Can you imagine sitting in a bank, being the first line of contact, talking with people, hearing all their complaints, trying to get them throughout the gauntlet of bureaucracy and automating your own responses as a live chat agent? That’s how Henry Ginsburg spent several years over the last decade. While it doesn’t sound very exciting, it prepared him to a profession that wasn’t even existing back then, but one that he masters nowadays: a conversation designer. Ginsburg, a graduate of University of Nebraska, is now operating Michelle, the chatbot for University of the People – helping people get an American accredited, tuition-free degree, completely online anywhere in the world.
• HOW DID YOU GET INTO CONVERSATION DESIGN?
It was the project that fell into my lap, I suppose. I started my last position at University of the People as a digital marketing coordinator. And so I’d host webinars and kind of pick up little side projects that come up and so the chat bot kind of came, and I was asked to start it and then as the chatbot continue to grow so did the role in the position. To where it turn into a conversation design position.
• WHAT’S THE PROJECT YOU’RE MOST PROUD OF?
Mostly I’ve been working on the bot for University of the People. I did have just a little couple side project I’ve been working on just to fine-tune my own skills and conversation design. Nothing that I’ve kind of like. I guess put out there more so just practicing my organization skills and putting them out there. Her name is Michelle, chatbot at University of the People so I guess I’ll have to go with that one.
💬 Previously on Taking Turns
Michelle Zhou: “Humans talking to machines are brutally honest”
Mary Tomasso: “Don’t just write a conversation – speak it”
Michelle Parayil: “Bad copy can ruin a customer’s day”
• WHAT’S THE ONE THING EVERY GOOD CHATBOT/VOICE ASSISTANT MUST HAVE?
It’s a two-part answer. First, like pre-defined goals, something that you want the chat bot to accomplish. And secondly kind of a re-engagement strategy. So that if it doesn’t complete that goal, you’re able to kind of keep the user interested until they complete the goal.
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• TELL US ABOUT AN AWKWARD, AMAZING OR SURPRISING THING THAT HAPPENED TO YOU while building your chatbot.
Being at an online university, we have a very worldwide target audience and so, just seeing how people from all these different countries are interacting with a chatbot versus how I might understand it, based on my background – being a fluent English speaker, understanding chatbots and how you’re supposed to use them. You’re able to see people that have maybe never even encountered one before so, Definitely I really enjoy like seeing that user experience of it.
• WHAT TIPS CAN YOU GIVE TO ASPIRING CONVERSATIONAL DESIGNERS, OR TO PEOPLE WHO WANTS TO start developing a chatbot?
There is plenty of platforms that you can kind of practice and just design on and build, some that are for free – they’re very limited, but you know you can get started. I would say, first find something that you’re interested in, that you might already know about or not know about so if you know a lot about brewing beer at home. You know, there are people out there that might have questions about that. So you can find out what questions people are asking online and just kind of start designing your own chatbot.
And with that, you can fine-tune your skills – I feel like just building a chatbot is a conversation designer’s portfolio. You know, that’s just what you have to show for your work – and so, if you want to get into the field, it’s kind of hard if you don’t have anything to really show what you know. I mean, writers, they just start writing. You know, it’s either a blog, short stories, poems – you just pick up a pen and start writing.
• TELL US MORE ABOUT “UNIVERSITY OF THE PEOPLE”.
So, University of the People is an online university, tuition-free, American accredited. Now, when I said tuition-free, a lot of people kind of assumed that means totally free which is a misconception. There is an application fee and an assessment fee per course, but still a bachelor’s degree ends up costing about $4,000. And there is financial aid scholarships grants that applicants and students can apply for.
It’s just a job that just… kind of happened. I seem to have a way of falling into these things. I’ve loved it, I have a great team. And I’ve been really able to watch it grow. Being a part of that has been a lot of fun.
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