How AI Transforms the User Experience – Personalization

I have worked at the intersection of UX and AI for several years and my focus has been on understanding the enterprise side of the equation. Even with this focus, there is a great need to understand and plan for the total experience of those ultimately impacted by this sweeping technology, not just the enterprise developers. Several designers who have written about the UX of AI spend their time focused on interaction patterns and the impacts of AI on the design profession, with less insight on broader aspects of the human element. This is what I would like to address more. But first some context.

What powers AI?

AI already impacts daily life in many ways, often unknown to most people. AI is a driving force for some of the largest companies across the globe. Whether you are receiving a price on an online purchase, viewing a list of results from a search engine, ordering a shared ride, getting approved for an online transaction or finding a new song through a recommendation — AI is there influencing or driving many parts of those daily interactions.

AI algorithms are fed by massive amounts of data to find patterns that enable your interactions with various companies. Through this complex network of data and algorithms AI removes limits in learning. People then apply this data and algorithms to interesting goals. For example, some data science researchers are exploring ways to use AI to automate user research. They experiment with techniques like understanding sentiment, classifying feedback  — with limited success deriving truly meaningful and actionable impacts.

What is AI-enabled personalization?

At the highest level, two of the leading drivers for AI adoption are delivering a better customer experience and helping employees to get better at their jobs. Some AI futurists believe that “consumers will demand even more customized experiences –  giving rise to hyper-personalization and greater customer experience within the e-commerce sector” (Weissgraeber, 2021). AI makes it possible to realize something that has eluded marketers and product owners for years. It makes it possible to have large scale personalization, true one-to-one experiences for all. Note that this is very different from the earlier concept of mass-customization of the early 2000’s which focused on the user agency to choose a design or product configuration that they desired.

What are some examples of AI-enabled personalization?

Here are some current and future examples of personalization and the reasons they need a stronger focus on the user experience:

Retail and eCommerce – AI will continue to empower “hyper-personalized” ecommerce experiences. Companies like Salesforce realize this level of personalization by applying personalized recommendations and by providing tools that enable web developers to customize the layout of content that users see. AI in design enables user-centered design, to “an extreme level of granularity” – concept of design for every single person (personalization at scale). 

Entertainment – One example in media and entertainment is how Netflix combines user behavior modeling with recommendations to offer each viewer a personalized viewing experience. AI provides for more efficient classification, tagging and recommendations of existing and newly generated content like online videos (Rao, 2017). 

Dialog interfaces are an interesting case of an AI enabled solution that are supposed to drive better user experiences in customer service. While this is a complex area dominated by data scientists, people recognize the need to focus on basic UX principles and people-centered design, such as giving the user a way to bypass an automated system that is not working out and reducing the user’s cognitive load. While this is a noble goal, most deployments of dialog Interfaces are centered on driving cost benefits to the service provider versus driving real beneficial user experiences.

Healthcare, Personalized Medicine and Precision Medicine. In the comparatively AI-nascent field of healthcare, the future prospects are for diseases are more quickly and accurately diagnosed, drug discovery is sped up and streamlined, virtual nursing assistants monitor patients and big data analysis helps to create a more personalized patient experience (Thomas, 2019).

These are just a few examples of how AI-enabled personalization is impacting life today and will in the future. While the proposed benefits are many, there are tremendous risks that make an emphasis on the human element of this powerful technology even more critical.

What are the risks of increased AI-enabled personalization?

Privacy sacrificed for convenience. The convenience of more personalized experiences requires even greater access to personal data.  This raises the tremendous risk of encroaching on personal privacy by the mixing of data and techniques.

Security. With increased access to personal data there is always the looming risk of security breaches related to the massive amounts of data that needs to be accessed and stored.

Loss of Personal Agency or Control. Some designers focus on hiding the AI from users as a way to minimize exposure to complexity. Lack of visibility makes it hard to understand or challenge the outcomes. This raises the question: Does too much personalization inhibit discovery? Will a loss of that skill for discovery inhibit people’s opportunity to experience serendipity?

Bias and Discrimination. We already know that companies leverage third-party cookies and complex algorithms to track users’ online activities and that information is used to serve different prices to different customers. With little commercial guidance on fairness or transparency in pricing and other automated decisioning processes, how  can we ensure people are not penalized based on personal characteristics like gender, race or economic status?

Less Human Interaction more Automation. While AI will enable retail and entertainment experiences that are more personalized, this increased personalization raises the risk of decreasing interpersonal interactions.

What are some future research directions?

I have not yet found a lot of research or good examples of how end users are engaged in identifying the benefits of this new technology. Most user research focuses on improving the interaction with technology, not finding the real benefit to the end user who generally does not have agency in whether or not to use the technology. What is the prospect for personalization driven by AI,  if the benefit to humans is not clear?


Álvarez Sánchez, G. (Date Unspecified) AI + UX: The real value of UX for artificial intelligence. Grupodot Agencia Blog.

Anderson, J., Lee, R. (2018, December 10) Artificial Intelligence and the Future of Humans. Pew Research.

CBC Marketplace.  (2017, November 24) Exposing price discrimination in online shopping. CBC News.

Clark, Josh. (2019, Nov 5) AI is Your New Design Material. Presentation from Amuse UX Conference.

Corby, S. (2021, May 13) How to be competitive in the age of AI. CEO Magazine.

Goswami, D. (2018, Nov 7) How Will Artificial Intelligence Impact the Future? It’s Up To Us. Triple Pundit.

Guszcza, Jim. (2018, January 22) AI Needs Human-Centered Design. Wired Magazine.

Havasi, C. (2019, May 10) Beyond ‘citizen data science’: the need for user-centric AI design. Information Age.

Kolstø, E., Raedler, R.(Date Unspecified) Exploring a UX-Centered AI Design Process for Creating Successful Human and Machine Dialog Interactions. UT Austin.

Rao, A. (2017) Sizing the prize What’s the real value of AI for your business and how can you capitalise? PWC.

Salesforce (2020, October 20) The future of user experience design starts with AI. FastCompany.

Taulli, T. (2019, April 27) Artificial Intelligence (AI): What About The User Experience?. Forbes Magazine.

Thomas, M. (2019, June 8). The Future of AI: How AI will Change the World. Built In.

Verganti, R., Vendraminelli, L., Iansiti, M. Working Paper: Design in the Age of AI.

Weissgraeber, R. (2021, February 18). Four Ways AI And Machine Learning Will Drive Future Innovation and Change. Forbes Magazine.

Zaghdoudi, S. Glomann, L. (Jan 2021) AI-enabled user research. Advances in Artificial Intelligence, Software and Systems Engineering (pp.187-193). DOI:10.1007/978-3-030-51328-3_27

Remembering Pioneering Industrial Designer Sara Little Turnbull

Sara Little Turnbull consulting with clients credits: Foreseer

“If you don’t Stretch, you don’t know Where the edge Is” was a quote on a wall hanging that Sara Little Turnbull gave to Jim Collins, professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. Born in 1917, Sara Little Turnbull (nee: Finkelstein) epitomized those words. Throughout her long history in the industrial design profession, she was known for moving people to see beyond the obvious, to ask why, and to always remember the customer. In fact, in the 1940’s and 1950’s she wrote a few high-impact articles that raised the consciousness of corporations to regain a focus on the user. She left an indelible impact on corporate giants such as Corning, Coca Cola, 3M and even on entities such as NASA and public administrations around the globe. In her 70’s Sara was the founder and director of the Process of Change Laboratory at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, which served as an idea catalyzing space for business, engineering and art students. I had the privilege of studying under Sara as she also co-taught a graduate course that enabled students from the engineering and business schools to learn about integrated product development by collaborating on a project from user need-finding, to concept development and then launch. What I remember most about Sara was her curiosity and intensity. I believe these qualities were at the heart of her longevity and impact as a designer and educator.
Learn more about Sara

Trust the Process, for real


I had two incidents come to mind that prompted me to reflect on the theme “trust the process”. See my previous post on working across different personalities. In one case, several designers I worked with were quick to jump to a UI solution, without thinking through user goals, workflows and exploring several design ideas. Strong personalities, so I caved. I started developing mock-ups of the idea, and the more I worked on them the more apparent this oversight became. In the second incident, I was working with a technology development manager that wanted a solution to something in a few weeks, in a space so complex that it really would be better off going through a more extensive design process. Looking back, I am not clear there was anything could do to influence this second case for a more favorable timeline. For the first case, I decided to go back to basics. User roles, goals, workflows and then sketches of the UI mapped to workflows. After all, Design Is Basic. Note to self, “trust the (UX) process” for real.

On Leadership, Design Leadership

Institute for Human Centered Design
Institute for Human Centered Design

I attended a two day leadership training retreat, one that the organization sends everyone to regardless of your role, under the premise that no matter what your function is you can display the qualities of a good leader. From past participants, I saw photos of people holstered in ropes, blindfolded etc. Prepared for the worst, I donned my t-shirt, gym pants and a pair of run-down sneakers. I was ready for whatever would be dished out, except bugs..especially not spiders.

As usual, I was surprised. No swinging from trees. It was a beautiful and reflective few days where I gained a view of leadership (for the professional world) that I haven’t see communicated in this way. The main points are that true leaders*:
1. Lead by personal example
2. Develop cooperative relationships with people they work with
3. Follow through on commitments
4. Treat everyone with dignity and respect
5. Empower people by giving them the freedom to choose
6. Show gratitude and humility
7. Encourage and never discourage either by word or by deed

Good examples of leadership in the design and technical professions can be hard to come by if measured by the above criteria. Hubris and heroics can seem to reign over humility and cooperation. Yet looking around, I can point to wonderful examples of true leadership I have been exposed to. I’m thankful to the many positive examples of leadership I have had in my professional life (and beyond) and I will let them know this.

Many lessons learned, ideas to apply. And yes there were bugs, even spiders.

Training was based on the book: The Leadership Challenge by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

Presenting and Visualizing Information, Tufte


I had the opportunity to attend one of Edward Tufte’s seminars on Presenting and Visualizing Information. I wasn’t quite sure what I could get out of a 1-day session on such a broad topic..and i’ll end right there because my fears were totally unfounded. It was probably one of the most insightful classes (professionally) that I have ever had, certainly one that is likely to have a big impact on my work onward. Some personal take-aways:
(1) Get out of your own voice and into the voice of the experts, (2) Every bit of data should lead to credibility. In UI design, scrutinize every element. Why is it there? If it’s not adding to the goal, take it out. (3) Hack examples, (in a good way), learn from the best.  (4)”The difference between a good idea and a great idea is the implementation of it”..enough said. Underscores in a large way my move from pure user research to design. Make something. (5) Information is the interface, (6) In presenting ideas, think the best you possibly can about your audience. Think positively about them even when there is criticism or you are challenged. I didn’t expect this interpersonal-dynamics aspect but really appreciated it. (7) As a member of the audience, “Loot the presentation”. Mine it for gold. Even if the presenter isn’t great, search hard for those golden nuggets you can extract. Finally, I appreciated that he showed us how to mine his books, which initially looked daunting. Treasure trove of information. Go if it comes to your city! Don’t miss Tufte.

Maintaining Technology

This is the ordeal i’ve come to dread. Making updates to my iPhone.


I’ve known updates have needed to happen for a while but I also know that for me updates using iTunes is a 3 to 4 hour time sink. I hoped against hope that it would be different today but alas, it actually took almost 4 hours and everything is still not working. The one main App that I wanted to update I can’t even see. This by far is the most frustrating part of my experience as a user. This is what I had to do (1) Update iOS, (2) Update iTunes, (3) Update my Apps, (4) load my updated Apps to the iPhone, (5) reload apps that I downloaded from the App store when I wasn’t connected to my computer, (6) troubleshoot Apps that show up in iTunes but not on the phone, (7) delete apps from iTunes and try to reload them again from the App store and then as all else has failed, I search the reviews in the App store to see who is having the same problem. Lots of crash comments but nothing with my specific issue so I post a review. Then I start wondering how I can do what I wanted to do without the App I just lost 4 hours of my life trying to access. Did I really need that update? Too late now. It’s gone.