Artificial intelligence (AI) is creeping into every area of our lives, into our homes, our cars, devices and the applications that we use on a daily basis.
When applied to user experience (UX) design, AI is increasingly being used as a tool to help designers match products to users needs, to personalize them.
AI presents an opportunity to give the user the right content at the right time.
By automating time-consuming manual tasks such as processing large amounts of information, improving or polishing drawings or alerting researchers to behavior that they might otherwise have missed, AI helps save designers a lot of time in finding out about user needs.
AI in UX design
There are multiple examples of AI in UX design that we already use or are likely to in the near future.
Apple’s latest version of it’s operating system iOS 15, will include multiple features embedded with AI such as the ability to identify text in photos and copy it to a note. Facial recognition in photographs has been around for several years as have translation tools.
For years, consumers have gotten used to Amazon or Spotify learning their purchasing patterns and music tastes and suggesting songs or other books to buy, to personalize their experience. Without AI, it would be very difficult to compile such data and match it to the user.
In the emerging area of self-driving vehicles, companies like Tesla are leveraging computer vision, a field of AI that trains computers to interpret and understand the visual world. Cameras can recognize obstacles and make decisions based on what they see.
Why is AI important for UX?
AI is another one of many mechanisms in the UX designer’s toolbox. AI helps UX professionals collect, process, analyze and aggregate data in a much shorter time than it would take to do manually. It helps them make sense of data and get insights into user behavior.
In the area of research, AI can be used to automate hundreds of tests. Normally carrying out A/B tests requires setting up tests, monitoring them and analyzing and synthesizing the findings.
But AI is helping change the role of the UX professional who in the future will be doing less of the test set up and more of overseeing the process of strategic planning.
AI is often applied to quantitative testing of large amounts of data, testing for trial and error. However, there are areas in qualitative testing where it can be used. For example, machines can be trained to recognize certain gestures or facial expressions that humans might miss in a recorded video interview. The limitations, however, are that AI cannot stop and ask a more probing question to get more qualitative information. So, in research, AI is more of a support tool.
Changing role of UX designer
At the moment most UX professionals work on websites, applications and interfaces.
As AI becomes more involved in every aspect of daily life and user experience becomes part of everything we interact with, the lines will become blurred between user experience and industrial design.
When self-driving cars become a reality, a UX designer could team up with an automotive designer to create the digital experience in the car’s interior. Or UX designers could work with architects to design smart homes.
When is AI useful and what are its limitations?
Like is often the case with technology, AI is a tool and should only be used when it can add value. There are limitations to its use. Attempts to completely automate website design, to date, have proved to be lacking and led to poor or inadequate results.
There are several variables that influence this. AI is only as good as the data it works with. Data training, using machine learning algorithms, requires millions of data items to build an adequate model. This model can have a bias. AI is still not at the stage where it can think like a human but rather helps us gain a deeper understanding of human behaviors.
AI may not be appropriate to all industries or certain areas of particular industries where accurate data may be difficult to obtain. Applying AI techniques in healthcare and law enforcement may still be too risky and prone to costly mistakes. People often need more emotional care than to be merely served with a service.
An area where AI is causing significant disruption in UX design is in its ability to test and visualize ideas that are still at the concept stage.
For example, US hospitality services company Airbnb has developed an AI system that helps designers to get a sneak peak at what a finished product could look like without having to develop it manually. The AI system recognizes standard hand-drawn design on a whiteboard and automatically renders it into the source code and starts testing how it operates. Previously this required taking photos of a sketch and sending them to a developer to be coded, a process that could take up to a week.
AI enables rapid testing of wireframe prototypes, saving days of time and effort. Other similar, useful tools include Google Drawings, AutoDraw and Draw.io which turn rough sketches, scribbles, and doodles into more polished, cleaner images.
Will AI ever replace UX designers?
The question of whether machines will eventually replace humans has been posed many times. In the case of UX designers this will not be for a very long time, if ever. The reason is that the design process requires parameters that are very human: sensitivity; empathy and emotion. The aim of AI is to help create experiences that are increasingly more agreeable to humans and that requires humans.
AI will help save time on repetitive tasks, it will process large amounts of information and provide insights, it will allow for rapid prototyping and more accurate and faster processes. But in the end it is more of an evolution than a revolution. Humans will always have the last say.