Conversation analysis and conversation design: Where the moonshots are

Moon and rocket monochrome

1. Designing for recipients

‘Recipient design’ is the conversation analytic term for the communicative practices people use to tailor the design of their talk for — and show their ‘orientation and sensitivity’ to — the person they are talking to. Given the infinitely extendible ways in which people can put together every conversational turn — from how they say ‘hello’ to how they make a request — every turn reveals something about recipient design. People select words and discuss topics all “with an eye to who the recipient is and what the recipient knows about the reference”. So, if a speaker says, ‘Jane came for dinner’, they are treating their recipient as knowing who ‘Jane’ is. If a speaker knows that their recipient does not know Jane, they might refer to ‘Jane from the office’ or use a recognizable category in saying that ‘a colleague’ came for dinner. Not only do people design turns for what they take their recipients to know, they also orient to recipient design by correcting what they say mid-utterance (e.g., “I was talking to Jane and she said — the woman at my office — and she said”).

2. Designing compound conversations

For a truly human interaction, CUIs need to embed what we know about ordinary yet potentially complex conversational structures. One example is what conversation analysts call ‘compound turns’, in which two or more speakers jointly produce one syntactic unit together across two or more turns. The final product is something that just one speaker could produce, but it is done chorally (data are in US English):

3. Designing the routine to achieve the extraordinary

Conversation analysts are sometimes accused of studying the mundane in too much depth — after all, this is just talk. Emanuel Schegloff (1986) wrote that, “if talk on the telephone may initially appear unworthy of sustained scrutiny, the beginnings of its episodes may intensify this sense of unworthiness” (p. 112). It is in these beginnings that reciprocal greetings (“Hello!”, “Hi!”) and ‘how-are-yous’ are exchanged. Schegloff describes these highly systematic components of conversational openings as mundane, ‘ritual’, ‘virtually automatic’ and almost ‘pre-scripted’ — but that their presence achieves the routine. How do you convey you’re angry with the person you are calling, or are in a rush, or that something is an emergency? You dispense with greetings and ‘how are yous’ or do not reciprocate them. When any components are missing, we can infer that this conversation is not routine.

Transcript of a call to the police
Transcript of a call to the police
You can listen to this call on YouTube, as used in an anti-domestic violence campaign.

Shooting at the moon

Our aim in this article is to prompt discussion about what is needed in the conversational AI and conversation design domains to produce CUIs that are able to have a “half decent coherent conversation” — and to think about which of the ordinary yet complex things that people do might be a goal for the future. We have argued that Gricean assumptions may facilitate task-specific communication, but not moment-to-moment conversational inference. Conversation design already goes some way to achieving recipient design, but it could be embraced much more radically.

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Elizabeth Stokoe

Elizabeth Stokoe

Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University, specializes in conversation analysis, communication training, & science communication.