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Could Artificial Intelligence Replace Web Designers?

March 9, 2015

You may have heard of The Grid, a new crowdfunding campaign that would revolutionize website design by incorporating Artificial Intelligence as a design tool. The service is similar to SquareSpace or WIX but include algorithms that essentially analyze a user’s content and imagery to calculate the ideal website design based on a set criterion. Any new content that gets added will result in the entire site reorganizing itself on the fly. Sound too good to be true? Perhaps. But interactive designers and developers have been worried about pre-made templates and DIY client services for years. Some of us fear being replaced. Some of us welcome our new robot overlords. Some of us, myself included, see these new services as a chance to evangelize that there are extremely deep, unique User Experience challenges that a web template (created by a bot or not) just can’t solve.

 

In the Beginning

Human-Robot Interaction has been a topic of both fascination and fear since the time of antiquity. Homer’s Iliad described the creation of automatons by the Greek god Hephaestus, who built consciousness into golden statues. Aristotle proposed that human thought and logic could be mechanized. Nineteenth century inventors and artists perfected self-operating toys and machines. These concepts would be lifted to a new plane with the invention of the programmable digital computer in the 1940s and subsequent founding of the field of AI research at Dartmouth College in 1958.

 

Our relationship with AI has always been pretty tenuous. As in all instances of paradigm shifts and technological revolutions, we’re at odds with making our lives easier while feeling a dull sense of displacement or irrelevance. Harkening back to Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, we’ve attempted to safeguard ourselves from AI completely replacing or harming us. But replace may not be the right sentiment as it relates to the Web. We’ve seen design trends, languages and methodologies come and go. Most often they’re superseded by far more efficient ways of doing things and conveying information. Could the introduction of Web AI fall into the same path of progress or are we entering a new era of design?

Not for Everybody

The Grid promises to free us from the shackles of design and code. It promises that all of our problems are to be solved via a set of constraints and templates, whether they’re conceived from an algorithm or otherwise. While I think AI and template sites will benefit from small businesses and casual users who are on a tight budget, they completely ignore all of the work that User Experience designers and information architects have done in solving problems from an empathetic, strategic and tailored point of view.

 

First annual robotics convention

When we talk about web design, we’re talking about something much more far-reaching than what the end-user sees. Since the design is freed from static, printed paper, the screen is able to contextually change what is displayed based on environment and feedback. How we get to that point of context is the task of a UX designer. Defining who the user is and his or her goals, and what a client’s business goals are, helps inform the final design. It’s beyond the ability of an algorithm to figure that out. We just aren’t there yet. We haven’t successfully taught machines how to think and behave like real human beings, so until we can do that, we have to do the dirty work ourselves. And web designers love those really tough problems. All of the nuances, the complexity, and the compromise.

Another issue with an AI-based website is how much control we really have over its output. You essentially abdicate the big decisions for the system to make, resulting in a site based on its own assumptions and programming limitations. (Side note: the code the AI spits out is so poor that you’re likely going to be dinged on SEO crawls!) I don’t think we’re ready to hand over our thought processes as they relate to defining a unique face and voice online either. Although interface conventions are becoming more homogenized, the need to outline a brand’s differentiators in the interactive space are at an all time high.

Can We Still Be Friends?

I think The Grid and other template-based services have their hearts in the right place. They seek to eliminate some of the not-so-fun aspects of web design that are a barrier for entry to many users and companies. Even for designers, we should embrace any element of automation we can in order to allocate more time to the bigger problems and creative solutions. Think of it as assistance rather than replacement. If an artificial system could learn from the data I collect about users as well as learn about my unique sensibilities as a designer, I’d have an incredibly powerful tool at my disposal.

 

Dr. Darwin teaches a robot

If anything, further integration of AI and robotics into the Internet arena will mean a strengthening of designer-client relationships in terms of empathy and creativity. It will force developers to keep innovating and designers to keep coming up with new interaction patterns. While it’s true that robotics and AI are steadily replacing factory work and many jobs in the service economy, time will tell how it ultimately affects the design industry. Judging by our past technological advances, the growing pains are well worth it.