The Future of Interaction:
Generative AI and the Evolution of UX

How Artificial Intelligence is Transforming the User Experience

APRIL 2024

Summary: The history of user interfaces (UI) in computing has evolved dramatically over the last 60 years, shaping how humans interact with technology. With the advent of generative AI (GenAI), we are now witnessing the emergence of a new major UI paradigm which is redefining how we comprehend and interact with technology. The emerging Artificial Intelligence Experience (AIX) framework aims to integrate these advanced technologies into everyday interactions, ensuring they are intuitive and user-centric.

The Evolution of User Interfaces: From Batch to Intent

The first UI paradigm, batch processing, goes back as far as 1890. In this early model, users submitted a complete set of instructions to computers, initially by punch-card and eventually by program, and awaited the output with no real-time interaction. This mode of operation was rigid and often unforgiving, requiring exact precision in the input to achieve the desired output. Any deviation or error in the inputs could render the entire batch flawed.

As technology advanced, a second paradigm emerged during the 1960's in the form of command-based interaction. This model introduced a conversational dynamic where users and computers took turns executing commands. Command-based interaction has dominated technological design for the last 60 years due to its increased flexibility. This paradigm facilitated the development of command lines, text-based terminals, and eventually graphical user interfaces (GUIs), significantly shaping the entire field of user experience (UX).

Today, a third UI paradigm is emerging, powered by GenAI technologies like OpenAI's GPT and Google's Gemini. This new model shifts the focus from detailed instructions to desired outcomes. Users express their intent, and the AI deduces the best methods to achieve these outcomes, often with minimal input from the user. This transformation not only simplifies interactions but also challenges the traditional role of the user as the primary controller of the process, marking a significant departure from earlier paradigms. We call this paradigm intent-based interaction.

The Challenges & Opportunities of Intent-Based Interaction

The AI user experience represents a different paradigm of interaction between humans and computers — a paradigm that holds much promise, but also highlights significant usability problems.

Unlike its predecessors, with intent-based interaction, users are not required to understand or manipulate the underlying processes of the tasks they wish to accomplish. Instead, they simply state their objectives, and the system interprets and executes the necessary actions. This not only challenges traditional interaction models but also fundamentally alters the locus of control within the interaction, placing the majority of it with the technology.

Consumer GenAI technologies such as ChatGPT and Midjourney exemplify this shift. These systems are designed to generate content, solve problems, and create images based on simple user prompts, bypassing the need for complex command sequences. For instance, rather than a series of commands to create a graphic, a user might simply describe the desired image, and the AI model would generate it according to the specifications. This significantly lowers the technical threshold for users, democratizing access to sophisticated digital tools.

However, intent-based interaction also introduces new challenges, particularly in usability and error handling. The emerging technique of "prompt engineering" has become a necessary intermediary to refine and optimize AI responses based on user input, reminiscent of the early days of search engine optimization where specialists were needed to navigate complex databases. This suggests that while the technology has advanced, there remains a gap between current AI capabilities and the ideal seamless, intuitive user experience.

Creating an image of a futuristic flying vehicle, inspired by a 1960's Ford Mustang cruiser, using command-based and intent-based interactions.

Moreover, the current implementation of intent-based interfaces often requires users to articulate their needs clearly and precisely in textual form. This presents significant obstacles for those with lower literacy, less familiarity with the technology, or an inability to express what they want—referred to as 'articulation barriers.' The risk of misinterpretation by the AI can lead to results that do not meet user expectations, and without transparent processes or explainable outcomes, it can be challenging for users to understand and correct errors. This challenge is further exacerbated by delayed and opaque feedback loops between action (input) and outcome (outputs), which make it difficult to learn from mistakes or improve a user's experience.

Despite these challenges, the potential for further development in AI interfaces is vast. Future systems are likely to merge the intuitiveness of intent-based interactions with the clarity and familiarity of graphical interfaces, creating hybrid models that could offer the best of both worlds. Such systems will need to carefully balance efficiency and flexibility with transparency and control, ensuring that users can both trust and effectively interact with the technology.

Enhancing AI's ability to understand and adapt to varied human inputs will be central to achieving a truly intuitive and user-friendly experience.

But as we increasingly design, implement, and interact with AI, our current frameworks for understanding technology interactions prove inadequate. The complexities and nuances of AI require us to rethink our approaches to UX, to ensure they meet the evolving demands of human-AI interaction.

The Importance of Artificial Intelligence Experience (AIX) within AI Interactions

The transition to AI-powered user experiences signifies a fundamental shift in our interaction with technology, comparable to the original computerization movement. This evolution demands a reevaluation of the frameworks we use to understand and design these interactions, ushering in the need for a new paradigm, known as Artificial Intelligence Experience (AIX). Unlike traditional UX, which focuses on command-based usability and momentary interactions, AIX adapts to the agentic nature of AI systems that not only perform tasks but also exhibit a level of autonomy, learning, and engagement in complex social and emotional dynamics.

Artificial intelligence is reshaping how we conceive of technology: not as mere tools serving explicit commands, but as agentic partners in our daily lives. This shift from command-based to intention-based interaction underscores the necessity for AIX. In this new paradigm, interactions with AI are not transient; they are part of an ongoing relationship, which influences and is influenced by the AI's capacity to understand and adapt to human intentions.

Furthermore, the agency of AI introduces a unique set of challenges and opportunities. AI systems, with their ability to act independently, demand a design philosophy that goes beyond functionality and efficiency. They require an approach that also considers the emotional and social implications of their actions. By engaging in interactions that can mimic human cognitive and emotional behaviors, AI systems challenge our traditional understanding of interaction as a mere exchange of commands and responses. Instead, they invite an interaction style that is more akin to coexisting with another human being, involving negotiations of power, emotional exchanges, and mutual adaptation.

The concept of coexistence with AI brings to light the extended nature of AI interactions, which transcend the immediate and momentary. AIX, therefore, expands the scope of user experience design to include these broader, more sustained aspects of human-AI relationships. It acknowledges that AI technologies are not just tools but participants in these relationships, capable of learning from interactions and influencing them through their actions and decisions.

By embracing AIX, we commit to a design framework that respects and enhances the unique qualities of AI as agentic systems. It is a commitment to prioritizing humans within human-AI interaction, in anticipation of a new era of coexistence with intelligent systems. This requires developing technologies that not only serve us but also enrich our lives by fostering positive, empathetic, and effective interactions. As we continue to integrate AI more deeply into our personal and professional lives, AIX provides the necessary guidance to ensure these technologies contribute positively to our society, enhancing our capabilities without compromising our dignity or autonomy. In this way, AIX does not merely adjust to the presence of AI; it anticipates and shapes a future where humans and intelligent systems collaborate more closely and more meaningfully than ever before.

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For more on intent-based interactions see Jakob Nielsen's work.