The Socratic Method for Bot Writers

June 9, 2017

What would Socrates think about chatbots? Would he suspend his own disbelief and play along with them, or would he constantly try to poke holes in the dialogue limitations? Would he consider chatbots to be impersonal, or would he revel in both their innate logical design combined with human authorship? 

It’s hard not to think of the famous greek philosophers and playwrights when we think of chatbot authorship. After all, they were obsessed with dialogue - both for use in critical thinking and instruction, and for theatrical and entertainment purposes - and those things are what we at PullString find invaluable to chatbot authoring as well.

Develop the Bot’s Persona By Asking Questions

Even the most transactional chatbots still end up with a modicum of personality via their dialogue. The writing is made up of thousands of choices by their authors, and everything from whether the chatbot persona uses certain words up to their opinions on human spirituality contributes to the believability and, ultimately, trustworthiness of the character.

So when you are beginning to develop the persona for your bot, take the time to answer questions on its behalf. Who is your bot? Where did it grow up? How old is it? What’s its opinion on its core competencies, likes, dislikes, etc.

You want to be able to answer everything about the bot that you would be able to answer about a close person in your life. Ultimately, this will make your bot writing more real to your end users. If you can’t easily answer background questions about your bot, you need to spend more time delving into persona development. You might never need to show that you have the answers to these questions, but just doing the development work will create a lasting impact.

You may think, “Ah, but my bot is just for selling appliances. It doesn’t need to have a response about x sports team.” The reality is that users will ask the bot anything. There are no stupid questions. Well, there are. But your bot still needs to answer them appropriately because someone will ask them. So if your bot is aimed at users buying a dishwasher, you might consider any sports related queries as opportunity to blend the two subject areas. For example, the users asks what you think about the Golden State Warriors, the bot could respond with, “I work hard to avoid leaks and overflow, but I make a big exception for The Splash Brothers.”

 Challenge The Persona with Arguments

Core to the Socratic Method is argument and intention. You assume the other participant in the conversation is making false statements, and you challenge those statements to find the inconsistencies. It’s basically Internet Trolling, ancient Greek style.

But this is an important process to put your bot through before publishing it, as some of your users are going to treat it exactly this way.

Once you’ve mapped out answers to background questions about your bot, you need to prepare further by finding as many holes as you can ahead of time. Use who/what/where/when and most important, why, to go through your content, and follow up with even deeper questions. It’s okay if your bot has to say “I don’t know,” just make sure it’s saying it in a satisfying and not dismissive way. Plus, users volunteering questions that you don’t have a scripted answer for already is the best opportunity to find out what your customers really want to know. You can log all of these questions and craft new responses to them on a rolling basis.

Your Bot as a Critical Thinker

You’ve put time and effort into developing your bot’s persona, answering its background questions and making it as realistic as possible for users.

Now, as you author its dialogue, you have to allow it to reciprocate by making it inquisitive as well. As much as your users will have a lot of questions, your bot should ask questions and be curious, too. Core to the Socratic Method is questioning, analyzing and ultimately, simplifying conversation, and that’s what your bot will do for the user. Simplifying, in the sense of the user, means finding out more about them so that the conversation can be further customized to fit their needs and particulars. By asking the user questions and drawing out dialogue from your user, you’re making them feel “heard” and, ultimately, providing them with an optimally engaged experience.

The best bot writing mimics human interaction by creating emotional connection and engaging users in “real” conversation. Socrates and his buddies knew that stimulating dialogue, whether it was theatrical or critical, was important contributing to a fulfilling experience. We, as writers forging this new field of communication and expression, should strive to provide the same.

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