.

In this example, the conversation opens with a short greeting, and the assistant then jumps straight to offering help, i.e. the transactional need.

For contrast, some bots (and people in general) prioritize relational work in openings, operating in a relational mode. Here is an example of a bot in relational mode, taken from the mental health app Woebot:

< user launches bot in the mental health app Woebot >

Bot: Hi, I’m Woebot 👋 What should I call you?

User: Joseph

Bot: I’m excited to get to know you, Joseph!

Bot: While you might not be feeling your best lately…

Bot: I wanted you to know I have the tools to help you feel better. We can work on this together.

Here, the conversation opens with a greeting (“Hi”), a self-identification (“I’m Woebot”), a wave (“👋 “), and a name request (“What should I call you?”). After giving a name (“Joseph”), the bot expresses enthusiasm for building the relationship, empathy for the user’s emotional state, background on the bot’s abilities (“tools to help you feel better”), and an emphasis on the collaborative nature of the work (“We can work on this together”). Woebot is doing conversational work to establish a relationship between the user and the character.

This relationship is central to the mission of Woebot, using mental health tools in the context of a therapeutic relationship to improve the user’s well-being. This conversation opening in relational mode reflects much of what happens in human-human conversation openings. Identification of the participants in the conversation is common in openings, saying who each person is, including their name, role, affiliation or more.

In short, relational mode is the full conversational experience; transactional mode is an expedited form that skips some of the relational work to jump straight to the task.

Considerations for openings

To understand conversation openings then, it’s key to determine to what extent they need to be included, if at all. If the context suggests a transactional mode, the opening can be greatly reduced, or (perhaps) skipped. Skipping the opening is a way of establishing transactional mode (p457, Dempsey “Are You a Computer?”). Behaving this way could be seen as rude or as efficient, depending on circumstances. It generally suggests that you don’t expect to see each other again. Such a transactional interaction is a way of avoiding a full conversation.

A conversation partner may respond to a transaction bid by accepting the transactional mode and simply answering the transaction request. On the other hand, you may want to shift the mode to a relational one, redefining the relationship. This can be done by adding in more opening items, or by being more verbose in the opening items. A transactional bot may choose to add more relational components. However, one must consider the audience and their appetite for a possible switch; as much as a purely transactional approach may seem rude, a switch to a relational approach may seem cumbersome and as getting in the way of completing the task. It is important to get user feedback on the opening prompt to maintain the balance between a transitional versus a relational approach. This will be different for each assistant, task, and brand.

Transactional versus relational mode sounds like a binary, but it’s actually more of a continuum. The more relational work you do in an opening, the more you are in relational mode. Do you have greetings, identifications, background and footing, and how-are-you’s? More relational. Do you have a greeting only? Less relational. Do you start with the first topic, the reason-for-the-call? Least relational, i.e. transactional.

User-initiated versus assistant-initiated

Conversations could be triggered by either a user action or by the bot itself. If a user launches a web page, they may not be aware there is a bot waiting for them. In this case, the bot may initiate the conversation by launching a chat window. Bot-initiated conversations could also come from notifications or contextual triggers (e.g. “it’s time to do your daily check-in”). In many cases, however, the user will be the one initiating the conversation. In this case, the user could start with relational moves like greetings (“Hi!”), well-wishing, and so on. The user may also jump straight to the transactional need, much like talking to Alexa or Google Assistant to e.g. set an alarm. No need to say hello, just say “Alexa, set an alarm for 6pm”.

If the user starts in relational mode, using greetings and identifications, the bot can match that. If the user starts in transactional mode, e.g. asking “what’s my account number”, the bot can simply complete the transaction, e.g. answering the questions.

User info: new versus returning versus frequent (and beyond)

Conversation openings also vary depending on the history between the user and the bot. A conversation is likely to open differently if it is the first time the user has ever talked to the bot (a new user) versus if the user has talked to the bot before (a returning user). At a simple level, the conversation opening can make reference to the shared context, e.g. the user’s name, previous activities, user preferences, and more. For example, it can be useful to follow up with the user about a previous interaction, or welcome them back. The contextual intelligence (how long it’s been since they last talked) can help build the relationship and establish the bot’s credibility.

A simple contrast between new and returning users still glosses over a huge amount of variation in how the conversation might open (cf. Maaike Coppens). A returning user that talked to the bot once before has different conversational expectations than a returning user who has been talking to the bot daily for months. The depth of context between bot and user affects the opening, and that depth can grow along a continuum of complexity.

There may be a lot of variation in how much you know about individual users. Some users may be pretty unknown, while you may have a lot of information about others. This user information could come from a long user history (i.e. a returning user), but it also could be supplied via an API, from a separate registration process, from contextual information like geolocation, and more. You may know a lot about a new user because the info is passed along, and you may know little about a returning user because the data isn’t saved! That said, having a user’s name, their preferences, their purchase history, their conversational style, and more can all affect how to open a conversation.

The End of the Opening

The end of the opening occurs when the conversation moves on to the first topic. In telephone conversations, this is called the reason-for-the-call, the time when the participants get down to business. Shifting from preliminaries to the first topic is the marker that the conversation has moved from the opening to the body of the conversation.

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