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AI and the Future of User Experience Design
The ghost in the machine
‘In recent years, the rapid advancement of technology has brought forth a wave of emerging technologies that have the potential to reshape various industries and revolutionize the way we live and work. From artificial intelligence (AI) to virtual reality (VR) and the Internet of Things (IoT), these technologies are transforming the landscape of user experience (UX) design.’
The year is 2023 and I wrote the above paragraph using OpenAI’s Chat GPT. I’m not going to go into a philosophical debate about who actually can be credited for writing it (me, a generative AI or both of us). Still, it would have been tempting to just let it write the rest of this article too. Write a smart prompt, give it enough details and the AI will complete the task for me while I get to play with my kids, right? Well, unfortunately, we’re not there just yet. Let me tell you why.
Virtually every time I’ve used AI to generate content, I’ve always felt there was something missing. I’m not even talking about how AI can hallucinate and produce seemingly trustworthy content that is in fact fabricated or even completely wrong. No, let’s assume it’s one of those instances when the generated text is correct. Usually, it’s got all the right information and comes across as professional (or whatever tone of voice or personality you’ve instructed it to reproduce) but something is slightly off, consistently. The way I would describe it is almost like the content doesn’t have a soul. That’s one thing I’ve noticed about every generative AI model released these days. No matter how creative and structured your prompts are, when reading the results, you can tell there’s something artificial about it. Something repeatable, predictable, almost like a pattern. But that, as you’re going to see next, is not necessarily a bad thing.
The dawn of artificial intelligence
So, what does this have to do with the future of UX? Let’s see.
AI, believe it or not, is nowhere near as new as you would think. In fact, many of the algorithms that currently power AI models were developed starting in the 1950s and the mathematics behind them arguably goes back hundreds of years. So, while AI as a technology is not necessarily new, its adoption could only be possible today, when the technology allows for large-scale computation and also the amount of data available that can be ingested to train the models is at its highest in human history.
All this would not be possible without a vehicle that enabled that adoption. In our case, that vehicle was ChatGPT. While OpenAI and other AI companies opened their doors (for the most part) in the previous years, the models were still in the works and most products that used those models were still experimental at best. This all changed with the launch and explosive growth of ChatGPT. In the end, it was the human experience of having an online conversation that made AI the hot topic of today. This translated into the user experience of chatting (for many for the first time) with an artificial intelligence. ‘What am I going to ask it first?’, ‘I wonder if it knows about that topic…’, ‘What if I ask it to write an email for me?’. It was all by design. And so, the AI revolution began.
As Jaron Lanier argues, we’ve personified AI, and I agree. It happened because of the culture we grew up in (books and movies in particular) and also because our very first interaction with it at scale was in the form of a chatbot. This might have been unfortunate, as lots of people who were previously unfamiliar with the technology now think that this is what AI is. You ask ‘the machine’ something and it gives you back the right answer. You ask it to write text or solve a problem and it will do that for you. Many others are under the impression that we’re actually talking to a semi-conscious machine. We’re not! Weirdly, the great success of ChatGPT as a product, might have been an unfortunate way to introduce artificial intelligence to the public. For UX professionals this means we’re up for an uphill battle. I’ll explain why next.
Patterns within patterns within patterns
I know what you will say: ‘Ok, you seem to be a bit of an AI sceptic’. I’m not. Far from it. I genuinely think AI will be an integral part of our lives and this will be a good thing. You know what they say… the cat is out of the box and that ship has sailed. AI is here to stay!
However, I don’t think it’s going to be the way you’re expecting it to be. Yes, AI can be used to create chatbots and generate content on demand, but what if I told you you’re missing the forest for the trees? I strongly believe that’s not necessarily where its true power lies.
If I were to summarize what artificial intelligence is at a very high level, I would say it’s about two things: data and patterns. The strength of AI lies in the ability to recognize and make use of patterns in a much more efficient way than we can as humans. That’s because our brains also have to process other types of information like visual, emotional or sensory. Our brain is capable of amazing things. It can perform many tasks at the same time, some of which we are not even aware of. In fact, many scientists believe that the unconscious part of our brain processes more information than the conscious part.
AI on the other hand has much fewer ‘distractions’ and arguably an unlimited capacity to store and process data, so it can focus on spotting patterns, and it does that better and faster than we can, especially at scale, where time is a human’s worst enemy. Today, even if widespread, AI is still in its infancy. Today we ask AI to perform tasks by giving it prompts. When AI will reach maturity, we won’t have to. Using any AI-enhanced product will feel as natural as checking a Twitter feed. From a UX perspective, AI should and will be virtually invisible to the human eye. It will integrate fully with the user experience.
Take any classic application for example. How often do you think an end user sees or is even interested in the backend? No offence to all the talented back-end developers without which the internet of today would not exist. I think you can guess the answer. In the same way, AI has the potential to become the backend of the future, a brand-new engine for user experience. I’ve written before about AI opening the way for future applications to use what I call self-destructible features. This is a completely new way to experience (and design) applications. Imagine designing future applications without the need to actually code in specific features. What if the features are built on demand, in the background, in close to real-time? And so, user experience as a discipline will need to adapt. Not only AI can provide us with vastly more capabilities in terms of analysing research data, but it can change the very fibre of what a product is. I will not only change the way we experience products but also the way we design them.
Will AI eventually replace me?
No matter the industry you currently work in, I’m sure the thought has crossed your mind:'Will AI replace me?’ . The short answer is: in most cases, no! While AI can indeed automate lots of mundane tasks, I think AI can never replace human creativity, it’s our emotions that make us creative. Processing infinite amounts of data is not enough to do that. I see AI as an augment to what it means to be human. From a UX discipline perspective, this only means that UX will continue to grow in the future. In fact, it will expand beyond its current form, and even more people will focus on improving day-to-day user experiences in different shapes or forms, while AI will do the heavy lifting for us in terms of analysing large amounts of data. Having the extra ‘free time’ means that we can focus on what we do best: imagining new things. With the help of AI, for the first in human history, we will be able to innovate at scale.
I admit, all this might feel scary now but, as always, we will learn to adapt and we will thrive while doing it.