How Might We Design a chatbot to reduce the workload on conference organizers?
All the money baby! Adam is screaming into my ear. I drop the 200lbs weight stack on the floor as I finish my last squat. Over the years Adam has become more of a motivational guru for me than a gym trainer. After a silent 60 minute workout, Adam sensed that something was bothering me. We started talking and I told him I wanted to do meaningful work using my design skills. Work that will make me smile when I look in the mirror because I made a positive impact on the world. Adam paused and then asked me,
“Have you been giving back to the world?”
I didn’t have a reply for him. The next day I was having lunch with couple of designers. I asked everyone in the group which design conferences they were planning to attend in 2017. Suddenly, everyone in the group started googling the top design conferences to attend. I was hoping they would look up different conference websites and be excited by the amazing speaker lineups.
On the contrary, they started tearing apart these conference websites and critiquing the designs negatively. I was pissed. Most of the conference websites they had looked up were community run. Instead of volunteering design skills to help improve the conference website, everyone was just bitching! Having volunteered for the past three years at the Big Design Conference, I can share an amazing insight with y’all:
There is more work to be done at community run conferences than there are volunteers.
At that point, I made a commitment to myself that if I attend a conference whose mission resonates with me, I will volunteer my services to help out the conference organizers. The next conference I was planning to attend was the Information Architecture Summit(IA Summit).
By volunteering to help out the IA Summit, my goal was to reduce the workload on the conference organizers. The next part was to figure out how I could make the most meaningful contribution. At the same time my research on chatbots led me to an amazing insight:
Chatbots can do one to many contextual conversations.
I quickly realized that by using software such as chatbots I can maximize the extent of my contribution compared to standing at the conference help desk and answering attendee questions one by one. Suddenly, a switch flipped inside my head and I quickly wrote down the problem statement:
How Might We Design a chatbot to reduce the workload on conference organizers?
With the problem statement figured out, I shot an email to Dave Cooksey, co-chair for the conference and shared my idea about creating a chatbot for the IA Summit. Dave’s response was really encouraging and we jumped on a google hangout to discuss the details. During our conversation, Dave mentioned that the conference announcements were traditionally made over the podium which was not scalable. For example, if an announcement regarding a schedule update was made inside a conference room and the attendee was taking a break — the attendee would miss the update. Additionally, the conference needed a medium to help attendees coordinate logistics, say a group of attendees wanted to grab dinner together. This led us to use Slack as the official communication channel for the IA Summit.
Service Design for Chatbots
I would have been a fool to think that all I had to do was set up the slack infrastructure and then run a slackbot(chatbot for slack) on top it. How would I onboard the attendees to slack? How would the attendees use Slack and eventually interact with the slackbot? I realized quickly that I was actually designing a service and needed to consider the various different touch points in the service the attendees would interact with. This quote from the book ‘This is Service Design Thinking’ aptly sums up it up:
“Services are a series of interactions between customers and the service system through many different touchpoints during the customer journey.”
Below is a high level journey map I drew that points out the different touchpoints an IA Summit attendee would interact with while using the Slack service.
Setting up Slack
To keep the cost overhead down, I decided to use the free version of Slack and setup a slack team ‘2017 IA Summit’ for the conference. A potential downside with the free plan is that you can only search up to 10k of your team’s latest messages which is not a huge deal breaker.
The next step after setting up a slack team was to create channels. I and Dave listed down different ideas for channels in a google doc. A lot of the attendees would be using slack for the first time and we didn’t want for them to be overwhelmed with information. So we made sure that each channel was unique and serviced a specific purpose. We ended up with 7 channels — speakers, 1st-timers-dinners, announcements, helpdesk, intros, jobs, attendees. Out of these channels, only speakers and 1st-timers-dinners were private.
For the most part, we kept things pretty open on Slack. Attendees could create their own public and private channels. They could post on any channels except announcements. This was done deliberately so that organizers could post important conference updates in the announcement channels and not have to worry about the updates getting drowned in casual attendee banter. A brilliant suggestion from Daniel Newman that we implemented was to configure slack such that everyone had to use their first and last names by default instead of nicknames/twitter handles. This made it easier to track down and communicate with attendees on slack. For example, Dave’s name is visible as Dave Cookesy on IA Summit slack channels instead of his twitter handle saturdave.
I teamed up with the organizers and together we customized the slack loading screens to show attendees unique facts about Vancouver as well as the IA Summit.
Onboarding attendees to Slack
Dave used MailChimp to blast emails to all the attendees in batches to let them know that IA Summit will be using slack. The email also contained the link to the slack landing page I had created using Slackpass.
One of the reasons we chose to invite attendees in batches(organizers, volunteers, speakers, attendees etc.) is to give us opportunities to test our experience with early users and improve it with each round. It would take too much time for me to manually add each attendee one by one to the IA Summit slack channel. To automate this process, I used Slackpass to set up a slack landing page where attendees can enter their email address and they will receive an email with the invite to join our slack channel. The two-step process was necessary to make sure only the attendees joined the slack channel.
Despite going above and beyond to make the attendee onboarding process bulletproof, I knew I had to have a backup plan incase something went wrong. So, I decided to leave my email address on the slack landing page for the attendees to contact me if they encountered any issues. Less than 5% of the attendees encountered technical issues during the onboarding process and they emailed me. I am glad that I was able to quickly resolve their issues by manually adding them to slack.
Programming the Slackbot
Every team created on slack comes with a built in slackbot. You just have to type in the trigger words for the slackbot and the custom responses based on those words. I decided to use this functionality to build the IA Summit slackbot. Since this was my first time attending the conference, I needed the help of an organizer to help me understand the attendee demographics and conference hotel layout. Enter the awesome organizer extraordinaire Stuart Maxwell! He jumped on a Slack video call to help me understand these details.
Next, we focused on a set of themes for frequently asked questions from attendees. I had an initial idea because I had conducted a survey at the Big Design Conference and asked the attendees this question. Based on this the main themes we focused on were — schedule, food, bars, logistics(getting to the hotel/airport), technical issues, hotel layout, code of conduct. Then all we had to was identify the trigger words for the themes and the corresponding slackbot responses.
I also programmed a special keyword ‘slackbot commands’ so that attendees could understand what questions the slackbot could answer. We promoted the slackbot on twitter and slack channels to inform the attendees.
Minimum Delightful Product
When I recall some of the best applications/websites/experiences I have encountered — the one thing they all have in common is that they are delightful. They bring joy into my life and leave me in a happy place. Hence, I strongly believe that
“A designer should always strive to ship a Minimum Delightful Product(MDP) over a Minimum Viable Product(MVP).”
When I and Stuart were programming the slackbot, we used the word ‘wifi’ as the trigger keyword for attendees to request wifi information. So whenever an attendee typed the word ‘wifi’ in any of the channels, the slackbot would intervene and provide the details for the conference. We thought we had nailed it. However, our early group of attendees pointed that it was really a frustrating experience. Even when the attendees were having a casual conversation that involved the word ‘wifi’, the slackbot would interrupt their conversation and provide the conference wifi details. The attendees considered this behavior as rude and annoying because they were being provided information they had not even asked for. So we decided to try it for ourselves and began having random conversations about wifi in the slack channel. We immediately realized our mistake.
We changed the slackbot triggers for wifi from one word to sets of two words. For example, ‘wifi password’, ‘wifi login’, ‘hotel wifi’ etc. This way it would be harder for attendees to trigger the wifi keyword by accident. The slackbot would eventually go on to provide the conference wifi details for hundreds of attendees and save them a trip to the hotel information desk. That's delightful!
Slack was a huge success at the IA Summit. 372 out of the 512 attendees signed up for Slack. 8000 messages were exchanged!
Attendees used slack for a wide range of activities like coordinating logistics for lunch/dinner, planning city tours, tracking down individuals, sharing views on design trends, conducting surveys, requesting help, reporting technical issues etc.
Additionally, the IA Summit slackbot answered a lot of frequently asked questions from attendees and freed up the conference organizers to actually enjoy the conference they worked so hard to put together.
Love It or Lose It
As designers, we do a lot of work. But is that work meaningful? Does it create a positive impact in the world? Is it giving us fulfillment? Asking these questions from time to time will save us from tons of regret later. Hence, my new mantra:
Love It or Lose it!
If I don’t feel ‘hell yeah’ about an opportunity, I don’t even bother. As an essentialist, I believe in the relentless pursuit of less but better. I know I have to give up on the good opportunities to focus only on the great ones where I can make the most meaningful contribution. Volunteering for the IA Summit has been one of the most meaningful works I have done in the first quarter of 2017.
As the conference ended, I went to Dave and thanked him for giving me such an amazing opportunity to speak at the IA Summit. He smiled and said,
“Go do something great!”