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the UX of AI–the future isn’t going to send you an invite. It’ll crash your party

Famed science fiction writer (and straight up visionary) Arthur C Clarke (author of 2001 a Space Odyssey among many many novels and short stories, as well the originator of the idea of geo stationary communications satellites and the lunar lander) postulated three ‘laws’ (or better put ‘adages’). The third you have almost certainly heard–’Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic’. But the first is also very useful (noting its sexist framing). ‘When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong’.

a room filling computer with cables running al around the room.
midjourney prompt: a futuristic eniac style comuter with a large number of cables running into a patch panel –ar 16:9

Jakob Nielsen, is one of the very early and still outsized figures the field of UX design, HCI, interaction design. He recently wrote a piece titled ‘UX Needs a Sense of Urgency About AI‘. In it he could not have been any more clear:

UX folks are trapped in complacency while the AI techquake radically shakes up the computing landscape. We witnessed similar complacency during the dot-com revolution. It is high time we shake off inertia, embrace AI design, and prevent engineers from monopolizing the new UI paradigm.

The focus on generative AI for the most part over the last year or so has been on the technology–the technology is at times, speaking as a heavy user of it, indistinguishable from magic. But magic spells and incantations only take you so far. Chat and text are not the universal interface (as important as text has been to human communication for millenia).

The future of AI|UX won’t simply be chat, or text, everywhere. This scene from Blade Runner always comes to mind when I think of this as the future of UI. Something that would take a few seconds at most with pinch/zoom or with a trackpad or mouse takes two and a half long minutes.

Decker uses voice commands to zooming in on and enhance and crop animate in security footage.

So what does the future of UX look like when Large Language models are the enabling core technology?

No one really has any idea. But a lot of smart people are thinking about it. And I’ll let you in on a secret, as someone who was around early on in the web–the opportunities to help shape what that does look like are extraordinary right now. But as Nielsen puts it succinctly in the article I quoted before

the future isn’t going to send you an invite. It’ll crash your party

The time is now. The opportunities are boundless. If you aren’t already thinking about this, find a way to do so-on the side, or more centrally in your existing work. And if you are, publish about it, experiment, connect with other like minded folks.

Meanwhile, here’s some things to watch, read and listen to that you might find inspiring, illuminating, or otherwise valuable.

AI | UX: Beyond the Textbox

Maggie Appleton (keynote speaker at Web Directions Summit as it happens–you’ll be there right?) recently hosted AI | UX: Beyond the Textbox, where quite a number of folks showcased their UX work in this area. You can watch the demos on YouTube, or read a writeup on the website.

Building Humane Interfaces with Language Models

At last night’s AI Happy Hour Rupert Manfredi spoke on principles of UX in the age of language models. At Causal Islands, a fantastic conference on the future of computing that took place a little while ago he spoke about a similar topic. You can watch that video here.

More from Jakob Nielsen

Nielsen calls AI the “First New UI Paradigm in 60 Years” a rather bold claim but one I am basically on board with. He calls this UI paradigm ‘intent based’, as opposed to the last half century or so’s ‘command based’ approach. I’m also thinking of this paradigm as ‘ambient’, and ‘context–based’ but this broadly aligns with Nielsen’s ideas.

With the new AI systems, the user no longer tells the computer what to do. Rather, the user tells the computer what outcome they want. Thusthe third UI paradigm, represented by current generative AI, is intent-based outcome specification.

Where this comes up perhaps a little short I think is the ‘user telling’ bit. I think we may often no longer need a user to tell a system what they want, rather it might be inferred from context (location, past behaviours in this place/time).

Nielsen also recently asked ‘AI vs. Metaverse: Which Is the 5th Generation UI?‘ If you’ve read my recent ‘Evolution and teleology as models of innovation you’ll not struggle to know my answer. Nielsen and I agree on this one, all the way down to why we think AR/VR/metaverses are so alluring as an idea of the future. Nielsen writes

3D is seductive because it’s the dominant UI in many science fiction movies and TV shows, most prominently Star Trek and Star Wars

As I’ve written more than once, this ‘jetpack futurism‘ is alluring, because it’s our dream of the future. But as Nielsen observes–’AI tools work’.

Join the revolution conversation

At Web Directions Summit we’ll be covering this area in real depth and detail–with insights, case studies and more from a range of speakers.

Just come. It will be transformative–for our industry, for your organisation and for your career.

But remember what uncle Jakob says

the future isn’t going to send you an invite. It’ll crash your party

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this was a masterfully curated event … a brilliant day that educated, entertained, and rekindled some old connections

Ash Donaldson Service & Behaviour Design Director, Tobias
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