Why is AI critical to the future design leader?

I’m probably steeped in AI more than most designers. My day job at IBM is to design AI for a suite of supply chain software, to build patterns, and to foster the community of practitioners there. I published one book on it, am working on three other books about it, keep a sci-fi blog that discusses it a lot, back in the pre-pandemic days I spoke about it on stages around the world, and have of late been writing fiction about it as a very nerdy hobby.

I expect all design leaders and leading designers, for that matter, are aware of AI. You just may not be ready for how quickly it’s going to go from a flow to a flood. AI is one of those rare things that grows exponentially. When demos of AI capabilities are first released it’s all hahaha that’s so dumb until suddenly it’s daaaaaamn, AI can do that? You don’t want to get caught unawares.

And while I am very hesitant to get into the business of prognostication, I feel strongly about this bit: AI is going to touch everything. Everything against which human intelligence has been brought to bear in the past, and, eventually, much more. And while there are very important reasons to keep it contained, it’s very much like a force of nature in that there is massive momentum—that no one person or group is in particular control of—that are motivating its continued development and evolution. For this reason, I believe that human-centered designers need to be deep in the mix of people developing it, helping to make sure this tech is discoverable, smart, conversant, helpful, deferent, consistent, ethical, humane, and effective.

You need to learn it. Most of the texts out there discussing AI are loaded with confusing jargon and technical terms. (Classifiers? Clusterers? Regressors?) But it is possible to sift through the material to find what is of issue to users, and thereby what is of issue to designers. It’s complicated, but tractable.

You need to know how to design for it. Because AI can exhibit behavior and agency, it’s unlike any design material that has come before. If you’re designing conversational interactions in natural language, the rules are different than the GUI you’ve been steeped in, right down to the psychology and linguistics of the person using it. And its constraints are often uncanny, confounding the usual ways we solve problems. Our intuitions in this space will only take us so far. You have to begin to learn this new material and build a craft around it.

You need to know how to lead for it. AI is rarely implemented in one-person teams. Rather it’s a partnership of stakeholders, engineering, data science, business, design teams, all working side-by-side and hopefully collaboratively with users. Once you get into team efforts, it raises a host of leadership questions: What investments should an organization make around it? Do you roll-your-own or buy off the shelf? How do you structure research and user testing around it? How do you train existing designers? How do you hire? How can AI be made useable and useful for your users, and your organization?

Rather than be blindsided, or even responsive to executive requests, design leaders can get out ahead and champion this change. It’s coming, and if you, the user-centered design leader, carry the banner, it’s more likely to be a user-centered (and world-centered) implementation. As Alan Key said, “The best way to predict the future is to create it.”

  1. AI can optimize for many things. As a design leader, you can ensure teams are optimizing for humane, ethical experiences as well as business outcomes.
  2. An organization inherits its ethical stance from the top. As a design leader, you can ensure that your organization keeps its AI 
  3. Designers have traditionally been translators between business goals, development capabilities, and user needs. With AI we bring data science to the table. As a design leader, you can help translate between these disciplines to keep teams focused and communicating as you incorporate AI.

As with any new-ish and evolving technology, no one person will have all the answers. I won’t have all the answers. But I have a lot of research, experience, and practice to share with you as we ourselves adapt to it and lead the way.


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