Fallingwater or the Kaufmann Residence is a house designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1935

Future challenges for CRO in an AI influenced world

In 1935 the architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, created Falling Water, by all standards a modern masterpiece of architecture. He didn’t use a computer and he certainly didn’t have access to Artificial Intelligence (AI) to assess the optimum layout of the windows to get the best view.

As is obvious, these inventions had yet to happen, instead, pure creative genius took its course to create a symbiotic relationship of living in a home that itself lived in its natural environment. Every care was taken to preserve the natural landscape with no rocks moved and no tree felled during its construction process.

Creativity and hubris aside, what Mr Wright didn’t have, was access to a robust testing strategy model that would have told him that the cantilevered platforms where structurally unsound and that the underlying metalwork was doubled in strength, secretly, by his chief engineer. Intuition backed by additional calculations saved the day.

The inevitable creation and rise of the computer gave way to publishing and information layout converging into a fledgling connected world of free information, where everything was new and yet to be discovered. It would be 20 years of incremental advances and shifting balances of power to define the technology landscape before the realisation that what was once thought of as new, was in fact still 20 years behind the industry it sought to leave for dead, the old guard of the print industry had created and controlled the visual intricacy of information layout to the point of mastery in its craft long before any programming framework allowed vertical alignment of text in a box.

Web layout has a long way to go

Time and technology wait for no-one and the endless march of progress has created a new visual master, the AI algorithm. AI can select, crop and present images for best impact, it can generate the copy to accompany the image and then perform A/B tests to constantly adjust the variables to optimise the conversion. The Grid, Wix and Autodesk Dreamcatcher are early versions of this new challenger approach to AI driven content and design generation.

Expectedly, the reception to this cutting edge approach has been mixed but it does reveal a trending shift to codifying the underlying tenets of digital information to maximise deliverables in a reduced time frame and for the most economic use of resources. This ever growing need to reduce effort and maximise profit has allowed non-AI tools such as Bootstrap to proliferate and dominate modern development techniques and has created a commoditised approach to design with a disturbingly large number of websites now falling into the diluted and all too familiar design pattern of, “banner and three spotlights”.

Banner & three spotlights, overused to the point of saturation

Predictably, clients have jumped at the opportunity to self-serve and appear on the digital world stage with lowered overheads utilising a mixture of automated and simplified creation tools, framed in trusted design patterns. However, they all lead to one inescapable conclusion, if everyone is using the same approach and the same tools in a rote fashion then all that is being created is a standardised solution.

Self serve with Webflow, a tool to lower the barrier to entry for usable code to non-developers

With regimented designs and sea of competitor clones, NO business can afford, for long, to offer just a standard solution. A millennial audience, which is fast becoming the dominant market sector of spending power is a constantly shifting information consumer across multiple platforms and usually simultaneously. This shifting audience behaviour and information pattern is permanently connected and can navigate omni-channel marketing flawlessly. They demand a personalised response in reward for their engagement with a brand and often want it to be discounted to distribute through social channels.

Technology can be broadly categorised into three areas: replace, aid and to surpass human abilities. The automotive industry has demonstrated the cost and accuracy efficiencies of replacing manual labour with tireless and near perfect robotics, the replace category is firmly established.

Technology to aid is the current generation and is still arguably in its infancy, despite 30 years of development in the field of Psychology and Human Computer Interaction. Anyone who has struggled with Outlook or asked Alexa to complete a task will understand how even the basics of daily life are still not devoid of frustration; technology to aid, is still a work in progress.

Technology to surpass human ability is a hotbed of activity and is the home of AI. Recent breakthroughs in machine learning have jump started the 20 year stagnation of AI and neural nets and has re-ignited our desire to achieve the elusive goal of technology being able to outperform and out think the problems we don’t even know to ask, technology to surpass us has acquired a new lease of life.

The increase in ability and decrease in cost to achieve a given result creates opportunities and new industries. Sentient and its AI service Ascent, provides companies with a conversion optimisation tool offering “millions of versions” of visual layout permutations and optimisation adjustments is more akin to a drive by shooting in its algorithm-evolutionary approach to “testing of the fittest”. As fast as it is, with the ability to out-test a human counterpart, this evolutionary approach cannot conceivably navigate across the ever changing millennial landscape of emerging trends, audience segmentation and tone of voice for a growing number of products and its constantly changing tastes for media consumption.

The macro level environment is the reality that humans live and move around in. It is messy, unpredictable and we only periodically settle down to concentrate on the micro level tasks when we need to. AI performs perfectly well in content provision, serving these micro level needs: Facebook timeline prioritisation, Pinterest similar image suggest and Neiman Marcus photo based product finder are daily usages of AI at work in a way that replaces the mundane task of pattern matching to personalised tastes, this is technology to aid us applied correctly.

The changing landscape of service provision and the creation of new industries, catering for the low hanging fruit of AI personalised content and the reduced barrier to entry for commoditised design has begun to force a change in skills for the modern practitioner of internet services. A shift from the traditional nature of design, build and deploy into a more customer experience driven approach which embraces the macro level environment and considers the end to end journey and how to increase the lifetime customer value when interacting with the varied touchpoints in the micro environment.

The transformation from build-and-ship to digital partner engages the nature of complex problems and requires complex questions to be asked. The subtlety and nuance of understanding long term goals and roadmap planning, which may only exist as aspirations initially, require a high-level conversation and must be fervently matched with a rigorous and continuous testing strategy to accommodate the fluidity of a constantly changing environment which both the client and customer participate in. It is no longer acceptable to create a static marketing plan for a product appealing to an audience segment.

Innovation comes from, amongst many sources, the need to break the mould, to re-pivot the problem and aggregate external influences in different ways, the very definition of thinking outside of the box. A driving force of innovation is a competitive need to outperform, to create an object of simplicity and beauty, these intangible “desires” are innately human and cannot be codified into an algorithm with calculated outputs. They are expressed, felt and shared through the thought provoking tapestry of language, to place this into a visual context, could AI create the Gestalt of closure?

The modern practitioners’ toolset is a creative mind for innovation to an ever changing problem mixed with intuition of best practices and constantly re-evaluating that precious held belief of best practice with a battery of selected tests, AI can be used productively as an advanced tool for ideation when operating in new markets or when trying out ideas that have too many competing variables. If this mindset operates in a macro level environment of innovation and symbiotically utilises the tools of old and new to provide a consultative client relationship, then the growing question of AI vs Humans disappears, it is simple reframed as how best to use the tools in front of us now to our best advantage.

When asked which is your favourite building, Frank Lloyd Wright replied “The one on my board right now”, demonstrating no forlorn yearning for a halcyon era and showed his acceptance of the present and the onlook of the future. Time and tools progress and our understanding and acceptance is paramount to a continued and profitable delivery of client services in an evolving and increasingly competitive landscape.