Message shaping

While the cognitive ability of Conversation is what sets it apart from other chat bots, the skills in message shaping can even the odds. It is a common technique used in customer support when you need to give a hard message.

From a Conversation point of view, it allows you to dramatically reduce the level of work required to build and maintain. As well as improving customer satisfaction.

So let’s start with what is message shaping. Take this example: You own a pet store chat bot and the user says:

I wish to buy a pet.

You can start with “What kind of pet?”. Here you have left the users response too open. For a cognitive system, this on the face of it isn’t an issue as a well trained Conversation will handle this well.

But even if it does it still leaves you open to a lot of responses.

  1. “What pets are there?” – Simple answer. Minimal work.
  2. “What pet suits me?” – A process flow to determine this. Medium work.
  3. “I want to buy a panda” – An endangered species. Again possible simple answer.
  4. “I want to buy a puppy” – More details required. Medium work.
  5. “I haven’t thought about it” – Could be simple or complex.
  6. “A pet that is popular for millennials” – Now it starts getting crazy.

You will be driven to insanity trying to cater for every possible response coming back from the user. Even if you get a good response like “I want to buy a puppy” you may need to walk through to and fro, only to find that you don’t have that pet in the store to sell them.

So you can reduce complexity by taking control of the conversation. First you need to examine what the user hasn’t said. They haven’t said what kind of pet. This means they are unsure on what they want to get.

As a pet store owner, you know that certain pets are good for certain living conditions. So you can reduce and control the direction by saying something like:

I see you are maybe unsure about the pet you want. I can recommend a low maintenance pet, which are good for apartments or busy lifestyles. Or a high maintence pet which is good for families with a home.

Here you have given two options which dramatically narrow the scope of the next response from the user. It is still possible someone may go off script, but it is unlikely. If they do you can do a conversational repair to force them back into the script.

As the flow progresses, you can push the user to pets that you are trying to sell faster.

In doing so however it is important to understand that the end user must have free will, even if it is an illusion. For example if the person wants a puppy, it may be that a certain breed is not available. Rather then saying they can’t have that breed, offer other breeds.

If you give no options to the user, it leads to frustration. Even if given options which are not what the person wants, it is still better then no option. Actually if you shape your messages well you can give two options which lead to the same outcome, and the end user will still feel like they are in control.

Shaping through UI

Another advantage of message shaping is avoiding having to code complex language rules (Intents, Entities, Regex, etc).

For example:


Now you can see that the end user has not supplied all credit card information. You would need to code complex flows to cater for this. The information is clearly visible, and it could become a nightmare to parse to have it anonymised.

To solve all of this you can use the UI to force the user to structure their own data.


Watson Virtual Agent actually does this out of the box for a number of common areas.

Buttons are for apps, not for conversing.

For UI related prompts, try not to overdo it. For structured data it is fine. For buttons it can also be fine, but if you overdo it then it does not feel intelligent to the end user. As it starts to feel more like an application, the users have different expectations of the responses they get back.

Practise makes perfect

Don’t be fooled that this is easy to do. Most developers I have seen work with conversation fall back to looking for a technical solution, when only changing how you speak to the end user will suffice.

Even people working in support can take 6 months to a year to pick up the skills from no experience. Although it can be a bit harder having to do it on the fly versus creating a script.

For more reading on techniques, here is some stuff to get you started.

2 thoughts on “Message shaping

  1. Hi there, wondering if you had any sample scripts on how you would implement the credit card capture within the Watson conversation, thanks

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