The Love Connection

A conversational agent helping weigh risks and benefits of booking a wedding venue amidst covid-19.

Overview

How might we aid wedding planning in a pandemic with a conversational user interface (CUI)?

Roles: Conversation Designer, Video Editor
Tools: Voiceflow, Synthesia, Adobe After Effects

42% of weddings that were supposed to take place in 2020 have been rescheduled for 2021. 2021 will see a surge of 650k weddings; but covid is not going away, so wedding venues need a way for customers to navigate safety protocols while marketing the benefits of their business. The pandemic resulted in large amounts of layoffs so the wedding industry is struggling to keep up with increased demand.

To resolve this situation, my team created a conversational user interface (CUI), The Love Connection, that helps small wedding venues increase lead generation while balancing CDC guidelines to ensure the safety of their customers. The Love Connection is the first line of contact between engaged couples and the venue that answers questions and helps users reach their goals through discussion. Our customizable service is platform agnostic (could be integrated with Amazon Alexa, Siri, Echo Dot) would be available for purchase by any business wanting to use their space as a wedding venue.

Each team member wrote a branch of the conversation, for a total of four subjects: available spaces, masks, occupancy, vaccinations. I created the path about occupancy and synthesized all four paths to be a cohesive conversation and from that created the demo video.

April – May 2021

The Love Connection Demo:

I created the demonstration's script and video. We took the feature of personal connection a step further and put a face to our CUI using Synthesia's text to video AI service. In the demo, our user had planned to book Cairnwood Estates, a banquet hall in Philadelphia, last year. He’s ready to reschedule so he accesses our CUI, named Ray, through Cairnwood’s website.

Process
Why a CUI?

Providing relief to overwhelmed businesses and giving users a personal touch.

The surge of weddings in 2021 coupled with massive covid-19 related layoffs means businesses are understaffed and unprepared for increased demand. This is why we chose a CUI as our solution: businesses need help but are unable to afford new hires. CUIs are available 24/7 so customers can receive personalized feedback at their convenience which helps the business save money and generate more leads.

The added constraint of covid restrictions have kept people indoors and craving robust social interactions. Conversations are much more engaging than entering data into an online form, and desired when planning a deeply personal event such as a wedding.

Modes of Communication

Taking the agent beyond transactional conversations.

We began our process modeling the different modes of conversation: controlling, collaborating, delegating, and guiding. Making a deliberate effort to address the different modes ensured that my conversation model wasn't a simple transaction, the CUI did more than ask yes/no questions, the user can do more than assign tasks to the CUI.

Our initial conversation paths were: venue affordability, safety protocols for guests, safety protocols for service people, and fun/entertainment value. I modeled the conversation for venue affordability. I labelled the different modes of conversation as the user and the CUI discussed what the user wants to do (goal) and how they can do it (means). The horizontal bar separates levels, with the bottom levels being the most detailed.

Goals and means model for a conversation if a user can afford a room at the wedding venue
Defining Voice and Tone

Clearly defined goals guide how the CUI responds to the user.

Two main goals we defined for our CUI are:
1. Covid-19 safety: Our CUI is safe and reliable but not defeatists or sensationalist.
2. Making sales: Our CUI is confident and suggestive but not arrogant or desperate.

Our CUI balances safety and sales. We know how important it is for businesses to follow CDC guidelines and we want them to communicate to clients their deep care for safety. Concurrently, businesses need to make money to survive so our CUI will market special discounts and when there is a lull in the conversation.

I came up with the idea that sales should be focused on safety related discounts, such as a discount if all wedding participants provide vaccination proof. These discounts demonstrate the venue is responsible when it comes to covid-19 safety while being a great financial incentive for customers to book their venue over others.

Conversational Path: Occupancy

Our CUI does more than answer questions: it helps define goals with an overwhelmed user.

Based on these new goals, we changed our four conversational paths to be: room availability, mask policy, vaccination policy, and occupancy policy. I created the flow for the occupancy portion.

For the occupancy portion, I explored collaborative and guiding modes of conversation, where the user does more than tell the CUI what to do. Rather, the user can make a statement that they are unsure what their best option is and the CUI can help the user think through and negotiate their goals. For example:

User: "Remote participant doesn't seem nice, though."
CUI: "Does the wedding lose meaning for you, as the engaged party, if it is partly remote?"
User: "I am not sure."
CUI: "What is most important for you to accomplish by holding a wedding?"

A section of my Voiceflow code for the occupancy path

Synthesizing the Flow

Creating a seamless conversation that weighs safety risks while marketing hybrid wedding options.

Once all conversational paths were complete, I was in charge of synthesizing the paths to create a smooth flow. I did this by finding connections that link the paths, such as mask policy leading to a decision between remote versus in-person wedding leading to a conversation about how many people can attend (occupancy path). Each path also had links to various discounts which could prompt the CUI to go back to a section to tell the user about more ways they can save money.

A key feature is our CUI promoting is a hybrid wedding option, where some guests are in person while the rest can view from a professional live stream. Whenever the conversation contained an aspect related to the hybrid wedding discount, such as occupancy limitations or deciding to invite people who are not vaccinated or would not wear masks, the CUI naturally suggests considering a hybrid wedding to mitigate any risk while maximizing enjoyment.

An excerpt where the CUI markets the hybrid wedding discount

Alternative Paths

Helping users reschedule previously planned weddings and pushing for fully virtual weddings.

We also addressed critical alternative paths (not shown in the demo) to help customers find the best venue for their needs.

Our first alternative path is allows people to reschedule a cancelled wedding from 2020. Our CUI walks users through booking a specific day for their wedding and updates them on how the venues aesthetics and policies have changed since their last booking.

Our second alternative path is encouraging users to explore a fully remote wedding where only the bride and groom are present at the venue, which would help the user save a lot of time and money. The business would benefit from being able to host several of these weddings back to back, generating more clients and revenue.

A Critique of CUIs

Does AI put people out of jobs? What are the negative implications of CUIs?

While conversation is a wonderful and engaging interface, CUIs come with their set of concerns. My main concerns are: discrimination towards women and people of color and their misleading nature.

Historically, CUIs portray a societal discrimination towards women. The default for nearly all voice assistants (Siri, Alexa, and more) are female passing voices, perpetuating a stereotype and bias that women should be your assistant. Voice agents are easily and often verbally abused. I am greatly concerned how personifying technology may impact younger generations who may learn you can "own" and "abuse" a piece of technology that represents a female assistant with no repercussions. This is why I intentionally gave our CUI a male passing voice and figure.

Much work also needs to be done to make CUIs more inclusive. Most CUIs do not recognize voices with accents which furthers systemic discrimination against people of color.

Finally, most CUIs are misleading because their current capacities are nowhere near how they are presented. Users are stuck with transactional interactions because they don't know what voice assistants are capable of. The goal of voice assistants is personification of technology so it feels like you're talking to a human. Voice assistants are nowhere near a human's abilities to grasp details, nuance, and emotion in conversation, but we like to market them as such. Doing so will confuse users and lead to desertion of these products.