Customer Experience — May 23, 2023

Why human-centered UX design matters now more than ever

With the automated future at hand, learn what UX designers can do now to make our future interactions with technology more human

by Lisa McGee

Robot hand touching human hand in the style of the creation of Adam

“The future is dark, which is the best thing the future can be, I think.” – Virginia Woolf

In only the last few months, remarkable strides have been made in the field of artificial intelligence. AI technologies, such as machine learning, natural language processing, and computer vision, have demonstrated impressive capabilities in tasks that were once considered exclusive to human intelligence. Algorithms can now analyze vast amounts of data, detect patterns, make predictions, and to some extent, mimic human behavior.

AI even composed the above sentences. 

A familiar debate

As the development of intelligent systems, autonomous vehicles, voice assistants, and other AI-powered applications are becoming increasingly integrated into our daily lives, they have ignited a new era of debate around the ethics of automation and what it means for our collective future. It’s a familiar debate—one we’ve seen repeated throughout history, notably amid the Luddite rebellion of the early 19th century.

The term Luddite has since come to signify resistance to progress and technological advancement even though, contrary to popular belief, Luddites were not opposed to technology and automation in and of itself. Rather they objected to certain types of automated machines, particularly what was known as “wide frames,” lace and wool frames that produced cheap goods of poor quality, which, the Luddites felt, debased the profession and the reputation of their work. 

And while the textile machinery did not replace textile workers altogether, it did, as the Luddites feared, fundamentally change the trade, resulting in more mundane work performed for lower wages, reduced quality of life for textile workers, and widespread lower-quality textile goods. One needs only look to the fast fashion industry of today, with all of the labor and environmental problems it entails, to see that the Luddite’s fears were far from unfounded.

Same problem, new technology

Fast forward two centuries and the parallels are striking. Earlier this month the Writer’s Guild of America went on strike, expressing concerns not dissimilar to the Luddites. They too are concerned about automation and how it might both devalue their labor and the overall quality of their creative output. Their argument centers around what they believe to be the invaluable and irreplicable nature of creative work, born of human experience, empathy, and ingenuity. They fear that the use of AI might result in the proliferation of lifeless derivative content, dumbing down our art and our minds, while devaluing their contribution as writers, the reputation of their profession, and ultimately diminishing their quality of life by making work scarcer, screenwriting more mundane, and pay more meager. 

While the writers may be the ones on strike, their anxieties reverberate across nearly every profession, and may, as Nick Bilton of Vanity Fair has predicted, be “a harbinger of what’s to come to everyone—and I mean everyone”.  For almost half of the population whose jobs are slated to be replaced by a robot in the next 20 years, advances in AI may feel like a death knell, even as we relish in the constantly refreshing array of new tools and apps that allow us to automate the most tedious aspects of our lives and our jobs. Meanwhile, some believe our anxieties are misdirected entirely; we shouldn’t be worried about robots replacing us, we should be worried about the ways AI will make us more like robots:

“Workplace AI feels like the purest distillation of a corrosive ideology that demands frictionless productivity from workers: The easier our labor becomes, the more of it we can do, and the more of it we’ll be expected to do. This is how AI comes for our jobs, one ChatGPT-generated slide deck and inbox integration at a time. It’s a vision of the true AI apocalypse on the horizon that feels more like a soulless grind. Humanity isn’t to be obliterated by a vengeful artificial sentience, and office workers probably won’t be replaced en masse with machines; instead, we will be expected to produce and behave more like robots ourselves.”

How UX designers can prioritize and humanize user experiences

If we are indeed headed towards a future in which office work completes its transformation into the soulless, incessant grind it has long been on the verge of becoming, then the work of UX design may matter now more than ever.  As human-centered designers we have an opportunity, dare I say responsibility, to put our expertise to work to solve what may just be one of the greatest threats of AI: the loss of meaningful and fulfilling human labor.

Below are a few considerations for how UX designers can prioritize and humanize user experiences, even as automation gains an ever-stronger foothold.

1. Remember: customers aren’t the only users

One of the most common and frustrating oversights when it comes to notions of human-centered design is thinking that the humans at the heart of the design process are only and always customers. While customers, of course, are an integral piece of the equation, true human-centered design considers all of the humans impacted by a design–from front-end customers through to internal stakeholders and a company’s employees, who may have to interact with software on the backend.

Consider a retail e-commerce store. While you may design an amazing digital experience for a shopper that improves sales and customer satisfaction, the experience on the backend for the employee who has to manage the inventory, the fulfillment, the website updates, etc. might be a nightmare. In our experience, the design that is better for everyone is almost always the smart business decision. Not only is there a direct relationship between employee satisfaction and customer satisfaction, but designing with employees in mind can increase job retention and make a business run more smoothly, further contributing to the bottom line.

2. Don’t just streamline. Solve actual problems

As interface designers and systems thinkers, we are often asked to step in when an organization wishes to streamline a process. For business owners, “streamline” is often code for dollar bills saved, and sadly, this often means that people get laid off.

By definition, the role of a UX designer is never to simply “streamline” a process. Our work is always about solving problems and designing based upon human needs. Streamlining may be an outcome of this work, but it is not the goal.

Reframing the problem, and challenging your clients to think less about streamlining, and instead about creating a better, more human(e) experience, can, in the end, lead to a solution that isn’t necessarily about replacing jobs, but about making a job that exists better, which can also be “good” for a company’s bottom line. If a client asks for a solution that will make their employees work faster, ask them to instead consider where their employees add value to their product or service, and start solving from there.

3. Do the right kind of research

As UX designers, there are different modes of research we conduct depending on the specific project. Sometimes we conduct in-person interviews, while other times we’ll do our user research remotely, moderated or unmoderated.

Choosing to conduct the right kind of research for the specific project you are working on is essential. While there are certainly times when you can learn what you need to know through surveying or remote unmoderated testing, there are also times when you can only gather the insights you need by doing your research in person.

In-person research can give you insight into things like when human touch points are essential for customers in a DTC solution, what environmental factors may be competing with the digital experience you are designing, what components of a process are the most tedious and burdensome for different types of users, the limitations of a user’s workplace technology, or the way a user physically interacts with their device. This is an example of where AI might help users, not replace them.

The above is especially true when designing enterprise software where users often have little say in big changes to organizational processes, and won’t have any choice in the software they use to complete their work. By meeting with them in person, we can understand firsthand where they may be adding value in the form of human touch in addition to the drudgery that they wish they could automate. Playing these insights back to our stakeholders, we can make a case for software that increases the value of human services, influencing how and when to strategically employ automation. You may even find that there is a simpler, un-automated process that might accomplish the same thing, and make the humans involved happier.

Once your wonderfully human-centered designs have been implemented, follow up with research and testing to benchmark your results. This will help your client see the value in continuing to solve their problems with a human-centric lens, and give you fuel to sell these design principles to future clients who will inevitably want to “streamline” their own organizations.

4. Sell your thinking, not just your services

As a UX designer, you have a much bigger role to play than moving around boxes on a screen. You are a researcher, an analyst, and a scientist who uses data, human insights, and observation to make decisions about what is best for people. All of the tactics we’ve discussed won’t amount to much if you don’t have buy-in from clients and decision-makers. It’s on you to convince your clients that it is not just your services that are valuable, but your thinking. And to demonstrate the value of this thinking.

As our lives become more and more entrenched in technology, ethical design questions that have been answered in one market will spring anew in others. See a place in the market that could use a human-centered touch? Sell them your services too. Take benchmarks that you created for your past clients and use them to show the value of this kind of work to new industries. Many industries can benefit from UX thinking, even ones that don’t seem obvious as digital industries, and may not even have digital interfaces.

Prioritizing ethical considerations and minimizing harm

Automation will persist, whether or not we embrace it. Our role as UX designers is not to impede its progress, but to envision a future where technology solves problems and empowers human growth. Unchecked automation may indeed lead to a bleak world, but in the right hands and with the right goals, it can also be used to improve people’s–and yes, user’s–lives, even if only in small incremental ways. 

Do designers hold the future of automation in their hands? Not entirely, but we do have a vital part to play. As UX designers, we can shape the course of automation by prioritizing ethical considerations and minimizing harm. It all starts with the same question we ask ourselves at the beginning of every project: how can we create the best possible experience for the human beings who will use it?

In the dark future of automation, this question will be our guiding light.

Note: this article was adapted from an earlier article published on our website in 2017 .

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