One of the most effective ways to get the user to continue the conversation (e.g., make a choice) is to ask a question. When the call to action isn’t clear, the user won’t know when, or how, to respond.
Wide- to narrow-focus questions
Questions fall on a continuum from wide- to narrow-focus, based on the range of responses they elicit.
Best for questions about domains that are familiar to the user and therefore are easy to answer.
Encourages the user to respond naturally and in their own words
Users feel in control
Provides best insight into what users want
Can put users on the spot and cause a “deer in the headlights” moment
Can be difficult for users to anticipate what answers are supported
May set expectations too high and overpromise
Best for questions about complex or unfamiliar domains, or when options are limited or unclear.
Makes it clear what the user can say/do by establishing boundaries/limits
Easy for users to answer
Can feel limiting to users
Can feel robotic and tedious (like many automated phone systems)
Questions may be longer
Think about what users could say
Before asking a question, think about what responses you can reasonably support. Don’t ask the user a question if you’re not prepared to handle their answer.
That said, don’t be afraid to ask the user a question—it doesn’t mean that you have to support every response imaginable. The way a question is phrased sets the user’s expectations for what they can say. This phrasing can range from open-ended, or wide-focus questions, to close-ended, or narrow-focus questions.
The magic and art of good conversation design is that users feel like they’re in control and that they can say anything at anytime, but in reality, the dialog directs them along pre-scripted paths.
Don’t keep speaking after asking a question
Respect the rules of turn-taking by giving users time to respond to the question.
Critical use cases for narrow-focus questions
There are a few specific use cases in which narrow-focus questions are critical.
The first time asking a question, your persona should present only the details that are required to proceed.
When there’s an error, narrow the focus of the question to provide more support and get the user back on track.
The insights gleaned from user data are invaluable, shedding light on how to better phrase your questions. Analytics and monitoring tools can help you learn how your questions are performing in the wild. Review all the ways users have answered a particular question, looking for those your Action failed to handle appropriately. Also look for signs of user confusion—for example, perhaps users are not responding (No Input), they take a long time to respond, or they’re hesitant, using filler words like um and ah.
There are 3 main approaches to handling unsupported responses:
Add new synonyms to the grammar so that they map onto existing functionality
Restrict the range of responses users can give by narrowing the focus of the question
Design a new conversational path to support the requested functionality
If you’re seeing a lot of unexpected responses from users, consider rewording the question to narrow its focus.