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Stefan Katz

Nov 19 · 10 min read

Photo by Erhan Astam on Unsplash

A chatbot’s personality is like Donald Trump’s Tax return — everyone’s talking about it, but no one’s ever seen it. Indeed, your last encounter with a chatbot or virtual assistant may have reminded you of the classic meme:

A wide range of personality guides have been written as chatbot developers continue to grapple with optimizing user experience through conversational interfaces. However, despite the vast range of information available, this conundrum is clearly as confusing as ever. As I wrote in 2018, a poorly defined personality is one of the top 5 reasons a chatbot will fail, and at the end of 2019, not much has changed in that regard.

In this article, I condense my learnings from the past few years of working with conversational AI with clients in New Zealand and Europe. I establish the importance of both a chatbot persona and personality, how to define them, and highlight opportunities to let them shine. My hope is to provide a one-stop guide to developing your ultimate chatbot personality.

But before we get started…

As chatbots become ever more prolific, their purpose has shifted. They have evolved quickly from a trendy display of “being digital” to an authentic extension of your brand through meaningful conversations with customers. Whether your chatbot answers queries, provides purchase recommendations, triages and resolves customer issues, or just engages in general chitchat, your chatbot must be acknowledged as a critical brand ambassador of your organization. As such, the same level of scrutiny must be applied to chatbot interactions as is given to more traditional brand experiences. Similar to an amazing interaction with a human customer service representative, exceptional chatbot experiences contribute to positive brand reinforcement and goodwill. The conversations your chatbot has with a user will, for better or worse, form part of the woven tapestry that is your brand and reputation.

Further, research shows that personality is a key driver of chatbot engagement and repeat use — both critical metrics to the success of a bot. Tuva Lunde Smestad found that chatbots with a well-defined personality scored higher “in all factors, pragmatic quality, hedonic quality and attractiveness” than a control chatbot. This intrinsically makes sense. With new human acquaintances, we are drawn in by compelling personalities and spend more time with those we find engaging. Likewise with bots, the duration of conversations and number of return visits is, all else equal, higher with chatbots that demonstrate a compelling personality than those who come across as robotic (excuse the pun), dull, or one dimensional.

When building an artificial version of an intrinsic human experience, taking a human-centric approach is critical. There are a number of factors to consider when designing the character with which users will interact. These include:

● What persona will it assume?

● What personality will the bot demonstrate?

● What avatar or visual identity should it carry?

There are a ton of great blogs by experienced visual designers on the third bullet point (such as this and this), so I will limit the scope of this article to points 1 and 2.

With real human interactions, we are engaged (or disengaged) not only by the person’s profile — their interests, hobbies, job, and passions, etc., but also by the way they act and react in different situations. Likewise, with chatbots, these factors must be designed with the end user in mind to maximize engagement. Unfortunately, many online sources on this topic confuse, or disregard, the difference between personality and persona. As such, let’s pause to define these concepts, and understand why this delineation matters.

A persona is the set of attributes that define one’s societal role, whereas a personality can be thought of as the unique combination of intrinsic emotional and behavioral drivers that are visible in the way we act in different contexts. For example, a persona can include things like one’s job, hobbies, interests, purpose and passions, while personality encompasses how one interacts with the environment around them.

To help bring this difference to life: at my firm, new joiners to our team are asked to prepare a one slide overview about themselves, and present this at the first team meeting they attend. Photos of their dog, maps of their hometown, and logos from their university or favorite sports teams are common. It is the information on the slide that forms (part of) their persona; it’s the way in which they present it that is a reflection of their personality.

Unfortunately, a lot of online content encourages readers to design chatbot personalities by considering what the bot’s favorite movie would be, or what sports team they would support, for example.

I would argue, however, that these are in fact attributes of a bot’s persona, and provide very little indication how a chatbot would converse with the user. A well-defined personality provides a framework for the nature of a bot’s response to user input, for example how agreeable, extroverted or neurotic the bot should be. But in responding to the question “Where would you like to go on holiday?” (we’ve seen much, much stranger, believe me), what should the bot actually say? This is why both persona and personality are important to design, when striving for a complete and engaging user experience.

Now that we’ve clarified the difference between persona and personality, and why it all matters, let’s dive into each.

Primarily, the purpose of creating and defining the persona of your chatbot is to have a strong understanding of its character. It might seem illogical assigning a persona to what boils down to a bunch of code, but ultimately, this helps provide a complete user experience. It doesn’t matter if your chatbot acts as Level 1 IT helpdesk support, makes sales on your eCommerce site, or answers employee questions about payroll, your chatbot will invariably fall off the ‘happy path’ at some point. Like human staff, your virtual staff will get distracted and deviate from the process they were built for. Why? Because the users will undoubtedly ask them other questions. “Where do you live?”, “What is your star sign?” and “Tell me a joke!” are all incredibly common user questions, regardless of the purpose or function of the bot. Having a well-defined bot persona will enable your bot copy writers to create responses to a wide range of possible questions with purpose, rather than falling back on error loops.

When defining your bot’s persona, first reflect on the following:

Your users — what are your customer segments and which ones will interact with a chatbot? What are their interests, hobbies, passions and other attributes? While everyone is unique, it is important to align the bot persona to resonate with your main user groups. Just see how successful you’ll be trying to sell jeans to teenagers through a bot that sounds like their mother. My guess is: not very.

Your brand what does your brand represent? If your brand was a person, what would they be like? This will likely overlap somewhat with the point above, but is an important extra check in the process. You wouldn’t want your bot to admit to illegal substance consumption, even if that’s how most of your users spend their Saturday nights, for an exaggerated example.

Your bot’s purpose — what is your bot’s raison d’être? What role has it been created to fulfill? As a balanced check to the above two points, consider what type of human role your bot is simulating, and ensure this reflected. The persona of a bot answering neighborhood noise complaints should have a different persona than one trying to up-sell rock concert tickets, for example.

You should strive to articulate your bot’s persona succinctly, in 1–2 slides. This clear understanding of who the chatbot is will act as reference material, enabling the team building the bot to create a consistent experience across all conversation flows and topics. Further, it will contribute to creating meaningful, engaging conversations with customers.

Below is a simplified example of a chatbot persona:

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