Will AI eat your UX design job? / by Kevin Oleary

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I was recently asked on Quora whether UX design jobs would be replaced by AI. the following is an extended version of my answer.

There’s no question that in the coming years software and automation, aided by in many cases by artificial intelligence, will render many jobs obsolete (though many argue that as many new kinds of work will arise). Out of all the possible jobs under threat, however, UX design is one of the least likely to be easily replaced.

Let’s look at an analogous change I lived through; the ‘desktop publishing’ revolution. When I was just out of high school my dad worked in advertising. At that time, to produce an ad in a magazine for, say, pancake mix, it took an account executive, an art director, a copywriter, a photographer and assistant, a food stylist, a graphic designer, an illustrator, a typesetter, a copy editor, a mechanical artist, a stat camera operator, a color separator, two film processors (one for the photo shoot and one for the photostats), a photo retoucher, and a courier to shuttle all this stuff back and forth across town between their various offices (that was my job).

That’s 18 people. Barely a decade later it took four; the account exec, art director (now on a Mac), copywriter, and photographer. Today they’re more likely to use a stock photo and less likely to use a writer, so it’s down to two. But notice who’s left, the essential business contact and the art director, now doing most of the 18 jobs with the help of a collection of software and services. In the midst of all this change I can vividly recall people in the design industry wringing their hands over the ‘death of design’ and predicting that we would soon all be replaced. That didn’t happen. There are more designers today than ever, and a greater variety of roles as well.

  Print magazine cover ca. 1991. (Translation: "This is not a designer")

Print magazine cover ca. 1991. (Translation: "This is not a designer")

But stepping back, why did the art-director survive but not the mechanical artist? The answer is that their task was—as the name suggests—‘mechanical’, If we define mechanical as ‘a linear process governed by a fixed set of rules that can be repeated automatically without thought’, you can see that the other extinct roles also fit the bill. The mechanical artists job was to take a rough comp produced by an art director, collect all of the assets; type, photos, illustrations etc. and assemble them exactly as dictated by the comp. Linear, governed by rules, automatic. In essence the more ‘mechanical’ a task is the easier it is to mechanize, and the more quickly it will be turned into a digital product or service.

Now take product development today. You have product managers who define the business need, a UX designer who observes and interprets user behavior and translates it into usable interfaces, and a wide variety of developers and operations people, many of whom perform tasks that are, you guessed it, mechanical, and thus targets for automation. Where there’s a performance engineer, there will soon be a performance algorithm; where there’s a digital asset manager, there will soon be a digital asset management service, where there’s a front-end dev creating CSS animation in code, there will soon be software to create production quality animations *without* code. These things are happening. New software and services that replace mechanical operations are created every day.

Now when we look at the job that UX designers do (notice we already merged the UX and design roles), there’s something different, and not just by degree. The task of the UX designer, observing user behavior and creating interfaces crafted to respond to, and influence that behavior, is not mechanical.

Design is:

  1. Cyclical not linear. Insights from testing lead to iteration
  2. Governed by discovery, not rules. We have a lot to learn about human behavior
  3. Intentional not automatic. Designers constantly make judgments in uncertainty

Design is an intellectual, even emotional task that requires intimate knowledge of it’s subject; human beings. To understand human behavior, it seems, takes a human. There may be a point somewhere in the distant future where an algorithm can accomplish some of this, but if we are setting up the dominoes in the order they are likely to fall this one belongs close to the end.

This is not to say that software, automation, and AI will not affect the way design is done. They will, but likely in ways that strengthen, rather than weaken our hand. Here are a few things that are happening already and will continue to happen.

  1. Design systems will lead to Design at Scale. Large organizations will be able to deploy design more efficiently and ‘reinvent fewer wheels’ meaning they may not need to increase the size of their design teams that much.
  2. There will always be more to design. The totality of digital communication continues to increase exponentially.
  3. The UX designer role will absorb other roles just as in the desktop publishing revolution (remember the animator?). This becomes more likely as design software aligns itself to an increasingly standardized web production pipeline.
  4. AI will provide powerful tools to ‘design algorithmically’. For example imagine an adaptive design system to personalize not just content but style, or stock photo search that automatically presents a range of appropriate images based on the text content already in the design.

So, UX Designers will not be replaced by AI, developers on the other hand might not be so lucky, unless they are the ones developing the AI.