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Design Principles for a New AI World

by Ovetta Sampson
8 min read
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I was on a panel tonight discussing Ethics in Design Research. I’m on a lot of panels about design and ethics because I’ve worked in AI design most of my career.

Right before the panel, I read an article by a friend George Aye, who runs an amazing design firm called Design for Social Good, in my hometown of Chicago.

Aye’s article redefined the definition of “good design.” It’s a great article that took Dieter Rams’ principles of good design and rewrote them.

Rams, a white, Western-educated, German industrial designer wrote these rules about 50 years ago and they’ve become so ingrained in the design lexicon that the Interaction Design Foundation calls them “10 Commandments of Good Design.”

That’s a bit epic, isn’t it? Biblical allusions aside, I, like George, though they could use a bit of a redesign. For one reason — design going into an AI era, ain’t what it needs to be.

Our current slave/master framework surrounding interaction design that puts an individual and a device at its center creates a world where design is unilateral, individualistic, expendable, and unethical. It’s time that we worry less about design as a noun — aesthetics, convenience, and ease and more about design as a verb — purposeful, meaningful, and active.

Aye does a great reworking of Rams’ principles writing that:

Good design honors reality

Good design creates ownership

Good design builds power

And as I contemplate how to weave ethical AI design into product development I decided to try my own reworking of design guidelines that showcase this paradigm shift from the design being a passive partner in product development to design accelerating technology toward a more human automated future.

In the age of AI where speed, scale, and scary can simultaneously all be components of the products we design, we have to change design from a noun to become a very, deliberate verb. We’re entering a Brave New World. And that world requires designers to take on a larger responsibility for the outcomes produced, behavior induced, and effect on humanity the intelligent products we design to have.

It’s time for a new definition of design and a new framework that’s wider, more equitable, and pluralistic than the Westernized design-thinking bottle we’ve all suckled at in our formative design years. I take inspiration for this Brave New Design World from the celebrated and ostracized design philosopher Victor Papanek’s design definition coined in the riotous 1960s.

“Design is the concious effort to impose meaninful order to chaos.”

It’s up to us as designers to shape a world in which outcomes produce a lot less like Huxley’s version and more like Gene Roddenberry’s (without the weird sexist crap).

Good design is….

Rams: Good design is innovative

Ovetta: Good design solves hard problems.

Can we stop using the brain energy of the world’s best minds to design a better interactive hamburger icon? Why are we wasting design talent on meaningless products? We have the power to literally change the world. There is no reason why we can’t design a world where everyone has clean water, enough food, shelter, actual medical care and education.

In our quest to chase the Metaverse, the next big Matrix where we can sell fake land and perpetuate capitalistic rituals that are currently destroying the real world, we have lost sight of the power of design.

Design is not meant to sell ads. Or encourage insurrection at the U.S. and Ethiopian capitols. It’s certainly not meant to generate likes, comments, and shares. Good design is meant to change people’s everyday lives in ways that allow them to fulfill their life’s purpose. Good design in the future will eschew the basics. And opt for the valuable. Period. Full stop.

Rams: Good design makes a product useful

Ovetta: Good design promotes healthy relationships.

In the Brave New AI world, our mental model of user and product will have to shift. No longer will there be one individual and a device. Instead, there will be a network, a system of sentient beings all with varying degrees of agency fighting to exist, decide and behave in the same space.

A driver will want to speed, a car will want to ensure safety, a cyclist will blow a stop sign and a confrontation will erupt when each behaves in the way each was programmed to do so.

Good design will support design experiences that promote a healthy exchange and engagement of these networked entities. Good design will have to understand how each system component including “the user,” not only thinks and behaves but also values and ritualizes. No longer will the design be about a user and a product. Good design will consider a system of networked engagements and create a healthy connection among them.

Rams: Good design is aesthetic

Ovetta: Good design requires malleability.

Like most Westernized designers the idea of beauty was important to Rams. Form over function. Art embedded in furniture, you know Ikea on drugs. But in a world that will have the speed and scale of AI good design will have to be adaptable, customizable, and encompasses a near universality of appeal. Its beauty will be in the agency and the eye of the person wielding its power. AI allows a product to be individualistic to a fault. It’s a powerful experience when one’s Spotify playlist is so outrageously on a point that it could lead to a successful Tinder profile match. That’s how incredibly intimate our products can get. With AI the level of understanding of a user will be mind-boggling (just request all your Facebook data…) Good design will know this and design experiences explicitly for this non-binary world.

Rams: Good design makes a product understandable

Ovetta: Good design makes companies understand and products that serve me

Too long product design has been the hostage of marketing. Some MBA graduate dreams up a product that she knows will just fly off the shelves and then hire an army of designers to make it and a legion of marketers to make people think they want it. The days of Edward Bernaysian mind manipulation should be over. The amount of data that exists on each member of humanity is so immense that no one should feel frustrated by the products she buys. An AI world will bring an opportunity for unprecedented customer understanding and Good Design will harness that and create meaningful product experiences.

Good design is unobtrusive

A good design acknowledges bias.

The agnostic veil of product design is gone. Historical sins such as sexism, racism, ageism and ableism will become present and accounted for in intelligent products and services if we do not design against them. Good design will acknowledge the bias of product creators and open the doors to co-participatory design to bring equity and changed mental models to the product development process. Good design will be deliberate in widening the narrative in the room.

Rams: Good design is honest.

Ovetta: Good design prevents dishonesty.

This may seem a small twist of wording but really it’s an entirely new way of seeing our responsibility as designers. From a passive, do no harm to an active fight against all that do. Good design will go to battle with tech and product partners who use the tools of intelligent product making to imbue smart products with harmful human outcomes — intentionally or unintentionally don’t matter. Good design will attack it all. When a model says it’s 98% right we will fight for the 2%. We will always ask “What if it’s wrong?” And we will bring up the uncomfortable silences. We will actively work to prevent disastrous outcomes which mean we have to envision and imagine them first.

Good design is long-lasting

Good design expects unintended consequences.

Machine learning is as its name implies — a dynamic tool. It learns. And over time it learns so much that the machine learning product you started with isn’t the same one you end with. The dynamic nature of machine learning and artificial intelligence technology means Good Design must not be static. Good design must expect and listen for unintended consequences and then design “outs.” While predicting what those consequences are may seem impossible, knowing that they will occur is not. Good design will anticipate unintended consequences and design engaging experiences that protect the user from harmful outcomes.

Rams: Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Ovetta: Good design fosters equity

It probably would never occur to Rams that design should strive for equity. But that’s why he was a German design superstar and I’m me. Design is an activist tool that can change more than hearts and minds. And designing with AI can literally change our brains. With that kind of power, it’s imperative that Good Design strives for an equitable and justice outcome. While inequity and injustice are rampant in biased AI design the flipside doesn’t happen as organically. Good Design must acknowledge bias and then create experiences to combat an inequitable outcome.

Rams: Good design is environmentally friendly

Ovetta: Good design considers its effect on a collective, connected eco-system

It’s difficult to argue with Rams’ support of the environment here. But I wonder whose environment is he talking about? Is there a pecking order to who gets the benefits of design sustainability efforts? Speaking as a black woman in America, trust me there’s always a pecking order. So I push this a bit further to say that Good Design in an intelligent future will design for the pluralism in our collective eco-system.

Good design will realize there is no “one way,” but many ways and use intelligent tools to provide for those pluralistic avenues. Good design will honor the environmental, social, cultural, and ritualistic values of a pluralistic society and design non-binary, multi-agency experiences that promote agency while supporting collectivism. It will democratize product outcomes not homogenize them.

Rams: Good design is as little design as possible

Ovetta: Good design purposefully brings order to chaos.

Good design can no longer afford to be impartial. The speed and scale of artificial intelligence require our willful imposition of order in an increasingly chaotic world. We can no longer wipe our hands of our creations and say “Let God sort it out.” This means we must widen the narrative on who gets to call themselves a designer and we need to widen the paradigm from which we draw to design.

post authorOvetta Sampson

Ovetta Sampson, As the Vice-President of Machine Learning Experience Design at Capital One my team and I are pioneering ways to make the responsible and ethical use of machine learning effortless for associates while creating a new muscle for designers - using machine learning and AI as a human-centered design tool. Prior to Capital One I was Principle Design Director at Microsoft, serving an amazing team of designers, program managers, engineers, researchers and technologists to help the nation's biggest companies actually visualize and realize a digital transformation that's built on a foundation of the hidden human truths of the world.

Ideas In Brief
  • In the AI era, designers are taking on even larger responsibility.
  • It’s high time design stepped into the new era and a new framework that’s wider, more equitable, and pluralistic compared to what we’ve witnessed before.
  • In this article, Ovetta Sampson, Vice-President of Machine Learning Experience Design at Capital One, reworks the “10 Commandments of Good Design” to fit design going into an AI era.
    1. Good design solves hard problems.
    2. Good design promotes healthy relationships.
    3. Good design requires malleability.
    4. Good design makes companies understand and products that serve me.
    5. Good design acknowledges bias.
    6. Good design prevents dishonesty.
    7. Good design expects unintended consequences.
    8. Good design fosters equity .
    9. Good design considers its effect on a collective, connected eco-system.
    10. Good design brings purposefully order to chaos.

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