Artificial Intelligence has seen a huge surge in popularity with the recent success of AlphaGo against Lee Sedol. If Google Trends is accurate, public interest in the subject of Artificial Intelligence has grown by nearly 100% since 2012. Other technological marvels, including self-driving cars, advances in voice recognition software and pattern recognition have shown us that we’re closer than ever to a Star Trek kind of future. Still, the limits of modern AI place it pretty far from putting designers out of a job anytime soon.
What AI Can Do
Neural networks have seen some pretty big advances in the last decade. They’re complex networks of nodes that model the way Neural networks can be set up to receive feedback or training. Engineers give the network an input and grade the network’s attempts to output a solution. Over time, the network adapts and learns to output things that are better and better.
The more objective the output of this task is, the better neural networks perform. It’s best if the output can be easily graded by another computer program. This makes neural networks very appropriate for playing board games, since there’s a calculated numerical score at the end.
Website design is messy and subjective. Even if a single program could create an entire website, different people would judge the result differently. Human website designers understand that each client has different taste. Programming an AI to deal with that is a totally different challenge than keeping a car from hitting other cars or beating a person at a board game.
That isn’t to say that programs aren’t incredibly valuable when it comes to designing a website. Most designers use lots of tools during the course of their design – they’ll use search engines, analytical tools for things like SEO and more. Instead of feeding the client’s wishes into a magic robot, however, they’re more likely to modify a template or recycle bits of one of their own projects.While these tools aren’t exactly unique to designers, they’re very much supplmeneted by AI. Most search engines use the same kinds of technology that AI uses in order to deliver the best results to the user for each search string. SEO analytical tools often use similar algorithms to make suggestions to improve the Page rank of websites. In other words, designers (and most of the rest of us) take advantage of AI as part of their normal work already.
A few startups have produced prototypes of fully automatic web design tools. Both Wix ADI and Grid claim to use AI to build entire websites for their customers from scratch. Grid is the less ambitious option. You can see some of the sites it’s built and even sign up for a free trial to play with it yourself. Grid’s output is clean and stylish. You can’t really tell that the websites were designed by an “AI.” They look like a slick custom CMS made by someone who really likes scrolling – in fact, all of the sites I’ve seen look pretty similar, other than the content and a few details like fonts and colors. As far as I can tell, Grid is more similar to a “let’s get your Word Press site set up” wizard then it is a true AI.
Wix ADI is supposed to do more. You simply give it your company name and the name of your site and it searches the web for everything else. It looks at similar sites to figure out what pages it needs and what information they should contain and then populates them with whatever it can find about your business. Unlike Grid, it’s fully customize-able — you can tweak all of the output yourself after it’s done. It’s hard to tell whether it’s a true “AI” or just a bunch of templates glued together. Either way, the results seem pretty good, if you want a snazzy custom CMS that sets itself up.
This is perhaps the most important point to be made about AI and web design. Wix is an okay tool, but it gets a lot of things wrong. In conjunction with a human designer, however, it’s a fantastic productivity boost. Using an AI to produce an initial mockup of a client’s website and then modify things from there saves lots of time, enabling you to focus more on the things that make each of your websites unique.
Offloading Little Pieces
Vox’s home page is a great example of using an “intelligent” tool alongside a human design to achieve good results. Whenever you load the website, it dynamically calculates the best stories and website elements to stick on the front page, dynamically shuffling things around until it maxes out an internal algorithm. Analytical tools like relap.io tend to agree that it does an excellent job, scoring the results much higher than other sites with hand-picked headlines.
Vox’s entire website wasn’t made by an AI, however. The human web designers simply came up with an innovative way to present dynamic content on the home page. All of the articles are still written by people. People still shoot the photos and create the graphics. They’re presented on layouts and templates that were created by humans. As technology progresses, we’ll almost certainly see more and more of these design decisions offloaded to AI to handle dynamically. While making an AI to handle part of a page is expensive and time consuming, it’s a great cost saving measure when you need to redo part of a site several times a day to keep up with changing page content (in Vox’s case, new news stories and headlines). Best of all, these layouts can be customized per-user, meaning that you can serve up bits of content that users are interested in first and keep your audience more engaged.
Help, Not Replace
AI and other programs are unlikely to dethrone humans for designing websites anytime soon. Instead, what we’ll see is growth in partially automated design, where algorithms spit out layout ideas or rough drafts of websites and designers customize them for clients. We’ll also see little algorithms within websites more frequently, giving designers more freedom to put the content they want exactly where they want it. Designers will continue to utilize byproducts of AI advances in other fields as part of their work, whether they use a neural network to analyze their layouts or just take advantage of advanced search technology that lets them find images and information faster.
However, human creativity is surely something that machines can’t replace, no matter how “intelligent” they are. With the help of website builders and other tools, people can craft websites that could easily beat those made by robots. Take for example Ucraft, a drag-and-drop website builder that offers templates suitable for every business niche. If you want to design a website which won’t take up too much of your time, and without a help from a web designer, all you have to do is embrace your creativity. Don’t hesitate to take advantage of the technology, all the benefits it has to offer, and then focus on imagination.
As we get better at working with technology, we’ll see both productivity increases and new avenues for cooperation with both AI and traditional programs, enabling designers to focus more on design and less on the nitty gritty technical work.