Chris Noessel’s new job – Design Principal for Applied AI at IBM, but… what does it mean?

Ambition Empower AI track leader Chris Noessel just got a new day job. He’s still with IBM, but now in an even more exciting and challenging position. We had a quick chat to figure out just what a Design Principal for Applied AI does.

Hi Chris! Congratulations on the new position as Design Principal for Applied AI! Sounds great, but what does it mean?

– IBM’s GM of Design, Katrina Alcorn, challenges us to find ways to make excellence at the company pervasive. To this end, the Design for AI guild is creating a comprehensive set of tools for IBMers to design world-class AI experiences. These projects include explainability, competitive analysis, quality heuristics, conversational experiences, data literacy, and design related to foundation models, to name a few. In my role as Design Principal for Applied AI, I run the guild’s plenary sessions, speaker events, do deep-dive work on my own project with a small team, and along with the rest of the guild leadership team, help mentor the dozen or so teams. I am also available to IBMers to consult not just on design for AI theory but AI as in practical applications with clients and our own products.

What will be different 15 years from now?

That sounds like a perfect role for you. IBM is a leader in this space and obviously has decided to put AI front and center. Just as design and development have become integral parts of most businesses over the last 15 years, it seems evident that AI will change what we (designers) do and how we organize. What will be different for us 15 years from now?

– That is a long time horizon, so take my answer with due skepticism. But, I fully expect designers to both be designing for systems with lots more AI, and doing it with AI “collaborators.” By collaborators I don’t mean like “general AI” robots, like R2D2 and BB8, but certainly with AI systems that assist with research and analysis, real-time predictions on the efficacy of new designs, and assistance with software in the hands of real users. Designers will need to be familiar with this medium—and the ethical pitfalls at risk when designing in this medium—and that means more pressure for designers to become system thinkers.

Designers need to become System Thinkers

Yes, systems thinking… Seems like we’re all waking up, realizing that not even broadening our focus from one touchpoint to complete journeys is enough when we want to design for specific outcomes. But… Systems thinking is… hard. Maybe it’s just me, but sometimes it almost feels overwhelming when you try to capture the relevant entities and when you try to understand causality and correlation… But, hey, maybe that’s one of the things that we’ll need an AI collaborator to figure out?

– Systems thinking is hard, but I think it’s the nature of design. A complete design accounts for different users’ abilities, goals, and circumstances, and balancing all that in your head—and designing for it—is an act of systems thinking. As Eero Saarinen said, we should “design a thing by considering it in its next larger context—a chair in a room, a room in a house, a house in an environment, an environment in a city plan.” Keep climbing up that chain and you wind up in the big amorphous world of systems. And yes, I’d personally like a well-designed AI in the sidecar as I take that journey.

Thanks Chris, and good luck with your new position!

Check out Chris’ track on AI and Design, and join Ambition Empower here.

Chris Noessel, designing AI solutions for IBM by day, writing books and novels on AI and sci-fi by night. No designer, anywhere on the planet, gets AI and design the way Chris does. Chris is a former leader at Cooper, San Fransisco, co-author of Make It So: Interaction Design Lessons from Science Fiction (Rosenfeld Media, 2012), co-author of About Face, 4th Edition (Wiley, 2015), and author of Designing Agentive Technology: AI That Works for People (Rosenfeld Media, 2017). Recently he’s begun publishing sci-fi short stories, and he’s is currently contemplating books about meaning machines and interfaces that improve their users.

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