Thoughts on chat as an interface

Jan 8, 2024 • Yousef Amar • 5 min read

Chat as an interface has always been something I thought about a lot. After all, it's a close analogue to spoken conversation, our most natural form of communication.

The most basic chat interface is an input box and a chronological history of messages, so you can follow the conversation. Messages are often augmented with emojis etc to fill in the gaps for intonation and body language. If you need higher communication bandwidth, voice messages do it sometimes too. Advantages over face-to-face conversation is that text-based conversations have the option of being asynchronous and much longer-lived, potentially even pen-pal style correspondences.

Group conversations

The moment you start thinking about group conversations, some problems begin to be unearthed. One problem is it can get quite crowded, as you're sharing a linear chat history. It's hard to follow multiple threads of conversation that have been flattened into one, when in real life conversations can branch off and diverge.

This is a problem in video conferences too. While at a social event, groups naturally divide into smaller clusters of people in their own bubble of conversation, this has to be done explicitly in video conferences through breakout rooms and similar mechanics. Otherwise all the attention and spotlight is aimed at the person currently talking, which can throw off the dynamics.

I first noticed this phenomenon when I was running the Duolingo German language events in London. It's already common for people who don't know the language well to be shy about speaking up, but when covid started and we switched to Zoom, it was very easy for whomever is speaking to get stage fright, even if they're not normally shy. What then ends up happening is that two or three people will engage in conversation while the rest watch, unless the host (me in that case) takes control of the group dynamics. This was much easier to do in-person, especially where I could see the person's face and gauge how comfortable they are, so I don't put them on the spot (e.g. by bringing them into the conversation with simple yes/no questions).

Attempts at solutions

Anyway, during covid I became quite interested in products that try to solve these problems by capturing aspects of real-life communication through product design. I remember imagining a 2D virtual environment with spatial audio in the context of my PhD research. It turned out somebody was already building something similar: a fellow named Almas, and I remember having a call with him about SpatialChat (a conversation full of lovely StarCraft metaphors). This was an environment that allowed you to replicate the act of physically leaving a huddle and moving to a different cluster to talk. You could only be heard by those in "earshot".

A 2D game called Manyland did something similar with text-only, where text would appear above the head of your character as you were typing. This created interesting new dynamics and etiquette around "interrupting" each other, as well as things like awkward silences, which don't exist when you're waiting for someone to type. There was even an odd fashion around typing speed at one point.

Interestingly, you're not occupying space in the chat log by chatting; you're filling the space above your head, so you just need to find a good place to perch. Two people can respond to the same thing at the same time. However, one person can't quite multi-task their responses / threads without jumping back and forth between people, but after all that's how it works in real life too, no?

Reply chains and threads

I won't go over the history of different chat platforms and apps, but we've seen a lot of patterns that try and create some structure around communication, here in order from more ephemeral to less ephemeral:

I like to imagine conversations as trees, where branches can sprout and end just as fast. Have you ever been in an argument where someone rattles off a bunch of bad points, but you can only counter them in series? Each of your responses may in turn trigger several additional responses, and you get this exponentially growing tree and eventually you're writing essays dismantling every point one by one.

In real life, it's often hard to remember everything that was said, so you focus on just the most important parts. Or you deliberately prune the branches to the conversation doesn't become unwieldy. Some people like to muddy the waters and go off topic and it's up to you to steer the conversation back to the main trunk.

But not everything is a debate. A friend of mine figured that this tree, in 2D, ought to be the way to hold conversations. Big big internet conversations (he used social media as an example) are all adding nodes to far off branches of a huge tree. I quite like that picture. It would certainly allow for conversations to happen in parallel at the same time as you can hop back and forth between branches.

ChatGPT and the history tree

ChatGPT made the choice that chats should be linear, but you can start a new chat with a new instance of the AI at any time, and go back to old chats through the history tab. This seems to make sense for chatting with an AI assistant, but an anti-pattern emerges...

Have you ever gone down a conversation with ChatGPT only to realise that it's dug itself into a hole, so you scroll up to just after the last "good" message and edit the message to create a new, better timeline? I do this a lot, and it reminded me of undo/redo in text editors.

Undo and redo are normally linear, and if you go back in time and make a change, suddenly the old "future" is no longer accessible to you. We've all done it where we accidentally typed something after pressing undo a bunch of times to check a past version, losing our work.

Someone made a plugin for vim that allows you to navigate a tree of timelines that you create by undo-ing, sort of like automatic git branching and checkout. I feel like this ought to be a UI for interacting with ChatGPT too! Already this is being used for better responses and I feel like there must have been attempts at creating a UI like this, but I haven't seen one that does this elegantly.


This has been kind of a stream of though post, inspired by my post on resetting my AI assistant's chat memory, so I'm not entirely sure what the point I'm trying to make is. I think I'm mainly trying to narrow down the ergonomics of an ideal chat interface or chat in a virtual environment.

I think you would probably have some set of "seed" nodes -- the stem cells to your threads -- which are defined by individuals (i.e. DMs), or groups with a commonality, or topics. These would somehow all capture the nuances of real-life communication, but improve on that with the ability to optionally create ephemeral threads out of reply branches. I'm not yet sure what the UI would physically look like though.