The (Ancient) Art of Conversation: Styling Beyond the GUI

What happens when your ability to persuade *is* your UI?

Looking to antiquity to reframe our vision of the future, this talk uses the 5 Canons of Rhetoric from ancient Greek philosophy as a framework to examine how we will design and build chatbots, hybrid UIs, and hidden UI interactions going forwards.

Invention, Style, Arrangement, Delivery and Memory: these canons were conceived to win hearts, minds, and votes. In digital, our measures of success are engagement, traction and conversion – and when our computing interactions are reduced to simple conversations, our entire arsenal may once again be rhetoric. Let’s learn what philosophy can teach us about designing for the future of computing.

Let’s think about how bots and conversational interfaces could look like in the future.

First though, let’s go back in time to ancient Greece and the beginning of democracy. There was an argument going between Plato and the Sophists, who were teaching rich people to speak in public. They were the dark pattern designers of the day; and Plato worried they’d fool people into making decisions against their own interests. Aristotle rejected Plato’s view and wrote a book about persuasion (The Art of Rhetoric).

Part of the idea was persuasion at scale: how to convince a large number of people to do something. This is basically the same thing people are trying to achieve with chat bots and other conversational interfaces like recommendation engines.

Conversational UI has had a lot of bubbles and fizzles. People don’t have a good reason to trust bots or expect a good result. Some of these failures can be solved by finding new heuristics. We can look to those early philosophers for inspiration.

(NB: Laura warns this is cherry picking the most relevant parts, not a full brief on Greek philosophy. It’s worth reading further if you are interested. Although perhaps not diving straight into the original texts which tend to be pretty dense language.)

Aristotle’s Rhetoric has three rhetorical appeals:

  • Logos – the use of logical argument (convincing people with facts)
  • Pathos – the use of emotion (convincing people by evoking an emotional response, which can be both positive and negative emotions)
  • Ethos – the degree to which the audience perceives the speaker as credible. Intrinsic ethos comes from the domain; while extrinsic are signifiers like “I have been working in the field for 20 years”.

The five cannons of rhetoric (Cicero in ancient Rome)

  • invention – finding an interesting way to get into the domain (comedians do this a lot)
  • arrangement – the order of the speech. In form design, clustering related fields contextually is an example.
  • style – the design of the language you can call on (Bus Uncle tells you about public transport but trolls you at the same time)
  • memory – recall, the ability to recall the speech; having a bot remember previous conversations
  • delivery – the tone, the speed and inflection of the speech

A challenge and an opportunity – conversational UI can be deep or shallow, it can adapt to context.

One thing to take away: you already are a great orator, you are using rhetoric in your marketing. A good book to read is Words Like Loaded Pistols

We should one day expect our interface to communicate with speech and reason, not just colour and shape.