Fall in love with the user, not the technology

Bearded man wearing a black sweater typing on a portable computer in an office
Photo by Lala Azizli on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, I posted the phrase in the headline to a Figma group in response to someone explaining how AI and Design can work together. What prompted my response was the poster’s contention that:

“AI tools can help understand, augment thinking, and cover blindspots in design processes—with designers acting as curators rather than generators.”

Designers becoming “curators” is very dangerous thinking.

Even more dangerous is the increasing number of posts claiming AI will solve our UX ills. They won’t. AI will reduce our “busy work” load by automating processes, aiding research, and so on. What they will not do is turn UX Designers into curators merrily clicking away or writing “killer” prompts. It is a classic case of not falling in love with the User, but falling in love with the technology.

AI is a tool. It is a wrench. It is a hammer. It is a screwdriver. Even so, there is hope on the horizon. There are glimmers of AI being used to reduce the “busy work” I alluded to. There is a tool under development by Workflow that does just that. If you want to get on the waiting list, hit their site.

Falling in love with the user is common sense.

Whenever I post that phrase — Fall in love with the User, not the technology- to a User Group, use it in a LinkedIn Learning course or include it in a book, it is usually greeted with a chorus of “Amens” or the flamethrowers are ignited. Yet this is something I have been saying for over 20 years and was something I would make very clear on the first day of class for my students during their first year of study. I would facetiously suggest they tattoo that phrase inside their left eyelid. There is a reason.

Having lived in a world of digital design and development for well over 40 years, I have watched how easy it is to fall into the trap of focusing on the tools designers and developers use to bring their projects to life. For those of you who were there, a classic example was the overwhelming urge to create “Flash Sites” or adopt the nebulous job description of “Flash Designer.” Today’s nebulous job description is “UX Designer”.

Whether you care to admit it or not, this thing called UX is relatively new. It started when businesses and corporations realized people were using their smartphones and tablets to access their services and products via their websites or these new things called “apps.” It took a while, but the term “UX” bubbled to the surface, setting the stage for today’s vibrant community. As witnessed with Flash, the term UX is commonly misused. When asked to define it, I turn the question around and ask, “What do you want it to mean?” The term has become blurred through a series of contradictory definitions. It describes a plethora of jobs for everyone, from graphic designers to front-end developers.

UX is a Mission and a Process

In the book- A Guide to UX Design and Development- I point out, “User experience is both a mission and a process, and they are distinctly different aspects from one another.”

Louie Morais, a UX Kahuna with Wayfare’s European operation, first dropped this knowledge bomb on me a couple of years ago. This led to a lengthy discussion between us as I grappled to understand his meaning.

The UX Process is the workflow. It involves all the tasks included in a highly skilled team of designers, researchers, writers, motion designers, developers, etc. Tools such as Figma are used in the process, from brainstorming to an iterative product and handoff to the developers and their tools.

The Mission sits above that. It focuses on the human being who will load the app onto their device and open it on a webpage. The Mission focuses on making life easier for that person so that they will continue to use the product. Bottom line? Fall in love with the User.

There is a reason why shopping carts are abandoned, apps deleted, accounts cancelled or, horrors, being called out on Social Media. These all have a financial cost and, in many ways, contribute to the failure of many startups. There is a lot of good money chasing bad ideas because the ideas are not user-focused. The process subsumed the Mission at some point along the way.

Let AI take over the UX Process, and the Mission and Process disappear because AI has no clue who the User might be. AI is “Human Agnostic.” Images, text, design, and even code are reduced to a series of “engineered” text prompts that don’t take into account that there is a real human being, with all of the messiness that comes with that, using the app or website.

Looking for an AI use case

So, where does AI fit? It is a fantastic research tool. I often use it when writing books or preparing courses for LinkedIn Learning. It has frequently pointed out approaches or paths I may not have considered. It usually identifies “what I didn’t know that I didn’t know.” Even then, I encounter instances where AI “doesn’t know.” In a course I was preparing for LinkedIn Learning, I posed a question to ChatGPT, where I knew the answer. I asked if the software I was working on had a code introspection feature. ChatGPT kicked out a few paragraphs about how to do it and even told me where somebody could access the feature in the Tool Bar. This was interesting because the software did not have a code introspection feature or an icon on the toolbar that I could click. What I learned from that experience was something Ronald Reagan talked about when negotiating with Russia: “Trust but verify.”

UX is User Experience, and AI has no clue regarding the meaning of each word, let alone the phrase. Remember that before claiming that AI will turn us into “curators rather than generators.”

Further Reading:

A Guide To UX Design and Development
Tom, Green Joseph Labrecque, Apress

AI for UX: Getting Started
Kate Moran and Jakob Nielsen, Neilsen Norman Group

The Future of UX Design: How AI and Machine Learning Are Changing the Way We Design
Ali Abdu, UX Magazine

Fall in love with the user, not the technology was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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