Chatting up your software

Do your remember the old Kings Quest and Space Quest games from Sierra where you had to type in commands to get the characters to do anything? Years after finishing Space Quest 3: The Sarien Encounter I found myself building a conversational user interface for beauty salon booking software.

So i focused on reducing the ‘infuriating’ part….

The client and our technical architects loved the idea of a “conversational booking” interface, so I reinterpreted the classic command prompt with tactical overlays and added flexibility. My goal boiled down to building an experience that kept spa receptionists confident in their skills as they learned how to schedule appointments with a hyper-efficient type-as-you-think user interface.

I worked out all the details of a critical user interface element called the Conversation Bar. Here’s some of the key stuff I had to watch out for:

  • Software that takes in human-readable sentences instead of clicks can be infinitely flexible, but it can also give users enough rope to hang themselves nearly instantly. Whatever design we devised had to seamlessly incorporate an everpresent learning aid, so that users can get started quickly and gradually become more skilled as time goes boy.
  • Anyone that uses a command line terminal can understand that text-based instructions can get crazy long. This software attempts to let users type in natural english sentences, which are even longer. We need to introduce mnemonics and shortcuts to let the user type out complex requests quickly. And whatever these shortcuts are, they must be learnable, per the first point above.
  • Keeping with the theme of lessening the intimidation factor, this software needs to allow users to seamlessly switch to/from a traditional a traditional mouse-based interface. This will help novice learners transition fearlessly.

What we ended up designing was a clean and inviting interface that held the novice’s hand and gradually ‘let go’ as they became seasoned experts. The system detects when the user is not using the most efficient interaction and displays subtle hints to remind them of the shortcuts and phrases that can speed up their experience. We wanted the software to proactively manage the learning curve, so we looked at three specific levels of expertise:

Beginners — They’ll start off where they feel most comfortable (with the mouse), so the software features a hero “Action” button that lets them trigger a command (e.g. booking a new appointment).

   

Intermediate — As stylists and receptionists get more comfortable with the system, they’ll start to use the Conversation Bar and type full sentences. the application will help them along by showing text hints in the Conversation Bar when they use the mouse. the text shown in these hints will teach the user the words they can type to trigger the equivalent action.

 

Advanced — Seasoned experts will want to complete their tasks faster than they can type. to help them do that, the Conversation Bar allows the user to describe very complex operations with shortened sentences and use abbreviated codes.

   

The last wireframe here shows how users can put their tasks on hold to work on something more urgent. The layout I designed ensures that each task in the queue is represented by the sentence that describes it.