The Steady Rise of AI — and Where It's Taking Us
"The machines really are learning."
-- Drew Harrison, AI Project Manager
For over a decade, AI has been gradually evolving into an advanced and highly versatile technology. Today, it’s on the verge of a tipping point. By 2020, AI “bots” will power 85% of customer service interactions. 42% of consumers are already using digital assistants, and 27% of participants in a recent survey weren’t sure whether their last customer service interaction was with a human or a machine.
As Project Manager and Filterati Drew Harrison explains, AI has been interwoven into our everyday lives for years. From search algorithms to facial recognition tools, most of us are already benefiting from technology that “learns” about us so we can more quickly and easily get to the place, product or information we want.
Although AI is taking on an ever-larger role in the digital marketing world, most companies have still only scratched the surface of how they can leverage it. AI’s most cutting-edge capabilities remain on the fringe of use-cases — and that’s precisely what Drew and her team at Filter are working to change.
Leading a team of UX Researchers, UX Designers and Visual Designers, Drew is helping Microsoft educate its clients about the full breadth of its AI development tools. In this Gimme 5, Drew shares her insights on how AI is shaping today’s customer experiences, where it will take us in the future, and what needs to change in order for more people and companies to tap into these limitless possibilities.
1. How are bots and other AI tools influencing customer experiences?
AI tools are enabling brands to interact with their customers in exciting new ways. Bots can answer questions through chat platforms by recalling answers to frequently asked questions, and suggest items for us to purchase by acknowledging our preferences and patterns — all while providing a sense personality and a natural, conversation-style interaction. This helps customers in that they can access information and complete tasks in far fewer clicks, and helps businesses in that they don’t need to spend as much time on person-to-person customer service.
When they think of AI, most people think of Siri and Alexa — but it’s already so much more varied and widespread. Bots and other AI tools are being used in ways that most of us don’t notice, and that have already become second nature. The technology is evolving in a huge range of industries, such as retail and travel. I’m particularly drawn toward features that recommend new things — from potential outfits to unfamiliar travel destinations — based on what the tool has “learned” about you. This can lead people to possibilities they may not have otherwise discovered, broadening their range of perspectives and experiences.
2. What are some of the obstacles to wider user adoption of AI?
I’d say the most important challenge for anyone, no matter what their level of expertise, is simply learning and getting up to speed. It’s quite a learning curve to know what the full potential is, and then becoming inspired by how this technology can be applied to our lives. Many people don’t even know the technology exists, period — let alone how to utilize it — so that’s a major hurdle to overcome.
What makes this even more difficult is that many cognitive tools are still early in development, and therefore in “beta” or “preview” stages. This means that the technology is not perfect or fully functional, leading to gaps or disruptions in the user’s experience. It’s steadily improving, but there’s still significant work that needs to be done. At this stage, those creating the tools have to take some risks to find out what does and doesn’t work.
This brings about something of a catch-22: to improve on these tools, the industry needs more early adopters to use and provide feedback on them. However, because the technology is still far from perfect — and because information about them isn’t yet clear or accessible enough — it can be challenging to get enough new developers and organizations to use them.
3. How are teams like yours working to improve awareness and education surrounding AI?
I’m leading a team of UX Researchers, UX Designers and Visual Designers who are working on solving this problem for Microsoft’s Cognitive Services. Our main initiative is to help Microsoft increase awareness and user adoption of the tools in its Azure suite — APIs that developers can use to integrate AI algorithms into their apps.
At this point, most of Microsoft’s audience only knows about a portion of the tools available to them. Companies like Uber are already using Microsoft’s facial recognition software, for example — but few developers know that Azure’s APIs can go even deeper, such as responding to facial expressions and even emotions.
Azure’s users range from beginners to expert developers, and they’re seeking to use these APIs in a number of ways: building a bot, gathering research, or incorporating a certain algorithm into their business structure. It’s a fun challenge to shape a website experience that will be clear, easy and valuable to all these different personas. Our designers are looking at the problem from every angle, and we’re getting deep into the weeds of the customer experience. In the process, we’re learning so many interesting things; it’s like pulling back the curtain and seeing the wizard behind the scenes.
4. How do you see AI technology shaping the world of digital marketing and design in the coming years?
The machines really are learning. Their responses are getting smarter, more accurate and more intuitive all the time, allowing the technology to integrate more seamlessly into our everyday lives. As that trend continues, and as organizations better understand the tools available to them, AI will change the digital marketing design landscape in profound ways. For example, websites’ and apps’ user interfaces will need to take into consideration other interactions like voice and video commands, not just scrolling, tapping and clicking. I believe AI will influence interfaces as much as mobile did for responsive web.
Companies will have more opportunities to learn about our likes and habits, and to communicate or “speak” to us individually and directly. They’ll be advertising to our specific tastes by running in the background of our lives, possibly by watching and listening to us — which I know can sound scary. But I think that as companies learn more about how users want (and don’t want) to engage with these technologies, as we develop best practices, and as we discover even more beneficial use cases, people will become more comfortable with this paradigm.
5. What’s most exciting to you about working in the AI space?
It’s exciting to be involved as an early adopter in an emerging technology that industries and cultures are buzzing about. Everyone on our team is filled with the same excitement, and that’s inspiring. It’s a blank canvas, and a new frontier of possibilities.
The ways in which we apply these technologies to add functionality to our lives are still being defined, and there is much room for invention and refinement. AI is still largely an uncharted territory, so working within this space means we get to help define what the experience looks like from the ground up. It’s time to dream and be creative.
Since 1991, Filter has been completely focused on the ever-evolving digital marketing & design landscape. Our commitment to that focus has allowed us to build deep subject matter expertise, offer services that meet the ever-changing needs of the world’s biggest and most progressive brands, and react quickly and nimbly when things change, which they always do. Things have never been more exciting and interesting for our industry than they are today— and to help our clients keep pace we are keeping our eyes fixed on what lies around the corner for all of us.