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Want a better bot UX? Think like a game designer.

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​You are in a maze of twisty little passages, all alike. — Adventure

Image credit: Pexels

How many times have you gotten frustrated with Siri for not understanding what you said? How many times have you wanted to punch the screen after it kept telling you that your input was wrong? We’ve all been there, and this can be one of the biggest pitfalls to achieving a delightful user experience. As botmakers, our job is to lead the users toward their goals, not leave them confused. As it turns out, the world of gaming can offer some time-tested insights on how to interact with users. In particular, we’re going to look at the Interactive Fiction (IF) community, and how the strategies employed in early computer games can help you build better UX.

What is Interactive Fiction?

Readers of a certain age will remember the text adventure games of the 1980s that promised fantastical adventures using words on a screen and the power of imagination. There were no fancy graphics, no virtual reality, no cutting-edge visual experience. It was just…text. And you played the game by typing in text to the screen as well.

You could use commands like “get lamp”, “go west”, and “use key” to move around and interact with the world, solving puzzles and collecting items along the way. Even as the golden age of these text games faded away, there remained a dedicated underground following.

Twisty Little Passages

One of the first and most famous interactive fiction games was called Adventure and was created by Will Crowther. One of the common themes of the game is being stuck in a “maze of twisty little passages, all alike.” If you think about it, sometimes that’s what an unfamiliar application can feel like as well.

When a person first opens an app, game, or website, they have to make several split-second decisions about what the site’s purpose is and how to use it.

Are there visible links or buttons? How does navigation work? And most importantly, how can the person find the shortest path to their goal?

Players in IF (Interactive Fiction) games face the same choice. Only this time, they’re limited by a text box and a blinking cursor. You can type anything you want, but there are only certain patterns and commands that are recognized. A lot of times, trying to come up with a clever response in-game results in a confused parser and a “I’m sorry, I don’t know what that is.” message.

Sound familiar? Think about the rise of chatbots, voice-centered computing and our own ingrained ideas about how UIs work. How many times does your user end up getting the “I’m sorry, I didn’t quite catch that” response? And how can you mitigate that?

Different Types of IF

Parser-based IF games present their own set of UX challenges, but they provide an interesting framework to work within, as well. And with technological advancements over the years, parser-based IF is far from the only game in town anymore.

Choose Your Own Adventure books rose to fame in the 1990s and were targeted toward children. They had all manner of imaginative adventures with branching paths throughout the book. When the reader had to make a choice, the book would provide several options and direct them to flip to a certain page number to continue the story.

This allowed game designers to cut down on the free-form input problem, but it posed another: the games in CYOA, while branching, still formed a linear path through the story. There was not as much flexibility or freedom to come up with new ways to move through the world and solve the puzzles, but the instructions for interaction were very clear, leading to less user confusion and frustration.

Another model that has been popular in modern times is Twine and Twine-like games. These combine elements of the previous two modes by bringing the game back to the computer — more specifically, the web. The choices are laid out as links that direct the player to different parts of the narrative. Twine-like games can also track points, inventory, and skills like the IF games of old.

Solving UX Problems

How can these games teach us to solve people’s problems more cleanly and efficiently? Kilian Valkhof suggests that “Your chatbot should have a game loop” — but if you read the article, you’ll see that game UX logic can be applied to many design questions and topics. Here are just a few takeaways on how the user experience of IF games can apply to bot design:

Give users a choice

Your interface should have clear choices for the user, and denote the purpose of each. If you are implementing a more freeform input system like the parser-based IFs, you will need to learn how to handle malformed input and direct users toward the proper commands without frustrating them.


People want to feel heard and understood. You know what they don’t want? The bot yelling at them for the millionth time that they don’t understand. Build in ways to lead the user toward their goals, and provide empathetic error messages where necessary.

Tell a story

Each user’s journey through your bot is a story in itself, however small. Learn from the IF masters — what story do you want to take your users on? What experiences will they have along the way?

Branch where needed

Not every person is going to use your bot the same way. And that’s okay. Remember how the narrative branches out in CYOA books to include different paths through the same story? Let’s do that in our bots, as well.

Maybe the person is using assistive technology to fill out a form. Maybe they tap through a couple different menu items first. Maybe they switch apps mid-signup and don’t come back to your bot until later. All of these are valid paths toward our end goal (getting a user to sign up, in this case). This ties into our previous point, “Give users a choice.”

Now it’s your job to branch the onboarding flow where necessary. The more valid paths a user can take to reach their goal, the more likely they will make it there in the end. And the more roadblocks they encounter on the way, the more likely they will leave your bot…forever.

Have fun

At the end of the day, games are about fun. And when you bring an engaging, memorable user experience to your bot design strategy, people will keep coming back for more.

Next time your users are stuck in a maze of twisty little passages, ask yourself, “What would a gamer do?”

Want a better bot UX? Think like a game designer. was originally published in Chatbots Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Source: Chatbots Magazine

magnoliaWant a better bot UX? Think like a game designer.

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