The Cooperative Principle in Conversation Design

“Are You Sitting Down?”  

Let’s face it. Right now, most voice user interfaces (VUIs) fall short of the future we were promised by science fiction, surrounded by artificial intelligence and effortless conversations with clever robots and smart appliances. So how do we get there? For starters, we have to teach our machines to talk to humans, not the other way around.

Conversation has advanced our civilization to where it is today. Our primate relatives can’t speak, but as a happy consequence, they can’t choke to death while eating, either. It seems that the human gene conferring our ability to communicate in sound and hands-free, despite the choking risk, has ensured our domination of the planet, for better or worse. This ability evolved over 150,000 years ago. Compare that to the 5,500 year-old infancy of writing, let alone computing. So people can’t be expected to change how their brains are wired. Their unconscious expectations about how conversations work can’t be suspended — not even by Google!

Conversation itself is popularly considered to be the poor relation of Literature, which is held to be more organized, more logical, more “grammatical,” so tidy on the page, full of pomp, and apparently immutable.


But this is a false impression — we’re largely unaware of the true, inner workings of Conversation because we’re educated with a focus on writing and literature, precisely because they’re not natural, but mastered with conscious effort and dependent on social privilege. Meanwhile, the beauty and systematicity of conversation go unnoticed and unappreciated. But by deconstructing what makes for a successful conversation, we’ll be on our way to engineering better, more comfortable, more comprehensible, more compelling interactions.

For example, consider one of the challenges of communicating with sound. Given the instantly fleeting nature of soundwaves, who has time to spell everything out? Luckily, everyday conversation has a special design feature that allows us to take lots of unexpected shortcuts…assuming everyone involved shares the same assumptions and expectations of what it means to be verbally “cooperative.” To the surprise of many technologists, verbal cooperation flouts the rules of math and formal logic — the game of conversation is played by a different set of rules. Enter “the Cooperative Principle,” propelling every turn you take in dialog.

Come see just how pervasive this principle is, as we gain new insights on…

  • the content and tone of error messages
  • the design of recognition grammars
  • the way we help users know what to say
  • accommodating users’ diverse communication styles
  • improving the perception of our applications and brands in the minds of everyday people who talk and listen to machines.


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Date: March 2, 2017 Time: 9:15 am - 10:00 am photo of James Giangola

James Giangola