Two Important New Roles for UX Designers in the Era of AI

August 21, 2023

If there has ever been a time when UX designers have seen their role profoundly questioned, that time seems to be now. As artificial intelligence (AI) demands our collective attention, the profession of UX design is reeling from both this technology’s extraordinary possibilities and the huge unknowns that come with its adoption. What are the opportunities and threats that AI presents to the UX design profession?

The performance and creative potential of AI and, in some cases, the ability for anyone with little or no technical expertise to use its capabilities, have become fuel for thought on the future of the discipline of UX design. What will continue to make our profession distinctive and indispensable?

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There are two strands to this debate, both of which point to UX designers’ increasing influence in these two interconnected fields:

  1. AI ethics and policy making
  2. Innovation strategy

Both are potentially new areas of expertise in which UX designers could specialize. In this article, I’ll unpack each of these new specialties, leveraging my experience as an Innovation Designer at IBM. Plus, I’ll discuss some crucial knowledge that UX designers should develop to become more influential in these areas.

What Is AI Ethics?

AI ethics focuses on the concept that we should design and deploy intelligent systems according to guidelines and moral principles that responsibly account for their outcomes.

The idea is that having clear sets of standards and frameworks in place can help stave off any negative implications of AI technologies, address bias, and prevent unfairness and harm resulting from this technology. In turn, this would foster trust in AI and the companies that create and use ethically designed technologies.

However, unethical AI is becoming a corporate issue because of its repercussions on a company’s bottom line. Reputational, regulatory, and legal exposure, along with the risk of incurring costly penalties, are strong incentives for companies to increase their diligence and take a firm position on AI ethics.

For instance, IBM has long since established an AI Ethics Board to support a culture whose focus is creating ethical, responsible, trustworthy intelligent technologies. In turn, this has translated into our developing a portfolio of products for AI governance and creating a rich body of guidelines and open-source toolkits for designing and deploying ethical technology—such as the AI Fairness 360. Interestingly, UX designers at IBM have been active drivers behind these initiatives.

Why the Practice of AI Ethics Requires UX Designers

Because AI’s outcomes impact people’s livelihoods and well-being in myriad ways, a human-centered approach is key in the design of legal and regulatory frameworks for AI. UNESCO has published an important article on this topic: “Artificial Intelligence Experts and Policymakers Discuss Inclusion in AI Policy Development.”

A holistic viewpoint, one that takes into account the entire lifecycle of intelligent systems—from data collection to model building and from deployment to monitoring—is crucial to appropriately predicting and minimizing harmful consequences from the application of AI systems.

Because human-centric practices and systems thinking are intrinsic to UX design, some academics have anticipated important new roles for UX designers—both in technology and its regulatory spaces. At IBM, this is already the case, with UX designers facilitating discussions around ethical AI within the context of innovation engagements.

AI governance and policy making could become an exciting new frontier for UX design professionals, who could specialize in these roles and devise ideal career paths for them, enabling people with design capabilities and a user-centric mindset to support businesses in navigating complex AI scenarios and positioning AI well with the public.

However, to be relevant in these spheres, UX designers need to beef up their foundational design skills with solid knowledge in the following areas:

  • industries and processes—Businesses adopt AI for different purposes, but principally to streamline their workflows, become more efficient, and cut unnecessary costs. Understanding the needs of the business is just as important as focusing on people’s needs.
  • the regulatory landscape—Despite AI having been around for quite some time, the quest for standards and ethical requirements is relatively recent. As a result, there is currently a composite, fast-moving puzzle of laws, bills, and guidelines. Keeping up to date with this evolving landscape is crucial for whoever wants to approach the field of AI ethics.
  • technologies for AI governance—Today, organizations can tap into specific information-technology (IT) products to effectively align their AI activities with the right values. These software solutions automate tracking and documentation of the origins of data, data models, and their associated metadata and pipelines, thereby providing the foundation for trustworthy AI.

Getting to grips with AI-governance software is important for UX designers to effectively advise companies on their implementation, especially from an enterprise-UX perspective.

The Role of UX Designers in Strategy and Innovation

UX design is a broad discipline with an incredibly long history. However, in all these years, our perceptions of the profession have largely remained static.

In the public consciousness, UX designers are still very much those who beautify the user experience—aesthetics-oriented professionals whose responsibility is infusing physical artifacts, digital user interfaces, and marketing materials with visual appeal and harmony. Think design and many would probably picture a piece of furniture, a garment, or a billboard.

However, as Figure 1 shows, Richard Buchanan’s famous theoretical framework “Four Orders of Design” illustrates the broad range of applications of the design approach and capabilities—from mundane, tangible artifacts to the heady abstractions of organizational processes, policy making, and business models.

Figure 1—Richard Buchanan’s “Four Orders of Design”
Richard Buchanan's Four Orders of Design Theoretical Framework

Image source: Buchanan’s Four Orders of Design Theoretical Framework

The end of this spectrum that people dub the “big problem space” is definitely the most complex. This is where AI governance, AI ethics, and, more broadly, enterprise innovation reside.

In fact, the advent of AI has coincided with an uptick in references to UX design as part of the business-strategy discourse. It would be fair to say that the intersection between the two has already come a long way, with books such as A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin’s Playing to Win: How Strategy Really Works and Change by Design, by Tim Brown.

Most recently, in his article “Getting Strategy Wrong—and How to Do It Right Instead,” the great strategist Richard Rumelt referred to strategy as the outcome of “a design, or creation, embodying purpose,” and urged strategists to engage with novel problems as designers do, “by searching for the central paradox, asking themselves what it is that makes the problem so hard to solve. They (designers) only start working toward a solution once the nature of the core paradox has been established to their satisfaction.”

Receiving such an invigorating acknowledgment of the significance of the design approach in the business-innovation domain by one of the most respected voices in the field of strategy is encouraging.

Now, let’s consider some important capabilities upon which UX designers can build to successfully operate in a strategic field, as follows:

  • observation and empathy—To understand the nature of the challenge and the opportunities that are present within a given context.
  • analysis and synthesis—To interpret data and observations and derive relevant insights from them.
  • visualizing and communicating—To make heady concepts accessible, picture to-be scenarios that don’t quite yet exist, and quickly get to understanding and consensus building among stakeholders.
  • envisioning and foreseeing—To help us imagine things as being very different from what they currently are, which in turn encourages us to rethink old problems from a different perspective and bring about true innovation. Out-of-the-box thinking is perhaps design’s most coveted power.

In addition, it is essential that we deepen our expertise in industries, markets, and technologies.

It is just striking how a lot of UX design professionals—myself included—come out of school armed with the greatest theoretical notions, then fail to understand the nature of the challenges that companies face and their underlying processes and systems.

The net result is that UX designers struggle to connect these business challenges to human problems or end up ignoring them altogether. Thus, they risk their interventions being ineffective and shallow.

The Role of the Innovation Designer

At IBM, innovation designers help enterprises apply technology to the modernization of their business. The use cases are numerous, even though the approach designers follow—with a strong foundation of design thinking and incorporating agile principles—and their skillsets are the same. There is an interesting parallel between our approach and the strategic process that A.G. Lafley and Roger Martin describe, as follows:

  1. Framing the choice—This is about understanding the challenges and laying out possible courses of action that might address an issue. At IBM, we capture these choices in the form of business-opportunity statements.
  2. Generating possibilities—Exploring a variety of initiatives and paths to a solution.
  3. Specifying conditions—Identifying conditions that must be true for a big idea to become a viable solution.
  4. Identifying barriers to choice—Determining which of those conditions would be least likely to hold and which would have the most impact on a project’s success.
  5. Designing and conducting testing—Creating an MVP or Proof of Experience whose scope is limited to the essential elements that would prove the value of a particular solution.
  6. Choosing a strategy—Based on the results of testing, opting for the right path forward.

To chart the sequence of all of the above steps, let’s consider a recent engagement with a company in the subscription beauty-box segment, as follows:

  1. Framing the choice—First, our team conducted workshops with several stakeholders, which helped us get a better understanding of their problem and, importantly, aligned everyone on the right business opportunity to pursue.
  2. Generating possibilities—We developed a clear picture of what it would actually make sense to build, then channeled our subsequent efforts into exploring technology options and proposing ideas based on them.
  3. Specifying conditions—These ideas underwent scrupulous scrutiny to assess their viability and intrinsic risks, as well as necessary constraints.
  4. Identifying barriers to choice—We conducted an exercise called “assumptions and risks,” which is possibly the toughest step of a typical engagement, but is insanely useful! This process urges stakeholders to take a step back from an envisioned solution, gauge the possibility for some preconditions to be untrue, and find out ways to address and minimize high risks and uncertainty.
  5. Designing and conducting testing—Our workshop ended with an MVP statement that described what we were going to build to prove the business and user value of the selected idea: a custom, AI-powered system that could help the client optimize their inventory and reduce time on task when designing their monthly box.
  6. Choosing a strategy—The outcomes of the MVP provided a foundation for the company’s choice to take that solution further and determine what platforms, environments, and markets to serve, as well as what further business cases to pursue.

In Summary

Far from being just a massive talking point, AI is already a business reality that has the power to revolutionize processes, workflows, and how jobs get done. For UX professionals, the era of AI could herald new challenges, as well as unique opportunities to make our human-centered approach matter. One of these opportunities likely concerns the need to develop the ethical foundations of AI. Another opportunity might imply a more strategic role for UX professionals: connecting the business case for AI-powered innovations to real user needs. 

Innovation Designer at IBM

Copenhagen, Denmark

Silvia PodestaAs a strategic designer and UX specialist at IBM, Silvia helps enterprises pursue human-centered innovation by leveraging new technologis and creating compelling user experiences. Silvia facilitates research, synthesizes product insights, and designs minimum-viable products (MVPs) that capture the potential of our technologies in addressing both user and business needs. Silvia is a passionate, independent UX researcher who focuses on the topics of digital humanism, change management, and service design.  Read More

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