‘Hybrid Writing for Conversational Interfaces’ workshop

On May 24 of this year, Niels ’t Hooft and myself ran a workshop titled ‘Hybrid Writing for Conversational Interfaces’ at TU Delft. Our aim was twofold: teach students about writing characters and dialog, and teach them how to prototype chat interfaces.

We spent a day with roughly thirty industrial design students alternating between bits of theory, writing exercises, instructions on how to use Twine (our prototyping tool of choice) and closed out with a small project and a show and tell.

I was very pleased to see prototypes with quite a high level of complexity and sophistication at the end of the day. And throughout, I could tell students were enjoying themselves writing and building interactive conversations.

Here’s a rough outline of how the workshop was structured.

  1. After briefly introducing ourselves, Niels presented a mini-lecture on interactive fiction. A highlight for me was a two-by-two of the ways in which fiction and software can intersect.

Four types of software-fiction hybrids

  1. I then took over and did a show and tell of the absolute basics of using Twine. Things like creating passages, linking them, creating branches and testing and publishing your story.
  2. The first exercise after this was for students to take what they just learned about Twine and try to create a very simple interactive story.
  3. After a coffee break, Niels then presented his second mini-lecture on the very basics of writing. With a particular focus on writing characters and dialog. This included a handy cheatsheet for things to consider while writing.

A cheatsheet for writing dialog

  1. In our second exercise students worked in pairs. They first each created a character, which they then described to each other. They then first planned out the structure of an encounter between these two characters. And finally they collaboratively wrote the dialogue for this encounter. They were required to stick to Hollywood formatting. Niels and I then did a reading of a few (to great amusement of all present) to close out the morning section of the workshop.
  2. After lunch Niels presented his third and final mini-lecture of the day, on conversational interfaces, relying heavily on the great work of our friend Alper in his book on the subject.
  3. I then took over for the second show and tell. Here we ramped up the challenge and introduced the Twine Texting Project – a framework for prototyping conversational interfaces in Twine. On GitHub, you can find the starter file I had prepared for this section.
  4. The third and final exercise of the day was for students to take what they learned about writing dialog, and prototyping chat interfaces, and to build an interactive prototype of a conversational interface or interactive fiction in chat format. They could either build off of the dialog they have created in the previous exercise, or start from scratch.
  5. We finished the day with demos, where put the Twine story on the big screen and as a group chose what options to select. After each demo the creator would open up the Twine file and walk us through how they had built it. It was pretty cool to see how many students had put what they had learned to very creative uses.

Reflecting on the workshop afterwards, we felt the structure was nicely balanced between theory and practice. The difficulty level was such that students did learn some new things which they could incorporate into future projects, but still built on skills they had already acquired. The choice for Twine worked out well too since it is highly accessible. Non-technical students managed to create something interactive, and more advanced students could apply what they knew about code to produce more sophisticated prototypes.

For future workshops we did feel we could improve on building a bridge between the writing for interactive fiction and writing for conversational interfaces of software products and services. This would require some adaptation of the mini lectures and a slightly different emphasis in the exercises. The key would be to have students imagine existing products and services as characters, and to then write dialog for interactions and prototype them. For a future iteration of the workshop, this would be worth exploring further.

Many thanks to Ianus Keller for inviting us to teach this workshop at IDE Academy.