Going through John Maeda’s this year Design in Tech report, I came across something that got me thinking about the future of the industry that is by many considered to be on the verge of AI-driven disruption. There is no doubt things are changing and AI is developing by leaps and bounds.
However, design does not have to become an adversarial relationship between humans and machines.
If we actually retract from the traditional or as Maeda calls it, “classical” perception of design, where physical products and objects are created to satisfy a specific need, we’ll open ourselves up to the “commercial” design which builds innovation deep insights into UX. The pinnacle of this natural progression is “computational” design which uses data models, algorithms, and anything virtual to instantaneously satisfy billions of users.
Why AI don’t fly
Building an AI means emulating human behavior in different sets of contexts. The more variables, the more outcomes. At the core of this contraption lies the abundance of historical data on human behavior patterns.
The problem is there is no unbiased AI to populate itself with data.
Every algorithm defining the conduct of AI is written by a person based on the data from other people. What if the biases towards race and gender make their way into the picture? This does not necessarily mean AI is inevitably flawed with someone’s bigotry but since machines are not blessed with their own judgment, they can’t make proper decisions.
With more learning and deep analytical capabilities, AI will deconstruct us to the point where some of the harshest historical biases concealed within the patterns of our language will play out in fresh colors.
Unfortunately, the impact a biased AI can have on society is greater than that. The problem of inclusiveness in design is a hard-fought battle for a lot of us and it only matters because we know how it feels. Feeling is not an AI prerogative and by delegating judgment or lack of thereof to a robot, we risk systematizing biases and discrimination into every physical or digital product we build with AI.
That’s why AI will never replace a job that involves feeling and judgement. Feeling is the soul of design. However, it can be augmented.
As John Maeda says, “computers are good at exclusion, because they’re only based on past data. The business opportunity for the future-thinking designer is in inclusion.” Vision can’t always be based on experience, data, algorithms, and probability indices. Sometimes it’s just the gut feeling.
We still operate on subtleties
One of the top skills designers will require in the nearest future, according to Maeda is writing. It’s important to make a distinction here. Writing is not content generation. There is an abundance of click-dependent text information thrown at you at any search query — the #content. And then there is #writing — thoroughly picked words describing life experiences which might not even be writer’s own but approached from a unique perspective and sprinkled with personality, make their way into our minds and enrich us.
Technically, an AI-written article can contain all the keywords and references SEO requires, with uniqueness rate as high as it gets, it does not guarantee success. In fact, it means the opposite. The written word analog of a clickbait bodes no good to your platform. The wall of bot-generated text is nothing but a faux value. With that said, we can’t ignore the trend.
Even though today’s attempts limit to teaching AI how to mimic a human, in future we’ll switch to teaching AI to be human, and ultimately teach humans how to be humans.
We are yet to find ways to exploit AI in design not harming ourselves from the best of motives. We are yet to learn how we can use AI as a tool, not a substitution of what might seem obsolete but in reality, is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of our life that you can only tell once you lose it.
A writer is a designer of meaning through the available tools. There is no artificial way to grab a user’s attention other than speaking to their feelings. Attention span is shorter than ever. Sense is not an essential prerequisite.
Ironically, in the world of technological and marketing abundance, true value is the hardest thing to find.
How design is changing
John Maeda points out the top-10 critical issues and challenges of design in 2019-ish. Here they are in a more general interpretation:
The reason why the exclusion of design out of the decision-making process is even considered an issue is due to the archaic misconception that solidified in the minds of business owners and was even further propagated by the designers themselves. In reality, if your vision and business capabilities are of value to the executives, it doesn’t matter where you are coming from. A seat at the table is anyone’s to grab but it urges value.
Inclusiveness and ethics
With more incentives from bigger companies, the 30% threshold of women in tech is becoming a thing of the past. Of course, the industry is far from being a representative of a diverse and bias-free community, but the trend is there. We have a lot of work to do in both education and culture but all of it has to serve for a greater good — harmony.
As our awareness about the inclusiveness of design decisions grows, things like age gaps become obsolete. Ethical, and environmental aspects become integrated parts of design rather than a pleasing addition.
We know there is human judgment behind every important decision. A machine can provide more data and facilitate that judgment but it should never be left unexamined and put at risk of making a discriminatory decision or following a faulty bias. Mathematical models alone should never have the ability to impact the lives of people who can’t check and recognize them.
That’s why it’s very important that the designers involved in the process of injecting AI into design should be aware of the power they have to tame.
Dark UX patterns
Design skill set of the future
Look, Hollom, it’s leadership they want. Strength. Now, you find that within yourself, and you will earn their respect. Without respect, true discipline goes by the board. — Captain Jack Aubrey, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World”
Earning respect for things outside pixels is the main challenge for most of designers these days. A lot of them don’t approach things like user research from the perspective of a data scientist and only rely on visual perception and the feel, while in reality, the ability to manage gatherable data is crucial for those on the forefront of user interaction.
Innovation is about taking something that no one has ever done and making it your thing. Innovation in design requires taking the abilities that might not traditionally be associated with design, and mastering them.
Whether it’s the ability to supplement visual design elements with sharpness through better writing, deep meaning through empathy, or a higher level of performance through understanding coding, innovation is change.
Change is forward motion, not concentric.
So far design has been an all-encompassing discipline, applicable everywhere. The mindset and the vision were the drivers of successful designers across industries. With that said, it’s about time things will have to change. The term “computational design” that John Maeda uses increasingly often has a distinction built into it.
Computational design is the design of the future and unlike tangible products reaching a limited number of users, digital products have infinite potential. And this requires engineering expertise from designers. The deeper you get into the development process, the more secure you are as a designer, not to mention the benefits of bridging the gap between design and development.
While still being a vague subject, companies are showcasing an important shift towards a qualitative user research as opposed to the traditional quantitative method. Gathering stats is not that hard, you just have to know where to look. However, stats don’t mean a thing if you don’t realize the deep circumstance of the trends.
In case of a UX research, descriptive quantity renders little value, while all the meaning is in quality. After Erika Hall, design research means:
- Leaving ego at the door.
- Doing the talk first.
- Being honest about motives.
- Being flexible and independent.
- Learning to stash data.
- Being prepared for the filth.
- Committing to collaboration.
- Confronting (your) biases.
As development tools become more and more efficient in creating diverse experiences, it’s a designer’s job to make those experiences relevant and appropriate. There is no place for formal research here and there are no authorities capable of replacing a user-centric approach.
With digital content being the primary source of information today, we are still nowhere near having a style of writing for the web as refined as literary styles. But if this style eventually shapes into its own entity, its main attribute is going to be conciseness. We simply don’t have the patience anymore.
We are always in the state of scarcity caused by abundance.
Let me dwell on this. Have you ever found yourself giving up on a documentary because the suggested video on the side entices you? And then there is another video again. It’s like catching up on the entire season of football games while the current season games are also running. There is a huge number of options which ultimately puts us in limbo unable to choose an option.
One of the ways this scarcity translates into design is through the output. There is more than one app on your phone. There are multiple tabs in your browser and we are ADD AF. This is where being good with words starts to matter. With short attention span and multiple distractions, users don’t stick.
It makes total sense that actionable texts in design must be a part of design, not a supplement.
UX is not only about visual elements that convey meaning through their shape. It is also words and signs. Decisions need to be easy to make, actions must be catchy, and the experience has to be instantly learnable. Tiny bits of text known as microcopy only take a nanosecond to read but the impact they produce secures the design.
Microcopy is a P-38 can opener of design. Through precise wording, it emphasizes positive interactions and helps deal with negative experience, for example, empty states. Good design leaves no questions. Good writing speaks to everybody no matter the cultural or social background. Writing gives your interfaces a voice. Do you care about your voice?
Most of the value delivered by tech giants is based on access to information and data. The more data you possess, the bigger your influence. But along with that influence comes oversaturation. Even the coolest pieces of technology introduced by pop companies aren’t nearly as sexy as something pitched by fresh new players with no stains to their names.
To take it further, we are used to the access to information. It’s no longer a privilege but rather a prerequisite of normal existence. The modern day digital value unfolds itself in something different and it’s the experiences.
When there are multiple ways to accomplish the same task, we stick to a delightful experience.
We have high-speed connectivity, omnichannel experiences, and now we want immersiveness and a new reality to tap into. Augmented reality (AR), Mixed reality (MR), and virtual reality (VR) are the hottest trends for tech companies to follow. Partially due to the lack of a common understandable model of what we should and shouldn’t use AR/VR for, but there is a strong cultural interest for these technologies. Before they make their way into our lives, we have to think what this means design-wise and what type of challenges we’ll be facing. For now, it’s the stone age of AR for mass consumers but the change is inevitable.
For designers, getting into AR/VR design means a whole new body of work. The key concept here is first-person design. It takes the overlord narrator out of the equation and puts out the first-hand experience.
AR/VR design builds non-linear context while keeping the user within the framework of familiar experiences.
An important thing to realize is that augmented reality is not necessarily fiction. It can be used to give insights to the production facilities, transportation of the products, better tutorials and user guides, and so on. It’s really hard to imagine where the opportunities of AR end. And this alone is a huge design challenge and a way to stay relevant in the industry years and years to come.
Omnichannel experience design implies addressing all the senses that users are ready to employ when dealing with a digital product. Sound is one of those channels. Audio elements add to the versatility of a designer’s toolbox and play an important role in steering the experience in the right direction.
Sounds accompany us everywhere. Inability to hear is one of the most challenging states a lot of people have to struggle with. But as medicine progresses in hearing loss treatment and prosthesis, we must find new ways to go around sound as a UX tool.
Most of us take sound for granted without giving it the deserved credit for the power to affect our judgement, emotions, and memories.
It’s about time designers should start paying more attention to sound not only in the obvious sound-driven industries like music, movies, and games but also interfaces and interactions. Naturally, sound is either the precursor of an action or the consequence of one. By the way sounds appear, we can tell something is approaching. The way the sound resonates in different environments gives us the clues about proximity. The pitch, the intensiveness of sounds give us instant clues about what we are dealing with.
We can delegate part of the feel we are creating through interfaces to the sound. There is a reason why Hollywood interfaces always make weird sounds. Sounds add significance to actions. A purpose-driven sound design can become an important part of the product UX, whether it is trying to elicit purchases to create an immersive experience.
Empathy for End User
One of the top skills designers need to have according to John Maeda is empathy for the end user. At first sight, this doesn’t make sense. Everything we design is meant to be built for the end user. Every decision we make is targeted at a specific user problem we are trying to help solve. So why is empathy considered to be a skill of the future?
The problem is empathy gets spread across multiple participants of the product design process and end up being something else.
This happens when designers follow the professional etiquette and fail to make a stand for their work. Inside a team, everyone has their thing about the project whatever it may be. This is the most common reason the projects stall. A collaborative effort has to follow a rule set and that rule set is catering to a user. Not one another.
This might get even more complicated if you add business owners and market strategists to the mix. Their vision of empathy is often incompatible with that of a designer. Business operates on the level of utility. It has to assess risks and leverage relations. The business goal is to create a somewhat viable product and get people to buy it. This is where marketers come into play and their level of user empathy is based on trends, tricks, and doing things in the right place at the right time.
What UX is not about is fiddling.
Emphasizing the end user empathy is something only a designer can have without being punished for it. This knowledge is as important for modern day/future designer as understanding conversion, funnels, revenue models, financial metrics, and resource allocation.
The ability to facilitate empathy through research we’ve talked about before is a must-have tool for a relevant professional in the field of product design. We are yet to see how the following factors can be efficiently transmitted into the UX models:
- What end users’ pains are.
- What end users’ gains are.
- What end users think and feel.
- What end users see and hear.
- What end users say and do.
The ability to take this data and create a design that won’t get compromised by the selling agenda and revenue plans, but will help the business thrive through better user engagement, is a defiance.
These are not the only skills new designers should learn and current designers should pay attention to in order to avoid being thrown out of the loop. If you haven’t yet, check out John’s Design in Tech 2018report. It’s a read and a half.
Design is changing and its virtues are only growing. Design in technology, in particular, is becoming more complex and inevitably competent.
We dream what design will be like in the future, well it will be whatever we make it now.
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