Mind the AI gap

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Mind the AI gap

UX keeps learning and working with AI tools to recognize any opportunity.

London Underground — Created with iPad Procreate

A Designer’s role is to keep learning while we are working. We learn about our users, we work at closing skills gaps, we learn about designing software, we work on addressing change, we learn new AI tools, and so on. The only constant is there is always something new to learn, and we have to work because change is inevitable.

If you are new to Design (UX/UI/Product/IxD), you need to watch this video with a quote by Ira Glass of This American Life.

“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
― Ira Glass

The reality of being a designer is that there will always be a gap. The world changes too fast for there not to be. Consider the rapid change brought on by COVID. The number of organizations that adapted quickly due to everyone saying home has been both remarkable and inevitable. Telecommute technology has been around for a while and was even dreamed up by Douglas Engelbart in 1968 as a possibility in “The Mother of All Demos” (see below)

The mother of all demos — Douglas Englebart

Douglas Engelbart was someone who understood the gap that technology could bridge, and his work and research are currently being played out on a global scale via the use of Zoom, Microsoft Teams, cloud computing, and remote team cultures. His research continues to this day via 100’s HCI programs and the iteration of his ideas from the Augmented Human Intellect Research Center at Stanford University which is now HAI.

Don’t get me wrong: the technology infrastructure was already primed for the opportunity presented by COVID. Internet penetration, average wifi speeds, and cloud-based collaboration software like Google Docs, Figma, Miro, and others have allowed a lot of jobs to be covered and made efficient via remote work. But consider if COVID had happened in the early 2000s, we would have been way more f&*!ed but such is the power of hindsight. Even with all we have learned and built to address change, there is still a gap, and Designers are uniquely positioned to recognize and build bridges from unknown to known.

The modern computer is no longer contained on a desk, and “work” is being reimagined and disrupted by Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools. These are just new gaps, and hopefully, you recognize that Designers should be at the forefront of addressing these gaps. There are many responses to the gaps in our world, but let us discuss 3 potential outcomes.

1. A Gap as an opportunity (optimistic)

The opportunity of a content assist from Ai. https://scribblediffusion.com/

Designers are hopefully trained to recognize that their role in ‘making’ things (software, physical products, technology, etc) is interconnected to advancing human well-being, and we should align our solutions and processes in order to make things that ultimately help people, last a long time, and are valued both by society and by the people who make them. Whether it be a chair, an application, or an AI the intentional actions of addressing human needs in the face of change are key to recognizing the gap for what it can do to help people. The opportunity lies in recognizing there is no “done” only that change is happening and Designers can either be at the forefront of change or a victim of what has shifted. Recognizing the gap as an opportunity should allow Designers to be at the front, and they should align their roles in that opportunity space within their respective organizations. The Design community talks a lot about having a “seat” at the table and recognizing the gap as an opportunity is one way to help us maintain that position.

2. A Gap as an insight (Optimistic)

The insight diagram assist from Ai— https://scribblediffusion.com/

Designers are hopefully trained to recognize they don’t know everything and therefore they should rely on research-based processes to solve the gaps brought on by changes in humans, technology, and environments. The job of recognizing gaps is acutely levied on Designers, and without research, they frankly are making guesses. The world moves very fast, and unless we have a pulse on ways people respond to technology or evaluate and integrate software into their lives we will only create solutions that widen the gap. By doing the hard work of understanding humans through research, Designers can drive solutions through the lens of insight and recognize and validate that the gaps in fact do exist which allows us to fill those gaps with confidence.

When design teams can see the gap as an insight, that means they are driving research at the core of their process and design rooted in deep user insights will ultimately be able to address changes in users. The gap is thus easier to recognize because research enables it.

(I have been a little disheartened but the recent routing of design research departments in the most recent round of big tech layoffs in 2022/2023, but mark my words some of those organizations will pay the price but reducing their ability to be innovative or at minimum bring on design talent in the future. )

3. A Gap is something to be feared. (Pessimistic)

The fear of things changing assist from AI — https://scribblediffusion.com/

Design is very hard, and change is SCARY (ooh oooh ooooh!) This reality leaves many companies and people in positions where they fear “the gap”. They see themselves as replaceable by younger more skilled workers, artificial intelligence (ie. robots), or companies that underinvest in their roles, and the truth is these are all possible outcomes. The fear of the gap makes them feel paralyzed to stop it, and thus they look away or dig in their heels to prevent them from addressing or even recognizing the gap. The gap is avoided because it might lead to failure and thus the gap widens. Just because you refuse to recognize the gap doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist and fearing the change brought on by new technology or changes in consumer behavior will only open up opportunities for others who are willing to address the gap and take on the change.

Take Blockbuster, for example. They feared “the Gap” being opened up by changing consumer habits and changing video formats and allowed their entire business to be overtaken by Netflix. They feared change to the detriment of their whole possible future. Fearing the gap for organizations also looks like leadership that is unwilling to hire new talent or incorporate new tools or worse invest in user research. Fearing the gap will always be with us, and you will hear it in many different ways. Like “our economy has headwinds”, “Our runway is closing”, or “We don’t have any budget to incorporate research,” look out for these scenarios and help your teams avoid the pitfalls of seeing that gap as something to be feared.

Learn to embrace the Gap

Learn to embrace the gap AI assist — https://scribblediffusion.com/

As Designers, our role is to cannonball into the gap. Like Alice falling down the rabbit hole, we are all on an adventure, and the gaps we find should be seen as part of the journey. Do you know what is on the other side? No! but that is what makes the gap so worth it. You have to go through it to find out. The gap should be pursued, and you can choose to do this with your eyes closed, or you can choose to keep learning and keep working and keep learning and keep working, and eventually, the gaps you embrace will improve your own understanding and your own ability to learn through change and hopefully continue to grow.

It is hard to be creative and put your ideas into the world but hard is what makes it fun. If you are not having fun, something is wrong, and what could be wrong is you are unwilling to embrace a gap. Try learning new tools and see how you can not only speed up your process but also produce things that are surprising, and intriguing, or push your output in different directions.

Illustrations were part of my own exploration of embracing the gap that is learning and working with AI. The surprise and weird outcomes are delightful and as someone who thinks all Designers should be able to sketch the idea that AI can assist anyone with thinking more visually has tons of potential and is worth experimenting with.

Doodling/sketching into Rendered Solution

UI sketching into UI product design

Airbnb team exploring speeding up from Sketch to UI prototype.

Another Sketch to render Ai tool

Imagination Ai


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