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How Screenwriting Can Boost AI (Artificial Intelligence)

Scott Ganz, who is the Principal Content Designer at Intuit, did not get in the tech game the typical way. Keep in mind that he was a screenwriter, such as for Wordgirl (winning an Emmy for his work) and The Muppets. “I’ve always considered myself a comedy writer at heart, which generally involves a lot of pointing out what’s wrong with the world to no one in particular and being unemployed,” he said.

Yet his skills have proven quite effective and valuable, as he has helped create AI chatbots for brands like Mattel and Call of Duty. And yes, as of now, he works on the QuickBooks Assistant, a text-based conversational AI platform. “I partner with our engineering and design teams to create an artificial personality that can dynamically interact with our customers, and anticipate their questions,” he said. “It also involves a lot of empathy. It’s one thing to anticipate what someone might ask about their finances. You also have to anticipate how they feel about it.”

So what are his takeaways? Well, he certainly has plenty. Let’s take a look:

Where is chatbot technology right now? Trends you see in the coming years?

It’s a really exciting time for chatbots and conversational user interfaces in general. They’re becoming much more sophisticated than the rudimentary “press 1 for yes” types of systems that we used to deal with… usually by screaming “TALK TO A HUMAN!” The technology is evolving quickly, and so are the rules and best practices. With those two things still in flux, the tech side and the design side can constantly disrupt each other.

Using natural language processing, we’re finding opportunities to make our technology more humanized and relatable, so people can interact naturally and make better informed decisions about their money. For example, we analyze our customers’ utterances to not only process their requests, but also to understand the intent behind their requests, so we can get them information faster and with greater ease. We really take “natural language processing” seriously. Intuit works really hard to speak its customers’ language. That’s extra important to us. You can’t expect people to say “accounts receivable.” It’s “who owes me money?” As chatbots become more and more prevalent in our daily lives, it’s important that we’re aware of the types of artificial beings we’re inviting into our living rooms, cars, and offices. I’m excited to see the industry experiment with gender-neutral chatbots, where we can both break out of the female assistant trope and also make the world a little more aware of non-binary individuals.

Explain your ideas about screenwriting/improv/chatbots?

When I joined the WordGirl writing team, my first task was to read the show “bible” that the creators had written. Yes, “bible” is the term they use. WordGirl didn’t have a central office or writers’ room. We met up once a year to pitch ideas and, after that, we worked remotely. Therefore, the show bible was essential when it came to getting us all on the same page creatively.

Once I got to Intuit, I used those learnings to create a relationship bible to make sure everyone was on the same page about our bot’s personality and its relationship with our customers. Right now my friend Nicholas Pelczar and I are the only two conversation designers at QuickBooks, but we don’t want it to stay that way. As the team expands, documents like this become even more important.

As a side-note, I originally called the document, “the character bible,” but after my team had a coaching session with Scott Cook, who is the co-founder of Intuit, I felt that the document wasn’t customer-focused enough. I then renamed it the “relationship bible” and redid the sections on the bot’s wants, needs, and fears so that they started with the customer’s wants, needs, and fears. Having established those, I then spelled out exactly why the bot wants and fears those same things.

I also got to apply my improv experience to make the bot more personable. Establishing the relationship is the best first thing you can do in an improv scene. The Upright Citizens Brigade is all about this. It increases your odds of having your scene make sense. Also, comedy is hard, and I wanted to give other content designers some easy recipes to write jokes. Therefore, the last section of the relationship bible has some guidance on the kinds of jokes the bot would and wouldn’t/shouldn’t make, as well as some comedy tropes designers can use.

What are some of the best practices? And the gotchas?

On a tactical level, conversation design hinges on communicating clearly with people so that the conversation itself doesn’t slip off the rails. When this happens in human conversation, people are incredibly adept at getting things back on track. Bots are much less nuanced and flexible and they really struggle with this. Therefore, designers need to be incredibly precise both in how you ask and answer questions. It’s really easy to mislead people about what the bot is asking or what it’s capable of answering.

Beyond that, it’s really important to track the emotional undercurrents of the conversation. It may be an AI, but it’s dealing with people (and all of their emotions). AI has its strengths, but design requires empathy, and this is absolutely the case when you’re engaging with people in conversation. Our emotions are a huge part of what we’re communicating, and true understanding requires that we understand that side of it as well. Even though a chatbot is not a person, it is made by real people, expressing real care, in a way that makes it available to everyone, all the time. It’s important to keep this in mind when working on a chatbot, so that the voice remains authentic.

One of the biggest things we need to take into account is ensuring the chatbot is a champion for the company, but still remains a little bit separated from the company. Since chatbots still make mistakes, it’s important to take steps to protect the company’s reputation. This plays out in creating strict guidelines around the use of “I” vs. “We.” When the chatbot messes up, it uses “I,” and only uses “we” in moments when it is working in conjunction with humans at the company. By using these two separate phrases, customers are able to better understand what is the work of the chatbot vs. the company. Essentially, we think of QuickBooks Assistant as a kind of digital employee.

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