As design tools, workflows, and processes will inevitably be molded by AI in the coming decade, we need to shift our mindset from a human versus machine to a human plus machine mindset.
Miklos is a Lead UX Designer and Product Design Strategist with more than 16 years of experience. Currently working at the Financial Times in London, he built his career in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles working in various industries. While remaining a hands-on practitioner, he's also built and led design teams.
We have a lot to be grateful for. The average life expectancy in Liverpool during the industrial revolution was 28 years old. Nowadays, we have extraordinary advances in technology that have resulted in artificial hearts and mRNA Covid vaccines; the internet, self-driving cars, and personal computing. Within the next decade, the AI (artificial intelligence) revolution will propagate through everything, and it’s predicted by some that it will be a more dramatic shift in technology than the use of the personal computer.
However, AI has become an over-hyped buzzword across many industries, and the design world is no exception. There are ongoing conversations between designers and product teams around the future impact of AI, Machine Learning, Deep Learning, VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), and MR (mixed reality), and how our jobs may be affected by it.
Before jumping into more esoteric things, consider this analogy that is emblematic of humanity’s current attitude towards AI. Take an isolated tribe in the Amazon rainforest. They have had no contact with civilization and have never encountered anyone who looks different from them. They are completely cut-off from the 21st century—no TV or electricity, no phones, Twitter, Instagram, or Netflix.
Amazon tribe shooting arrows at a helicopter. Source: Ricardo Stuckert
Confronted by a low-flying helicopter hovering above the tribe (due to a diversion to avoid a storm) they became so terrified they started shooting arrows at it! Do we respond the same way to AI? Do we fear that with which we are unfamiliar—the fear of the unknown?
By now we’ve heard it all: AI is going to eliminate our jobs! The machines are taking over! But will it happen? Are we going to be terminated as designers? If you do a Google search for, “Is AI going to…” you will see these autocomplete phrases in the dropdown: “Take over the world”, “Take our jobs”, “Is AI going too far?”
Notice that all these have negative connotations. There isn’t one positive among them. How about “make our lives better,” or “help save the planet.” In other words, there is still a lot of fear around AI—mostly due to the public not being well-informed about it.
The Machines Are Coming...
But in a good way! What we call AI is typically a stack of advanced computing systems. Machines that work and react like humans and give the appearance of human-like intelligence. However, AI is still mostly unknown, and figuring out exactly how it will work in the design world is pretty much like trying to figure out how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
Machine learning—a subset of AI—is already used today in a wide variety of applications. Its algorithms are about pattern recognition and learning cycles. For example, based on a variety of signals such as the user’s demographic profile, preferences, location, search, and browsing history, we get email filtering in Gmail and sites serving up personalized recommendations (social media feeds; ecommerce sites; and video streaming platforms, such as Netflix, Disney Plus, and Apple TV). We also have voice-based interfaces interacting with us (Alexa, Siri, and Google Home); chatbots, computer vision applications such as face recognition, and Google classifying millions of images for us to search through.
Illustration of machine learning
Lead UX Designer and Product Design Strategist
Humans Remain in Charge
AI is a collection of incredibly powerful algorithms. It’s narrow and very focused in its application. It’s good at accomplishing pre-defined, specific tasks. All of those tasks have to be given to the system, they don’t operate independently.
In contrast to machines, let’s look at the human brain. There is nothing like it in the known universe. It has 100 billion neurons and its processing power is 11 million bits of information per second processed simultaneously (most of it unconsciously). Humans are endowed with a spirit and intelligence unmatched in the known universe. AI doesn’t have the ability to contemplate the past or imagine the future.
We need to let machines do what they do best: collecting, sorting, and analyzing data… optimizing, pattern recognition, and rapid learning. And let designers do what they do best: creativity, insight, and abstract thinking—making unusual and innovative connections between things. But we can take advantage of AI in never-before-seen ways because we can use the technology to augment us.
Designers can use AI as an augmentation to boost creativity and get their work done more efficiently as seen with this human augmentation military exoskeleton.
The AI-Assisted World in Design
How can AI assist designers best? Take user research. AI can function as an augmented assistant, do some heavy lifting with data collection and analysis. It can find patterns, make connections, and draw conclusions with awesome efficiency. Sifting through reams of data such as surveys, interviews, contextual observations, audio and video recordings, and all kinds of other user research data, both qualitative and quantitative. This significantly faster process will help us emerge with actionable insights more rapidly.
In other areas, what if, early in the product design process we could quickly come up with several different UIs that could be tested by AI to arrive at the most optimal design? Designs could be tested against known usability standards, best practices, and conventions in a fraction of the time previously experienced.
As an example, let’s take a B2B dashboard design. The design is fed into an AI-driven UI analysis tool and tests are run against a certain set of usability heuristics and accessibility guidelines, industry-standard web design patterns, and B2B dashboard design best practices.
Here’s one of the screens from that set after the analysis was run.
B2B dashboard design analyzed by AI
This is computer vision and machine learning at its best. AI models trained on web design best practices, identifying patterns, and flagging problem areas. As a result of this inspection, it looks like there are some usability and accessibility issues. Adjustments can be made, and the analyses rerun until the design is optimized. AI can also be used to further optimize live products using A/B testing, or multi-armed bandit testing, and the UI can be changed instantly in real-time based on which design works best.
Design systems and component libraries can be generated in minutes. AI tools would scan the work and generate the design system complete with ready-to-use code. Designers will still power the design process with creativity, innovation, and insight and verify the output, but we’re talking about immense time savings. AI is not designing, it’s augmenting.
Design’s Creative Partner
Let’s explore how an AI-assisted design process could work. We don’t quite have the tools yet, so this is hypothetical, but systems like these are being developed. Such a system will help generate design possibilities rapidly, taking in various inputs such as user research data insights, sketches, wireframes, our design system, branding guides, and so on. During the next stage, before the system generates a final design, all these components are run through several analyses and tests. Everything put into the system will be checked against predefined parameters, like running through a checklist, before giving us an optimized design.
Future design workflow, an AI-augmented design process
Such a workflow would be an efficient, fast, augmented design process—AI acting as a designer’s creative partner. This sort of AI-assisted optimization of designs will soon be commonplace: setting things up for the best conversion, localization, scannability, usability, accessibility, and more.
When it comes to design, AI is meant to work with creativity, not replace it—an important distinction. Once a basic design is established and a few parameters provided, a smart AI system would generate a selection of design alternatives to present to the designer, who would then choose the best design according to their preference.
By integrating machine learning into our web products we can elevate user experiences by preloading custom content based on probability algorithms, and optimizing UX in real-time. With such AI-driven anticipatory design and hyper-personalization, we can accurately predict what a person will want to watch, read, or purchase. This will enable UX designers to deliver unique digital experiences for each individual—many companies are already getting close to it. Hyper-personalization, driven by AI, will elevate UX on video streaming platforms, news sites, travel booking sites, social media, eCommerce, and more.
Speedy design prototyping could be done with an AI design tool where basic sketches are scanned in, a few parameters are entered and a library of established UI components spring to life to render a prototype in alignment with a company design system. Airbnb is already doing it, generating design components with production-ready code from hand-drawn wireframe sketches using machine learning and computer vision.
How are AI-driven systems going to help designers in practice? They need to think in terms of two stages: creation and consumption. At the creation stage: AI can assist with user research data synthesis, wireframing, prototyping, visual design, heuristic analysis, user testing, generating design systems, etc. And, at the consumption stage—as people are using the product—AI can deliver massively improved user experiences with hyper-personalization, integrated augmented reality, voice interfaces, computer vision, and more.
AI at the creation stage and at the consumption stage
Designers as Stewards of AI
Our job as designers is to use AI as an augmentation system for what it does best, while we, humans, guide, curate, groom, test, and verify AI’s output. We need to define safety parameters and put up guardrails, especially when a bad output could cause harm, such as during facial recognition, health care applications, and mental health applications. Designers should think of themselves as stewards of AI technology.
Because AI is a tool that amplifies intent, we must be careful and consider possible harmful outcomes. We must have strong AI ethics and a strong set of AI-driven design principles to guide us.
AI-Driven Design Principles
Research has already been done on the general public’s attitude towards AI. It has shown that, as long as there are rigorous AI-driven design principles and AI ethics in place, most people would be OK with sharing their data if it’s done with their consent and if they remain in control.
That said because all data models made by humans reflect human biases there is an implicit need for AI-driven design principles to be rigorously established. Here are a few:
Design for trust - be transparent and sincere with everything concerning data.
Design for humanity - humanize experiences with feedback, language, and tone.
Design for less choice - use anticipatory design and remove unnecessary decisions.
Design for minimal input - solve significant user problems with minimal input expected from them.
Designing for no discrimination - when building models for machine learning, remove all possible forms of discrimination. Outcomes must be lawful, ethical, and robust—both from a technical perspective and the social environment.
A list of AI-driven design principles
Future Design Careers and AI
To stay ahead of the game and futureproof their careers, designers need to start learning about AI, ML, AR, voice user interfaces, and computer vision–start exploring the capabilities of AI and how to best use this new technology. As of now, the best thing a designer could do for their career is to begin learning about these new technologies, how to use them during the development stage, and how to create better user experiences in the final product.
The future is clear. Designers who want to stay on the bleeding edge need to get on board now with AI technologies. With fast-moving economies and the rapidly changing technological landscape, the one skill that is guaranteed to continue to be invaluable is the ability to learn and adapt.
Those who learn to work with the new AI technologies will come out ahead. Those who don’t may be left behind.
AI-assisted designer of the future
Robots are not going to replace designers. Instead of being a threat, AI, as in “augmented intelligence,” will present a series of exciting opportunities. Leveraging those design opportunities is not going to happen by magic, but by designers co-creating with AI as their creativity sits in the crosshairs of art, science, engineering, and design. Technology in the past made us stronger and faster. AI will make us smarter and will allow greater creativity.
AI holds a lot of potential for the design world, but for this to happen, the misconceptions and hype around it must be deconstructed. It would be for the best if designers cleared their minds and didn’t consider AI as “artificial intelligence”– working as some kind of magic-tech. A more useful way to think about AI is as “augmented intelligence” and a creative partner.
With AI, new relationships will need to be established between customer and product. These interactions will be just the beginning of the ongoing conversation between business and consumer about what artificial intelligence can, and should be able to do for products and services. Designers will bring the necessary empathetic context for innovation, which is how a business will succeed with AI.
With this amazing technology becoming more and more available, designers must maintain a human-centered approach to crafting AI-driven experiences. As AI slowly becomes another powerful tool in a designer’s arsenal, we need to regard it as our creative partner, helping us accelerate our creativity and explore its possibilities more deeply than ever before. AI will not take over our work, it will change the way we work. We must not fear AI, we need to embrace it because AI and the designer will make the designer excel.
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