According to Nielsen Norman Group, the advent of AI and conversational interfaces marks the first significant shift in user interface (UI) paradigms in 60 years. This development might catch some off guard, prompting questions about the widespread presence of AI assistants and the timing of their emergence. Why is conversational AI gaining prominence now, and what considerations should guide our approach to these technologies moving forward?

Since the inception of personal computing in the 1980s, our interaction with technology has gradually evolved. Initially, users communicated with computers through command lines, requiring them to speak the computer’s language. Advancements in programming languages improved efficiency in this regard. The evolution continued with the introduction of graphical user interfaces (GUIs), the birth of UX design, and the integration of new interaction modes like swiping and tapping through smartphones and tablets.

The most recent shift has led us toward conversational AI, allowing users to engage with technology in natural language. This has reversed the ‘locus of control,’ empowering users to communicate with computers on their terms. As we come full circle, designing interfaces for conversational AI necessitates a reconsideration of approaches, introducing new skill sets, workflows, and the emergence of the conversation designer.

Conversation design, described as the art of facilitating meaningful exchanges between humans and computers, proves challenging due to the fundamental differences between human and artificial cognition. Computers demand structured data, such as intents, entities, and variables, while humans naturally comprehend language. The conversation designer acts as a bridge, incorporating knowledge from behavioral psychology, linguistics, and technology to create seamless interactions.

Psychologically, humans are inherently wired for speech, responding positively to computers that emulate human conversation. While the goal is not to deceive users into thinking they are interacting with a human, the aim is to ensure conversations flow as naturally as possible. The expansion of conversational AI, especially with large language models, presents numerous possibilities, accompanied by unique challenges and limitations.

However, AI grapples with a significant gap in user experience (UX). Primarily driven by technical experts such as developers and engineers, AI development often prioritizes technology over user-centric design. This technical-first approach contributes to slow adoption rates. From the UX perspective, conversational design is integral to AI’s success.

Considering the future implications, phenomena like AI companions and voice clones are poised to reshape society. In the workplace, AI has given rise to new worker archetypes – centaurs and secret cyborgs. Centaurs, outperforming non-AI users, achieve tasks faster, while secret cyborgs clandestinely utilize AI without organizational awareness.

Despite the potential value, AI’s clandestine role raises ethical concerns, particularly when AI-generated content is mistaken for human-created content. As we enter this new frontier in UX design, UX designers hold the reins to shape the future, navigating the transformative era of conversational AI.

By Impact Lab