Empathy, the Most Powerful Design Tool
How designers’ roles will change in a world gone automated
Artificial Intelligence is on everyone’s mind, it seems. It’s our savior. No wait, it’s an existential threat to humanity. No wait, it’s sort of both, as long as designers take an oath and run interference. Tune your ear to the tech industry, and you’ll hear AI buzzing beneath the cacophony, threatening the fabric of creativity while moving us into a simpler, automated future.
At least that’s the narrative being spun. And while it’s [very!] important to start thinking about the ramifications of AI to our future humanity, there’s another concern knocking at the door of creative minds — the proliferation of design tools and design systems.
You know the ones — Sketch, Zeplin, Proto.io, Figma, Origami, Framer, InVision, Principle, Marvel — the list grows as we speak. Not quite AI, but sophisticated as hell. If you can dream it, you can do it, with a small learning curve to get up to speed. Borrow an entire design system from the likes of Google, MailChimp, or Trello. Everything is open source and everything is awesome. Right?
Maybe. We’re at an interesting crossroads in 2018, building tools that simultaneously embolden and decommission creativity. If a designer’s job can be canned into a magical automated machine, do we need designers anymore? Visual language can now be lifted and pieced together brilliantly like so many Legos. Your artistry and inventiveness need not apply. The machines have got it from here, thank you very much.
This is a sad diagnosis, I know. The writer in me fears the little bots who will start composing the world’s poetry, excusing the humble wordsmith to the corners of oblivion. Designers are in the same awkward position. You want to innovate and inspire, you want to build great things that help people be more creative, you certainly want life to be easier for pixel-pushers around the world. But you also want to design. To feel artistic inspiration pour from your mind into your work. To create something meaningful, new, and original.
I believe it’s still possible to do all of that in this new Design Age. The role of designer is changing, but not in a bad way. Now more than ever, designers have become spirit guides in the tech world, affecting change with their best unicorn skill — empathy.
It’s become a buzz word, I know. But it really does make all the difference, and empathy’s hard to teach. A good designer will see the onslaught of automated creation tools and think: awesome. Now I can really focus on the customer. Rather than sensing a personal threat to individuality, they’ll bend their minds in new ways to reimagine customer journeys and the full arc of user experience. Having an at-the-ready design system isn’t suffocating, it’s freeing, and lays the groundwork for truly creative breakthroughs. That’s the challenge to designers in this new paradigm, and their greatest responsibility — to assert design authority in a provocative, world-changing way.
2017 was arguably The Year of the Designer — seats at the table were won. In 2018, it’s about delivering on that chutzpah and defending the very soul of humanity, to be perfectly dramatic about it. The whole AI thing may just be simmering now, but it’s already proving to be troublesome in some areas. Remember the Microsoft Tay debacle? Tay was sent bravely forth into the depths of Twitter to test natural language and machine learning capabilities. Poor Tay was corrupted by humans within hours and forced to fall on her sword. It was sort of an awful thing; but also a great learning moment. The entire industry could see it as an opportunity to bring mindful, fair design to digital assistants like Alexa and Cortana. And now, within the methods of Inclusive Design thinking, Microsoft is teaching others to combat those unintended biases that creep into AI and machine learning. The designer has become a guardian for social good.
This is the landscape and a call to arms. Use those rapid prototyping tools, those artistic chops, that right-brain/left-brain hybrid mind, that designer instinct that leads you to create ethical, inclusive experiences. The world is at your feet and asking for empathy.
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