Bot Basics, Bot Development

How to Design a Chatbot’s Personality

Follow our practical guide for designing a chatbot’s personality, and create a bot with a fully developed personality that your users will enjoy and trust.

November 20, 2018

As leading chatbot, or bot, designers have discovered, personality is the number one factor for increasing user engagement. Click-through rates, sales, and other business KPIs improve dramatically when a bot is designed correctly—with personality. And last, but certainly not least, bots are more fun when they have a personality.

But how, exactly, does one design a bot’s personality? After all, there are no JavaScript libraries or GitHub “personality repositories” that you can access and plug into your design.

Does a bot even need a personality?

We hear that question a lot. Developers may perceive the task of adding a personality as difficult and extra work. And clients, used to thinking in terms of websites and mobile apps, may not understand the role that a bot’s personality plays.

That said, asking whether a bot needs a personality is looking through the wrong end of a telescope. No matter how basic or simple your bot is, the people interacting with it are already assigning it a personality. And you can help shape those perceptions.

Human beings have a strong tendency to anthropomorphize, which is why cars, boats, buildings, and many other inanimate objects are often given names by the people who use them. Names have meaning and are powerful indicators of personality, character, and identity.

Bots, by their very nature, are completely different from every other kind of computer-based interaction. Unlike websites and mobile apps, which are designed to deliver the same experience for everyone, bots interact with people on a one-to-one basis. And, in many cases, bots run on the same messaging platforms that people are already using to talk to their friends and family.

Indeed, the very first bot, ELIZA, was built in an MIT computer laboratory in 1964. Members of the office staff, who were fully aware that ELIZA was a computer program, still talked to it (her) as if it (she) were a human.

Every bot built since then has elicited similar reactions from ordinary users, who not only talk to bots, as if they were real people, but also trust them enough to reveal secrets and to seek advice on sensitive personal matters.

The question, therefore, isn’t whether a bot needs a personality, but what personality it already has (as perceived by the people interacting with it).

Start with the bot's role

Most bots are designed in order to advance business objectives, but even if you're creating a bot for an educational, entertainment, or other purposes, the best way to begin building its personality is to assign your bot a role within your organization.

In other words, if your bot were a person who works at your company, what role would s/he have? And what would his/her job title be?

For example, if your bot works at a day spa, its job title could be Receptionist. A homework bot might be Teacher's Assistant. And, for a SaaS company, the bot might be Junior Sales Assistant.

Flesh out the job description

After you identify the bot's role and job title, the next step is to write the job description for that position.

For example, here’s a slightly edited real job description for a receptionist position:

Duties and Responsibilities:

  • Screen and direct calls
  • Greet all visitors and direct them, as appropriate
  • Respond to queries from the public and customers

Qualifications:

  • One year of related experience
  • Customer service–oriented, with knowledge of applicable principles and practices
  • Strong communication skills
  • Reliable and dependable
  • Able to maintain confidentiality at all times

Create a thumbnail biography

There's no need to go overboard with three pages of character description, but it's a good idea to sketch out a thumbnail biography for your bot.

You can answer questions for your bot, like:

  • Where are they from?
  • Who else lives in the household?
  • Education
  • Hobbies/passions
  • Favorite joke/quote
  • Favorite foods/drinks
  • Favorite TV show/movie/book

Give your bot a name

Professional bots should always have a human-sounding name rather than something artificial, like InfoBot or Chatbot 2000.

To choose a name, first identify the bot's cultural identity. For example, a bot working at a Finnish company that solely deals with Finnish customers should, of course, seem like a Finnish person with a Finnish name.

Many businesses, however, have a global reach. Therefore, you need to identify a cultural identity that works both with your brand identity and your business model. If your business is headquartered in Britain but most of your customers are in the United States, you'll have to decide whether your bot should be American or British (which affects, among other things, how words are spelled).

After you’ve chosen a cultural identity, look up statistics tables for baby names that were popular for (real) people born during the same generation as your bot. Usually, a name somewhere in the top 20 on the list is a great choice for your bot and will leap out at you as the obvious choice.

Pro tip: If your bot uses a lot of fancy AI and is designed to serve a big enterprise need, you can create a completely unique name for your bot that sounds human but isn’t quite.

Here are some examples:

Human NamePotential Bot Names
JessicaSica, Jes, Cassi
EricRic, Eri
NathanielThaniel, Nat
JacksonJac, Jak, Sona
OliviaLiv, Livi, Livv
MasonAson, Maso, Nama
ElijahLija, Elia
CharlotteLotte, Lotti, Sharla
AubreyBrey, Aubi
SebastianSebi, Basti, Seba
BenjaminJami, Jamine, Mina
JulianUlian, Uli, Lian
Alex/AlexandraLexa, Xandra, Zandra
EnochEno, Ceno

Visualize your bot

If you're visually inclined, you could draw a picture of your bot. Use computer design/drawing programs, or simply sketch something on a piece of paper. It's really inspiring to envision what your bot looks like.

Now comes the magic part

Your bot now has a name, a job title, a thumbnail biography, and possibly even a picture. So we’re ready to bring it to life!

The way that many successful novelists and professional screenwriters do this is by applying standard psychological assessments that were designed for real humans. Probably the most famous and ubiquitous personality assessment used today is the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI).

The secret to making a character (bot) come to life is to take the MBTI test on their behalf, answering each question from the bot’s point of view. The official MBTI test costs $49, but there are a number of free alternatives online.

Using Nathaniel, a bot customer service representative for a health and wellness store, as an example, I took the MBTI test from his perspective (not mine):

After answering 60 questions from Nathaniel’s perspective, the MBTI test revealed that he has an ESFJ personality type, with the results of Extravert (90%), Sensing (22%), Feeling (70%), and Judging (9%).

After you know the MBTI personality type, it’s easy to find detailed information about what that means:

Extraversion: ESFJs gain energy from interacting with other people. They are typically described as outgoing and gregarious.

Sensing: ESFJs are more focused on the present than on the future. They are interested in concrete, immediate details rather than abstract or theoretical information.

Feeling: ESFJs tend to make decisions based on personal feeling, emotions, and concern for others. They tend to think more about the personal impact of a decision rather than considering objective criteria.

Judging: ESFJs are organized and like to plan things out in advance. Planning helps people with this personality type feel more in control of the world around them.

Some common ESFJ characteristics include:

  • Kind and sympathetic to others
  • Fun and outgoing
  • Highly organized
  • Practical
  • Loyal
  • Helpful to others
  • Self-sacrificing
  • Dependable

At this point, a much clearer picture of Nathaniel’s personality is emerging. And it’s obvious that he would make a great customer service representative.

There are hundreds of websites which give further detailed descriptions about each of the 16 MBTI personality types.

Here’s an example:

Guardians of birthdays, holidays, and celebrations, ESFJs are generous entertainers. They enjoy and joyfully observe traditions and are liberal in giving, especially where custom prescribes.

All else being equal, ESFJs enjoy being in charge. They see problems clearly and delegate easily, work hard, and play with zest. They willingly provide service (which embodies life's meaning) and expect the same from others.

And here’s another example:

ESFJs often find themselves in occupations that either involve a lot of direct interactions with other people (e.g., clients, other staff members) or involve responsibility for critical tasks (e.g., require thorough attention or may have serious consequences) or both. Very often ESFJs realize their potential in health care and various community care organizations.

Now we can begin to condense these details into a distinct personality for Nathaniel. We can say that he:

  • Remembers birthdays and holidays.
  • Is a high-energy, positive, happy person.
  • Likes being in charge (and is a bit bossy, but in a friendly, coaching way).
  • Works hard and is very loyal.
  • Gets upset easily but also forgives easily.
  • Loves to talk to people.
  • Loves to help people.
  • Is drawn to health care and other community care careers.

Translating this directly into designing bot behavior, it’s easy to see that Nathaniel would:

  • Be a perfect match for a career as a health and wellness customer service representative.
  • Greet customers with enthusiasm and a big smile.
  • Definitely send customers a friendly note on their birthdays.
  • Remember to send a message to customers on every holiday.
  • Respond to problems or difficulties with a cheerful, can-do attitude.
  • Be a confident, competent person.

Putting everything together

At this point, you should have a vivid mental picture of who Nathaniel is.

He’s confident, organized, cheerful, and very competent at his job, and he loves to interact with customers. Nathaniel is thrilled when he can help someone, is very punctual and reliable, and can handle rudeness and difficult people with aplomb.

So, how does this translate into bot design? The answer is with dialogue (words) and emojis.

If a customer walked into a health and wellness store, Nathaniel would respond with an enthusiastic, “Hi!” and a smile (smiley face emoji) rather than with a tepid, “Hello,” and no emoji.

Nathaniel would cheerfully and competently explain all of the products and services offered by the health and wellness store. He would respond to a customer’s problems with a can-do attitude, saying things like, “Oh no! Let’s see what I can do to help resolve this.”

He would speak confidently, use cheerful, high-energy emojis. And, if he doesn’t understand something, he would do his best to assure the customer that he wants to understand and help.

If you follow this procedure for every bot you will have enough of a foundation to take a personality assessment test on behalf of your bot. From there, it’s just a matter of applying the personality type to your bot through the use of dialogue and emojis.

When you’re done, your bot will have a fully developed personality that your users will enjoy and trust.