Conversational Chronicles | 20 Questions With...

Conversational Chronicles: 20 Questions With... Elaine Anzaldo

Elaine Anzaldo

Senior Conversation Designer

1. Who was your favourite teacher at school? What did you learn from that person? 

Hands down, magister Meyer, a.k.a. Mr. Meyer! It’s so funny because it’s been a while since I was in high school, but I can’t seem to call him by his first name! Mr. Meyer was my high school Latin teacher. He taught me everything I know about Latin, Roman history, Greek and Roman classical mythology, and the fundamentals of English linguistics. If he had a class, I took it and probably aced it. He was my favorite teacher for many reasons, the first one being that he is super chatty and made class fun by being extremely conversational. His classes almost don’t feel like a lecture because he always had the funniest tangents! One second we’d be hearing about the origin story of Romulus and Remus and the next we’d be hearing about how he was on the TV show “Who wants to be a millionaire?”. He taught me how to teach too, because I later went on to do peer tutoring at my university, and I remember taking him as inspiration to make my lessons relatable and highly personalized. I’d start off my tutoring sessions the same way he’d started first year of latin: level setting, finding out people’s strengths, and building on that.

2. What seemed like an inconsequential decision at the time, but in hindsight turned out to fundamentally reshape your life? 

I used to be a Spanish translator and interpreter, but it wasn’t something I ever saw myself doing! To be honest, I wanted to move away from my language abilities, and even went so far as to major in Biology during college to get as far away from Spanish as possible. It happened that one day I was scrolling through my university email and I saw a posting for “Bilingual student transcriptionist”. I went in for an interview and, by the end of it, I really wanted the job because it offered more per hour than what I was making as a tutor. I was hired and, what I thought would be a small gig, turned into a 2-year venture that legitimized my resume. I only got my start in tech because of this strong language background. So, that’s something that I thought would be an inconsequential decision, but it helped shape the rest of my career.

3. What habit or behaviour or belief have you recently acquired? Why is it now in your life? 

My habit is to try to practice all 3 languages I know, at least a little bit daily. Language fluency is something that can fade over time if you don’t use it, and as an adult language learner, I realized that it took a massive amount of concentration to learn my 3rd language Telugu, to the point that it was overriding my Spanish knowledge! So I try to practice by listening to music in all 3 languages, or consuming other media when I’m home.

4. When was the last time you changed your mind about something really important? What was it and what led you to change your view? 

When ChatGPT was released to the public last year, I was a big skeptic of the tool. I thought it was mere hype that would blow over as soon as everyone settled back in their jobs after the winter holidays, but I was wrong. It kept going, more people kept using it, and I started to realize: it wasn’t going away. I kind of resented this as a conversation designer, because it felt like the CxD perspective was getting lost in all of the ruckus of this new age of chatbots. So I tried using it for myself, but that didn’t change my opinion. Then I started digging deeper into understanding the technology, and that’s ultimately what helped change my mind. LLMs are different from traditional NLP. Right now, it’s not better or worse, it’s just different. But getting to that sense of peace took a lot of investigation, like listening to many different podcasts and reading some of the scientific papers directly from Google and OpenAI. Actually, you can see the progress of this realization over the course of the Voice This! Newsletter, which I co-author. 

5. If you wrote a ‘user manual’ for how people should interact with you, what would be the top three things they should know? 

One: say what’s on your mind! I appreciate honesty so much. Two: I do not like traveling into the city and SF is ranked as one of my not-so-favorite places to visit. I’d like to network with other CxDs if the chance arises, but if it’s not in South Bay, I’m most likely not going. Three: if you ask me point blank what my hobbies are, I will say, “I have no hobbies.” This is a very hard question for me, and I’d like to avoid answering it if possible please!

6. What’s one misconception people generally have about you? 

That I’m an expert! I may be terminally online, but that doesn’t make me a better designer than the hundreds of other designers who have or do work in this industry. I don’t feel like an expert and I’d hate to be known as an industry leader before I feel like I’ve accomplished something of great significance. 

7. When was the last time you felt like an outsider in a group? What/How did you learn?

It happened quite recently, at Config. I get intimated pretty easily by large crowds of people, and even though I went in prepared with my small gang of CxD friends, I still felt a bit like an outsider. At times, I felt like some of the sessions weren’t directed to someone like me. It can be hard to be a conversation designer! I still remember I was chatting with someone new who made a joke along the lines of, “Oh you’re a conversation designer? Are you designing this conversation right now?” And it’s like: ha. ha. no. that’s not what I do. Okay, to be honest, it made me so upset I felt like I had to prove myself, so when I went back to work, the first thing I did was start drafting a note on the future of design, basically a summary of all of the AI related talks at Config. I published this note internally, and the reception was so overwhelmingly positive that I learned… I should get offended more often, haha! But actually yes, because my best work lately has come when I feel like I’m being underestimated. 

8. What do you think is acceptable today but will become taboo tomorrow? 

If the future becomes a state of: you use something like ChatGPT to draft an outgoing message, and use it to summarize all incoming messages, then I think long emails will be taboo, or they’ll be replaced by something different. 

9. What app or tech product have you most recently fallen in love with? 

This is not really an app, it’s a very specific feature within Siri. I’ve come to use this feature a lot and I love it. It’s the quick send feature that’s part of Siri’s messaging capabilities. Basically I can send short, quick messages, and Siri won’t ask me to confirm to send it. Instead, what it does is show a little countdown, if the screen is on, and let you know that if you want to stop it, you need to cancel it, otherwise it’s going to send. Super useful. Highly recommend.

10. What is the best purchase you’ve made recently? Why? 

The best purchase I’ve made recently is the book by Kate Crawford, “Atlas of AI”. I just started reading it, but it’s already super detailed and interesting. Shoutout to my coworker Katy Boungard for recommending it!

11. If you were to own a bar, and you could design it how you wanted, what would it look like? 

If I were to own a BOBA bar, first of all, I’d be really happy, because I love boba and I’m a small-time boba influencer. I don’t drink alcohol, so I’d really concentrate on opening a boba shop that offers both tea and coffee instead. TBD on the exact branding, but the name would be some kind of pun related to the bay area. 

12. If you were to survive the zombie apocalypse, what role would you play in the new society that would follow?

If I survived a zombie apocalypse (which seems highly unlikely), I would probably shift over to biomedical research. I only know the very basics given my degree, but I’m hoping a lot of existing research would remain intact enough for me to carry it forward!

13. What’s the best piece of professional advice you’ve ever been given? 

When I was starting to seriously look for jobs in conversation design, I had a very pivotal meeting with Anna Rosen from Voiceflow. I was a very baby conversation designer and didn’t really know what to ask or how to go from “tech contractor” to “full-time conversation designer,” and I guess I might’ve given off that vibe to Anna in our meeting as well because at some point, she stopped me from spiraling and said, “Elaine, you probably know more about conversation design than some of the hiring managers out there. Apply!” It gave me such a confidence boost! I’ll always appreciate her words. In fact, I’ve already passed on these same words to a couple of mentees now. 

14. Tell me about that one project that was a total off-the-rails disaster? What was your role in that shitshow? 

Lasso. If you don’t know what it is, you’re not the first person to ask me. I worked on Lasso as part of an overtime project when I was at Facebook back in 2019. Because of NDA, I can’t mention the exact role I had, but it was very eye-opening to the world of short form video content. To this day, I can still identify the trending audio during that time if I hear it.

15. Who is the best co-worker or collaborator you’ve ever worked with? Now is the moment to give them a shout-out - who were they and why were they so good?

Cecilia Bolich! I had the best time working with Cecilia when we were both at NLX. We had a very special and fun peer mentorship relationship in that I would teach her what I knew, which was mostly CxD related, and she would teach me everything else. It was amazing to work alongside her! A lot of the strategies I use today for peer to peer CxD workshops come out of my onboarding experiment with Cecilia, who got to CxD by way of instructional design. Cecilia is my role model when it comes to handoff presentations. She knows how to talk in layman terms, and she’s an expert in commanding the attention of a room (or virtual meeting). She’s also pretty fearless in general. Even though conversation design was new to her, she took it on wholeheartedly. I highly recommend people to watch the interview I did with Cecilia, where I ask her to draw parallels from her previous career to CxD. 

16. What is your guiding principle or heuristic when it comes to developing or implementing Conversational AI solutions? 

I believe Conversational AI experiences should fulfill a goal. If the conversation is not accomplishing a task or fulfilling a specific command, I don’t believe it should exist. Human-machine conversations should be designed under this principle. I don’t ever want to make a small-talk bot experience, or design a bot whose sole purpose is to build a rapport with a human. That’s what human to human communication is for. Machines have no role there.

17. What common wisdom in our industry needs to be debunked? 

This is not really a hot take, but I keep hearing this come up from time to time: that CxD is not a well-paid role. You will not find the exact average or median of compensation for conversation design online, and whatever is online, is not the whole truth. Of course, when we talk about compensation it’s very location-dependent. But I just want to let people know that the higher end of the spectrum for CxD salaries is pretty high, equivalent to what any product designer at a large tech company makes. I think some of the sources online, like Glassdoor or ZipRecruiter, don’t reflect this.

18. What changes would you like to see in the future of the Conversational AI industry? What trends or transformations do you expect will shape our field in the years to come? 

I would love to see more junior roles, more internships, and more hackathon opportunities for early career conversation designers to get their feet wet and gain actual industry experience before diving in completely into the field. If I could host a design competition myself, I would, because that’s how much I believe in CxD as a discipline, and that’s the kind of support I benefited from the most during my learning phase. I would not be here today without Botmock’s hackathon or the Digital Assistant Academy’s Hackabot. I truly strongly believe these kinds of initiatives will not only help companies find more CxDs, but also help standardize more of the industry and this practice of design as a whole. We are still working out of spreadsheets and not knowing how to format them. We are still DMing industry leaders to share resources with us personally. More publicly available educational resources, please!

19. Do you have a secret tip, tool or trick that’s contributed to your success? 

Yes, my tip is to learn and teach as you go. A reason why I loved tutoring in college is because it was like an extra refresher course of all of the material I had already learned. I still use this strategy today: before I forget something new I learn about CxD, I need to tell someone about it, and attempt to explain it to someone else so that I can really solidify this knowledge for myself. This is what I try to do with my blog posts as well. If I can gather and summarize my thoughts for others, usually it means I have a better grasp of it myself to apply it to my day-to-day work. I believe that curiosity drives success, more than exact knowledge. If you keep learning, keep asking questions, keep researching, you will be much better equipped to deal with an ever-changing technology landscape. 

20. Who would you recommend to do the next 20 Questions with?

I nominate: Nate Bishop!

Thank you to Elaine Anzaldo for taking 20 Questions for Bot Jobs Conversational Chronicles.