Will interaction designers go the way of the dodo?
Interaction designers have defined how man and machine communicate since the emergence of the graphical user interface.
The challenge of making us, an emotional and pattern-seeking physical being understand a powerful, non-dimensional, indifferent (and frankly rather stupid) entity, has brought forward some amazingly creative and beautiful solutions in the last decades.
Yet, nowadays, machines are becoming more and more… well… human. They start to talk like us, they seem to understand us, they even develop a sense of humor.
Apple's Siri, Google Now, and the more experimental Viv (recently acquired by Samsung) are evolving into full-fledged personal assistants. Facebook Messenger and WeChat are changing into help desk- and sales representatives. Google's Allo and Apple's Messages are joining our chat conversations to help us find the best place to go for lunch.
What an amazing outlook. A future where we can simply have a conversation with our technology. Anything we want. No translation needed. The interaction designer's Valhalla, right? Or is it?
Because if that outlook is true, what exactly is the need for us translators? Is there still a role for interaction designers in a world where the interaction is already provided by Google, Apple, WeChat or Facebook? You can imagine this outlook makes some interaction designers feel rather nervous. An understandable reaction when it is your bread and butter on the line.
There is another way to look at it though.
There is a reason we do not just create wireframes. We do much more. We are the ambassador for the user. “Team human”. We try to understand who the user is, what he needs and we shape the available technology accordingly. We do all this for a higher purpose. The goal of bringing people and brands together in meaningful ways.
As digital technology changed and became more pervasive, we have developed and adapted our skills for this goal. We do research, map journeys, create concepts, define flows, and sure… we still deliver wireframes too.
So if this goal is still relevant, which we think it is, why wouldn't our skills remain relevant as well?
Let's have an honest look at each of our skills and examine if they are still useful. How can we apply our skills in a conversational future?
Most of us will agree that research is a prerequisite for good design.
Quantitative data tells us what users do, qualitative research tells us why.
Research does not just help us optimise the user's experience, it can motivate and inspire a team to find the competitive edge for a brand.
With conversational interfaces, quantitative and qualitative data will merge because the conversation will provide us with qualitative information. This means that getting user insights and testing solutions will be become more accessible and lightning fast. We will have near instant feedback to help us explore which solutions work and which do not.
Our skills of managing research and translating the results into valuable insights, will still be very relevant.
Journey mapping is about understanding users regardless of the available technology.
We capture their hopes and dreams and determine how they go about achieving a goal. In a conversational future, bots and assistants will simply be a few extra touchpoints in a journey map.
In a world where brands have less control over the interaction with their customers, this birds-eye view will remain invaluable to find a brand’s competitive edge.
As the conversational interface will determine most of the interaction, brands will distinguish themselves less and less through usability. This means that when we are creating concepts, we will have to focus more on uncovering unexplored user needs.
Tapping into these needs by creating an array of unique micro-services for conversational interfaces will be the key to creating a superior user experience that makes a brand stand out.
Finding those user needs through generative research and ideation is nothing new to us.
Throughout the development of a product, we already keep in mind how visible a brand is.
We ask questions like: Where is our audience? How do we perform with regards to SEO and SEA? How are the brand's owned, bought, and earned media doing?
With the emergence of conversational interfaces, we will probably see a very similar arms race where influencing algorithms will be key in determining the visibility and therefore the success of a service.
Just as with SEO, we need to obtain a solid understanding of what it is that makes conversational interfaces choose one service over another.
Verdict: relevant, but needs an upgrade.
Where we now design flows in all different shapes, most are rather linear and relatively easy to document.
Capturing the flow of a conversational interface will prove to be anywhere from a little to a lot more complex.
A conversational interface can be anything from a simple decision tree with fixed answers (retrieval based model) to a fully intelligent and learning agent that allows for any input (generative model).
At the one end of this spectrum, flows will be very useful as they can document the working of an interface almost completely. These flows will probably be very similar to the trees we create for good old wizards (remember those?).
At the other end of the spectrum, with generative conversational interfaces, we are really talking AI. The flows will be much less linear and might include aspects like a user's history, predictions on what he might want to do and more. Because of this complexity, the documentation will probably be the code itself.
Nevertheless, flows will likely still prove useful in exploring and documenting the most important use cases.
Our challenge, therefore, is to find new ways of communicating and documenting these new aspects of flows.
Verdict: relevant, but needs an upgrade.
And then, finally, wireframing.
The time we spend defining templates and components to create a complete and responsive interface may disappear, since a complete conversational interface is already at our disposal.
We will most likely work directly on the actual product with developers or we might work on this ourselves, as Viv and tools like Wit.ai are promising a more or less codeless setup. In a way this might feel similar to how we already work on things that wireframes cannot capture, like crafting transitions in tools such as Principle.
Of course wireframes still have a use to quickly explore desired changes, especially if the conversational interface in question allows for customisation.
Verdict: somewhat obsolete.
You could say most of our skills are still relevant in a world with conversational interfaces and, therefore, interaction designers will likely remain relevant too.
Of course, we can ask ourselves if the conversational interface will really be this disruptive. Conversational interfaces have still to mature and they lack affordances - do you know what you can and cannot ask Siri? Additionally, conversational interfaces can be more cumbersome than interfaces that allow for direct manipulation in many situations. In that light, the conversational interface could prove to be a much more complimentary technology in our future than we might think.
On the other hand, conversational interfaces like Viv are already providing graphical user interfaces right within the conversation, in the form of widgets. These widgets can do all sorts of things: from listing products to providing you with a service to order and pay. We can interact with these widgets through touch rather than speech, going from conversational to graphical at any point in the conversation where this seems natural and desirable. The amount of control (if any) a brand will have over such widgets and interactions is still unclear.
Whatever the future holds, our work will probably become more strategic, process oriented, and iterative, but will prove to be just as creative. We will need to expand our skills with a solid knowledge about algorithms and new ways of capturing flows. And although we might spend way, way less time wireframing, our ability to provide a real understanding of the user will prove to be just as important as ever. (Maybe even more important as brands will have to distinguish themselves through the same interface.)
And yes, maybe our job titles will change. We often call ourselves user experience designers as our work encompasses so much more than just designing interaction. Maybe we will evolve into brand conversation designers or simply service designers.
Whatever the case, our goal will remain the same. We will keep working to create meaningful interaction between users and brands. We will just have one additional and very powerful technology at our disposal to do so.
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