Should You Design Menus or Conversations with Bots?


With bots still being a new communication channel, users and especially the general public outside of tech have little understanding of how to use and converse with bots. Do they say hello? Ask a question? Users aren’t sure whether to treat the bot like a human — or a bot. This means bot designers are faced with either employing a menu driven experience to make it obvious for users, or keep it conversational with open ended questions and natural language inputs from the user.

What’s the problem with either?

Bots are ultimately built to serve humans — and humans are social creatures. So it makes sense to make bots as personable and conversational as possible. Humans use language as the primary way to interact and communicate their wants and needs. A bot that is solely menu driven can be seen as too static and inflexible. A bot that is driven by natural language can run into many problems with lack of understanding and random inputs that destroy the conversation flow.

When Facebook released a Messenger platform update in March, it was even suggested to developers that they should “consider stripping such exchanges down and cutting to the chase by putting the most important features in your menu.” Pressured by the fact developers were creating confusing or unclear on-boarding experiences, Messenger wasn’t creating the impact it desired in effective bot experiences.

However, making bots without personality is the true problem. Designing a bot personality creates a deeper understanding of the bot’s end goal, and how it will communicate through a choice of language, mood, tone, and style. This gives users a better understanding of your bot and it’s purpose. And whether you like it or not, users will still project human traits onto your bot, even if it doesn’t have a clear persona. Ultimately, a conversational experience can be designed with both menus and natural language. It’s all down to the details.

On-boarding makes the difference.  

A huge problem for bots is that it is unclear to the user how to get started and use the bot. A bot’s on-boarding experience needs to clarify what the user should expect to give and receive in the conversation, the purpose and limitations of the bot, and the end goal for the bot experience. Bots must set up the context of an entire interaction in just a few lines of text. Using buttons and carousels is an effective way to make sure the user understands completely what is expected of them through offering up preset answers and inputs. To an extent, on-boarding should be stripped of personality if it will help set up an effective conversation flow. Of course, personalization is critical for user experience. However, if a bot is too casual or vague in the on-boarding flow — then you are setting users up for frustration.

Bots get a myriad of random, unrelated content inputs from users. If the on-boarding experience is menu driven — buttons are available for users to easily click and drive the conversation forward — without the pressure of natural language input.

Always have a backup menu.

Having persistent menus allow for users to always have clear access to commands that will often restart or exit the conversation. For example, an e-commerce bot might suggest “Visit Website”, “Send Message”, or “Go Shopping” in a persistent menu that allows users to quickly access these popular functions. Even for conversations driven by natural conversation, users need a ‘get out quick’ function. Avoiding user frustration is paramount — having an easily accessible persistent menu removes some of the confusion.

Menu’s can still be conversational.

Buttons and menus can still be engaging. Since nearly all visual creative opportunities are already predetermined in bot platforms like Messenger or Kik, the opportunity is in the words. Leveraging these small opportunities for delight when crafting the words on buttons, carousels, and menus is crucial. Branding becomes apparent through word choice, tone, humor, and emojis. Placing effort on crafting the microcopy seen in buttons, card subtitles, quick reply buttons, and menus means a better user experience.

Buttons are ultimately the gateway for conversation, understanding, and conversion. Would the bot say “Yes” and “No” or conversely “Okay! :)” or “Not today!”. Both phrases bring the same result, but the tone is playful and conversational. Brand voice and a bot’s persona should be thought of in every element, no matter how small or insignificant they may seem.

The verdict.

Both natural language and menu driven experiences are useful in the right context and use case. The best use of each will be determined by the effort placed on creative writing, persona development, tone, style, and language choice for the overall experience. The challenge of designing bots is that they will be used by a variety of people with different contexts and expectations. Remember that the user should always come first. Retaining a persona, being clear with on-boarding flows, and prioritizing tone of voice development will translate across all experiences whether they are menu or conversation driven.


Jess is a Founding Partner and Head of Product at Xandra, a conversation design agency building experiences for brands on conversational interfaces.