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Article 6 min read

What is a conversational interface?

Meet the technology behind chatbots, voice assistants, and interactive voice routing.

By Jesse Martin, Staff Writer

Last updated March 23, 2024

Quick facts about conversational interfaces:

  1. Bots, voice assistants, and interactive voice routing are everyday examples of conversational interfaces.

  2. Conversational user interfaces can be built with AI, natural language processing, and large language models for a more immersive experience.

  3. It’s easy to get started with your own conversational interfaces using tools like Flow Builder.

What is a conversational user interface?

Artificial intelligence and chatbots are having a major media moment. After the 2022 release of ChatGPT by Open AI, more people are benefiting from accessible and practical applications of AI. In interacting with tools like ChatGPT or customer service chatbots, they use conversational user interfaces.

A conversational user interface (CUI) allows people to interact with software, apps, and bots like how they interact with real people. Using natural language in typing or speaking, they can accomplish certain tasks with ease.

A decision tree, part of a conversational interface

Examples of conversational interfaces you might be familiar with are chatbots in customer service, which work to respond to queries and deflect easy questions from live agents. You might also use voice assistants in your everyday life—like a smart speaker, or your TV’s remote control. Conversational UI is part of the fabric of our everyday lives, at home and at work.

How do conversational user interfaces work?

Conversational UI works by inputting human language into something that can be understood by software. This can be accomplished with Natural Language Processing (NLP) and by training the program on language models. Conversational flows, like those used in customer service bots, can also be easy-to-deploy applications that can be built out manually.

A chatbot speaking with a customer, a common example of a CUI

When a user speaks or types a request, the system uses algorithms and language models to analyze the input and determine the intended meaning. The system then generates a response using pre-defined rules, information about the user, and the conversation context.

The goal of a conversational interface is to create an immersive and frictionless experience for the user, whether they’re interacting with a brand in a customer service setting or asking their smart speaker to play their favorite song.

Types of conversational UI

There are two common types of conversational interfaces relevant to customer service.

Chatbots: Bots allow users to communicate with businesses. Often, bots are the first line of defense in customer service, collecting information and answering FAQs before escalating to a live agent. The conversational interface behind the bot can be as complex as a large language model with NLP, or as simple as a drag-and-drop decision tree with pre-scripted responses.

Voice assistants: These devices allow users to give voice commands and receive spoken responses, such as Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri.


Chatbots are a commonly used form of conversational UI in customer service. Bots are deployed to save time for agents by handling repetitive questions or deflecting customers to self-service channels. They can also be used to collect information about the customer before creating a ticket for a live agent to respond to.

Some bots can be built on large language models to respond in a human-like way, like ChatGPT. Bot responses can also be manually crafted to help the bot achieve specific tasks. They can also be programmed to work with other business systems, like ecommerce and CRM platforms, to surface information or perform tasks that otherwise wouldn’t need a human to intervene.

Voice assistants

Voice assistants allow users to input voice commands and receive spoken responses, like Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri. Many businesses will ensure their customer service information can be easily surfaced by voice assistants.

Another example of a conversational UI in customer service involves interactive voice response, or IVR, which allows customers to input information by voice over the phone without speaking to a real person, much like interacting with a chatbot. And while IVR is a great way to triage, collect data, and help deflect some frequently asked questions from customer service teams, it’s usually considered a best practice to provide access to a live agent when possible.

Business benefits of conversational UI

The chief benefit of conversational interfaces in customer service is that they help create immersive, seamless experiences. Customers can begin a conversation on the web with a chatbot before being handed off to a human, who has visibility into previous interactions and the customer’s profile. Conversations from any channel can be managed in the same agent workspace.

Conversational interfaces can also be used for biometric authentication, which is becoming more and more common. Customers can be verified by their voice rather than providing details like their account numbers or date of birth, decreasing friction by taking away extra steps on their path to revolution.

Other benefits include:

  • Improved customer satisfaction: By providing a convenient and easy-to-use interface for customers to get answers to their questions and resolve issues, businesses can improve customer satisfaction while building stronger relationships.
  • Increased efficiency: Conversational interfaces can help businesses to automate repetitive and time-consuming tasks, allowing customer support teams to focus on more complex and high-value issues.
  • Enhanced data collection and analysis: By using conversational interfaces to collect data on customer interactions and behavior, businesses can gain valuable insights into customer needs and preferences, which can be used to improve products and services.
  • Increased accessibility and inclusivity: By providing a user-friendly and accessible interface, businesses can make their customer support services more inclusive and available to a wider range of customers, including those with disabilities or limited language skills.
  • Greater scalability and flexibility: With conversational interfaces like chatbots and IVR, businesses can easily scale their customer support operations up or down to meet changing demand, and they can also offer support in multiple languages and across different channels.

Best practices for implementing a conversational user interface

  1. Use AI, NLP and LLM

    Acronyms are your friend. Use NLP technology to understand and respond to customer inputs: NLP technology can help conversational interfaces to understand the intent and meaning behind what customers say, and to provide appropriate responses.
  2. Develop a consistent and coherent conversational flow:

    A clear and logical conversational flow can help to make interactions with the CUI more intuitive and engaging for customers.
  3. Provide personalized and context-aware responses

    By taking into account factors such as the customer’s previous interactions, location, and preferences, businesses can provide more relevant and helpful responses.
  4. Continually improve performance with data

    By collecting data on customer interactions and using it to analyze and optimize the CUI’s performance, businesses can improve the quality and effectiveness of their conversational experiences.
  5. Design for accessibility and inclusivity

    By considering the needs of users with disabilities and users with limited language skills, businesses can make their conversational interfaces more accessible and inclusive.
  6. If all else fails, buy, don’t build

    Training software on language models and building AI chatbots from scratch can be a heavy lift. To get started right away with intelligent bots that deploy on any channel, you don’t need to do it yourself.

How Zendesk supports conversational UI

Businesses that want to try implementing conversational interfaces into their customer service software might want to consider buying their solution rather than building it on their own.

Zendesk provides tools to build bots, like Flow Builder, which uses a click-to-configure interface to create conversational bot flows. Zendesk AI is already trained on language models to provide better customer experiences—rather than building your own or relying on a large language model from a third party without established parameters.

  • Agent Workspace: This is an intuitive, conversational twist on the shared inbox and ticketing systems traditionally used in customer service software. Our Agent Workspace treats each ticket like a conversation while surfacing relevant customer data and working with integrations across your business to provide a personalized customer experience.
  • Messaging: Messaging channels allow businesses to chat with their customers at scale, whether they’re deploying messaging widgets on their website or using third-party channels to reach customers. Unlike traditional live chat clients, messaging keeps the history of the conversation so that customers aren’t burdened with repeating themselves.
  • Routing: Information input by customers can help route the conversation to the right place, whether via messaging channels or over traditional channels like the phone. Built with AI trained on customer conversations, Intelligent Routing eliminates friction between customers and service teams by guiding everyone to a solution.
  • Bots: There are numerous ways to build bots with Zendesk. While anyone can integrate a third-party bot, Zendesk users can use Flow Builder to create custom bots and conversational flows. Adding bots can help deflect tickets from customer service teams by responding to FAQs, helping agents respond to high-touch queries at scale.

To get started with your own conversational interfaces for customer service, check out our resources on building bots from scratch below. It’s easier than you think.

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