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The Future of UX Design Is Automation

April 9, 2018

We’re embarking on an increasingly automated future. By 2029, computers are likely to be more intelligent than humans, according to Ray Kurzweil, Director of Engineering at Google. Recent technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning can now support nonlinear, complex tasks that require logic—and, historically, human involvement as well. These innovations are transforming everything from the way financial technology, or fintech, startups offer financial advice to self-driving cars—and even smarter recommendations for the shows we stream on Netflix.

As automation increasingly plays an integral role in the complex products we create and use, we’re seeing great opportunities for automation to play a role in the future of UX design as well. Automation may be the next big thing to impact the entire industry of UX design—from optimizing the process of providing design feedback to transforming and streamlining the way product teams operate and increasing our ability to create compelling products.

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Design Automation: From Idea to High-Fidelity Mockup in Minutes

Historically, UX designers have mapped out user journeys and information architectures, informing product design with valuable user-research findings. Typical outputs of the design process include sketches, similar to that shown in Figure 1, and flow diagrams, sitemaps, and wireframes at various degrees of fidelity, as shown in Figure 2. Some of these deliverables—especially high-fidelity mockups—can take weeks or even months to produce. Most of the time, development can’t move forward until the design process is complete because it provides direction for each subsequent step along the way.

Figure 1—Low-fidelity sketches of the Virgin.com user interface
Low-fidelity sketches of the Virgin.com user interface
Figure 2—Medium-fidelity wireframes
Medium-fidelity wireframes

We need to find new ways of optimizing the entire usability-testing process for both effectiveness and efficiencies, allowing quicker cycles of feedback and validation. Imagine if we could produce an effective, high-fidelity user interface in the time it now takes to create a low-fidelity wireframe by applying automation to UX design. We could create product user interfaces in significantly shorter periods of time, do research with much broader groups of participants, and, ultimately, significantly expedite every part of the UX research and design process.

Endless Opportunities in Automation

Airbnb is truly paving the way by pioneering an automated UX design process. In their article “Sketching Interfaces,” Benjamin Wilkins, Design Technology Lead at Airbnb, and Jon Gold, Design Technologist at Airbnb, demonstrate how they produce low-fidelity sketches and high-fidelity visual mockups in real time, using specialized camera equipment and software. Figures 3 and 4 show examples. Of course, Airbnb’s visual design team inevitably finesses the final results as necessary, but the level of design and speed they’ve achieved is ideal for creating prototypes to get quick feedback and validation.

Figure 3—Airbnb design
Airbnb design
Figure 4—Iterative design at Airbnb
Iterative design at Airbnb

“We’re investing in code as a design tool. Moving closer to working with assets that don’t only include layout and design, but also logic and data. This helps bridge the gap between engineers and designers, thus reducing the need for design specs—or redlines—and the steps between vision and reality.”—Alex Schleifer, Head of Design at Airbnb

What’s really significant about this approach? It’s not the impressive camera rig’s setup, it’s the machine learning that supports the process that has sparked immense interest. This highlights endless opportunities to leverage machine learning, optimize the processes we use to design products, and provide more value. After experiencing such software, we can easily imagine a future in which we can design prototypical user interfaces simply by speaking to Siri, Google Assistant, or a Slack embedded bot. “Hey DesignBot, make the call to action in the header blue.” As the Airbnb team has demonstrated, this is not outside the realm of possibility.

Embracing Design Automation to Create Better Products

With this technology on the horizon for UX design, what does this mean for your organization now? To embrace these changes and prepare your team for the not-so-distant future of design automation, here are some ways in which you can ensure you’re set up for success and can transition to an automated future as seamlessly as possible.

Visual Design and Branding Teams

An automated design future relies heavily on developing a strong visual language that supports an extensive library of design patterns and style guidelines. This ensures a consistent, seamless, on-brand experience across touchpoints, devices, and platforms. Take the time now to prepare these assets and ensure they represent an accurate depiction of your brand.

Product Owners and Product Managers

Invest some research and development time in investigating new methods that speed up the design process. Start with innovative approaches that streamline the repetitive cycles that are often characteristic of product concepting and prototyping. If you don’t, your competitors certainly will. Design should not be a bottleneck that obstructs your getting ideas in front of your key stakeholders and, more importantly, your product’s audience.

“The time required to test an idea should be zero.”—Benjamin Wilkins, Design Technology Lead at Airbnb

UX Designers

Start using new technologies in your day-to-day workflow. Instead of seeing automation as a threat to your creative talent, view it as an opportunity to enhance your expertise with innovative technology that can enable you to build an even better product. By offloading time-consuming, repetitive tasks, you can allocate additional time and resources to customer research, concept testing, or validation with your actual audience. This is all about user experience after all.

Design Automation Is on Our Horizon

Over the course of the last few years, we’ve seen machine learning and AI increasingly play a pivotal role in transforming the way entire industries operate and conduct business. As more and more complex processes become automated, we must now focus on the intersection between automation and UX design.

While this probably won’t happen overnight, visionaries at companies such as Airbnb are exploring new ways of working that promise to become mainstream in the future. Because of their explorations, we’ll all be better able to gauge these opportunities and their anticipated impacts and understand how we can best leverage these innovations to achieve continual improvements in the way we work. Whether to advance our own skillsets or optimize our design teams’ processes, the future of UX design will surely involve automation and its potential will undoubtedly be vast. 

Director of Experience Design at Beyond

New York, New York, USA

Andrew ShanleyAs the Director of Experience Design at Beyond, a digital design and technology ideas company, Andy founded their Experience Design service in 2012 and has established UX departments across the UK and North America. Previously, Andy was a UX Lead at Razorfish. He earned his Bachelor’s in Human Computer Interactions from The Manchester Metropolitan University. He enjoys sharing insights on the world of UX design.  Read More

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