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Communication Arts & Sciences
Michigan State University
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The Role of Conversational Grounding in Supporting Symbiosis Between People and Digital Assistants

by: Janghee Cho and Emilee Rader


In “smart speaker” digital assistant systems such as Google Home, there is no visual user interface, so people must learn about the system’s capabilities and limitations by experimenting with different questions and commands. However, many new users give up quickly and limit their use to a few simple tasks. This is a problem for both the user and the system. Users who stop trying out new things cannot learn about new features and functionality, and the system receives less data upon which to base future improvements. Symbiosis—a mutually beneficial relationship—between AI systems like digital assistants and people is an important aspect of developing systems that are partners to humans and not just tools. In order to better understand requirements for symbiosis, we investigated the relationship between the types of digital assistant responses and users’ subsequent questions, focusing on identifying interactions that were discouraging to users when speaking with a digital assistant. We conducted a user study with 20 participants who completed a series of information seeking tasks using the Google Home, and analyzed transcripts using a method based on applied conversation analysis. We found that the most common response from the Google Home, a version of “Sorry, I’m not sure how to help”, provided no feedback for participants to build on when forming their next question. However, responses that provided somewhat strange but tangentially related answers were actually more helpful for conversational grounding, which extended the interaction. We discuss the connection between grounding and symbiosis, and present recommendations for requirements for forming partnerships with digital assistants.


Janghee Cho and Emilee Rader. “The Role of Conversational Grounding in Supporting Symbiosis Between People and Digital AssistantsProc. ACM Hum.-Comput. Interact.. Vol. 4 No. CSCW1 pp. Article 33 (May 2020).2020.

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