What Should A Virtual Agent Look Like?

Not all companies that offer a virtual agent elect to have an avatar. However, many companies choose to make cartoon, 2D or 3D renderings of a human to personalize the experience, support the brand, and reinforce the conversational nature of the interaction.

 But what should an avatar look like? Here are some considerations for eBusiness professionals who are designing a virtual agent avatar. Your avatar should:

  • Resonate with your audience. Pam Kosta, CMO at VirtuOz advises, “It’s key to make the user feel like this is someone they can get help from.” Marketing & Creative Services Manager at Next IT Jennifer Snell agrees, “When it gets right down to it, if your consumers don’t like it, they aren’t going to trust it or use it.” Here are two examples of avatars designed to appeal to their respective audiences: The Army’s “SGT STAR,” which reaches 18- to 22-year-old potential Army recruits, is a 3-D animation while AT&T’s “Charlie” looks warm and caring, with a vague ethnicity and age to appeal to a broader demographic base.
  • Have a look that reflects your brand. Sometimes a company has a prominent brand persona like the Michelin Man. Though less common, others may take elements from their logo. Most frequently, brand will influence what an avatar is wearing, hair style, etc. For example, a brand appealing to a younger segment should choose edgier clothing, while a conservative brand should dress its avatar in a more button-down fashion. eGain suggests companies model their avatars after their spokesperson in other media.
  • Take geography into consideration. There are cultural variations that will influence avatar gender, clothing, and style. Pam Kosta of VirtuOz notes, “In one European country, the agent started out more provocative. As she has been expanded into additional global geographies, her dress style has been changed to something more conservative.” 

Finally, be mindful of an avatar that is too lifelike because this increases the likelihood that consumers will be confused into thinking they are speaking with a real person. Also, be wary of the “uncanny valley.” The “uncanny valley” is a hypothesis around robotics that refers to human reaction to an anthropomorphized computer or robot. If the computer or robot is made to seem too lifelike, it engenders revulsion rather than attraction in people. 


Visual avatars almost always

Visual avatars almost always "cheapen" the experience. I prefer text or text/audio where my imagination can fill in the blanks. If a virtual character is written with some style and creative flair, there is no reason to also deliver a visual representation that is less emotional than the dialogue itself.

I am seeing (no pun intended) this used very well on mobile through one company now, who focus on the quality of the dialogue and engagement, rather than using visual representations that, at best, look like low-budget cartoons.

Thanks for your comments

Thanks for your comments Dave. I agree that a poorly designed avatar can have a negative impact on the experience. At the same time, there are some very well designed avatars that can support - and even further - the brand and make the experience seem more conversational.

There are alot of opportunities for mobile. As you point out, text and text/audio appear to be a good fit, especially considering the smaller screen. I think we'll see a lot of interesting developments in the virutal agent space with mobile in the coming year.

Don't set high expectations

Hi Diana,

Nice topic!

In general, I advise companies not to add avatars which looks like humans (even though most of them do). The more human they look, the higher the expectations. And even though technology has drastically improved that last couple of years, agents are still not able to match human intelligence. There, a character that matches the intelligence of the dialogue is best. We've said something about usage of avatars on this page: http://www.chatbots.org/avatar.

Furthermore, in those case where virtual agents represent a brand (brand agents), I always advise to check appropriate and brand matching clothing, but also to take the background of the avatar into account.


Avatar should have a goal

I agree with Dave about poorly designed avatars decreasing the brand and experience.

Most websites use avatars as a gimmick, something "fun" to have. But fun & humour only last for a few days... weeks tops before it turns to be annoying. And what specific role does the gimmick have? Entertain the visitors? All of them?

I believe avatars are an extra channel of information using audio, gestures and alternative text presentation. They can act as a good sales person. And good sales people are there to help you, they don't push you into buying. There where service is given people tend to come back. ... and in the end... customers buy on average 15% more in shops where they receive this good service.
So match your audience and your brand, define a goal for the avatar, find a good voice for it and double your conversion.

Hi Dianne, Great article!

Hi Dianne,

Great article! This is always an interesting topic of discussion. As an employee of noHold (www.nohold.com), I can say that although we offer the option for an avatar, the vast majority of our customers simply choose to not use one. Just last week, in fact, one of our customers had this to say about his company’s decision to not use an avatar: “There is no supporting evidence to say that if you use an avatar, you’re going to see an incremental satisfaction for those customers by X percent”. I think many businesses we have worked with feel similarly – that is, they take a very calculated approach to Virtual Agent implementation, and strong content with measurable ROI is more the priority.

Evidence that an avatar works better

Hi Ryan,
Nice to see you here as well!
There is a lot of evidence that
-people prefer avatars about 'just talking with something'
-an avatar add emotions to a dialogue, and thus to the brand emotion in consumers' mind
-an avatar substantially increases conversions.

The first two claims are proven in academic research. I'll check this for you. We'll publish our research tab shortly.

On the last one I'll ask an avatar provider to follow up this thread!

Using an avatar image beyond a virtual agent

Thanks for your insightful comments. I think another part of the conversation is where - or if - an avatar fits into a larger brand element strategy to represent customer care. An avatar could be used in other places, such as printed materials or Facebook. I wonder if anyone has any examples of this?

@Diane -- There was a

@Diane -- There was a campaign a year ago, that's still online:


This was done for Skittles in Romania that used the Skittles' branded "Rainbow" as a 'talking rainbow,' with a tie-in to their Facebook site. Unless you speak Romanian, you may need to keep Google Translate open alongside it to interact.

While it seems like a "natural" to port "brand characters" to be virtual, conversational agents/characters, I can't think of an example in the U.S. market -- though, we are promoting that idea heavily, particularly for children's Brands and mobile engagement now.

I can't walk down the cereal aisle of a grocery without thinking that all of those characters on the shelves should be able to chat with everyone.

Eric R

Hi Eric,

Thank for your inspiration:
"I can't walk down the cereal aisle of a grocery without thinking that all of those characters on the shelves should be able to chat with everyone."
Well visualized!

About your example in Romania, we'd love to list it on our directory! Is this something you've developed yourself? We'd appreciate if you could help us to add it:
(largest directory of virtual agents/virtual assistant, chat bots, brand agents, conversational agents in the world)

What's your last name btw? I'd like to connect.

Need and Importance of a Virtual Assistant


Nowadays Virtual Assistants are becoming a part of business .The delivery of Services are mainly made by using latest technologies. Not in service also for communication channels technologies as been updated. They can handle wide variety of support services through a single point of contact.And the best part is that you can relax and enjoy your vacation or holidays while all your works are done by your virtual assistant. Is this great?

Virtual assistant can make one's life easier and better!

John V
virtual assistant

virtual assistant confusion

Hi John,

Welcome to world of the terminology confusion. The industry of intelligent virtual agents sometimes uses the term 'virtual assistant' to address an conversational, virtual human; thus not a real human, like you. It's is powered by artificial intelligence.

Hopefully the industry will soon agree on the usage of a better term which is unique, or at least, less confusing.

Avatar: Brand / Academic research

Considering the academic research on how and why avatars are effective on websites. Stanford published a report on it: The Benefits of Interactive Online Characters (Byron Reeves)