Tags: dibi2023



Tuesday, May 16th, 2023


I’m sure you’ve heard the law of the instrument: when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

There’s another side to it. If you’re selling hammers, you’ll depict a world full of nails.

Recent hammers include cryptobollocks and virtual reality. It wasn’t enough for blockchains and the metaverse to be potentially useful for some situations; they staked their reputations on being utterly transformative, disrupting absolutely every facet of life.

This kind of hype is a terrible strategy in the long-term. But if you can convince enough people in the short term, you can make a killing on the stock market. In truth, the technology itself is superfluous. It’s the hype that matters. And if the hype is over-inflated enough, you can even get your critics to do your work for you, broadcasting their fears about these supposedly world-changing technologies.

You’d think we’d learn. If an industry cries wolf enough times, surely we’d become less trusting of extraordinary claims. But the tech industry continues to cry wolf—or rather, “hammer!”—at regular intervals.

The latest hammer is machine learning, usually—incorrectly—referred to as Artificial Intelligence. What makes this hype cycle particularly infuriating is that there are genuine use cases. There are some nails for this hammer. They’re just not as plentiful as the breathless hype—both positive and negative—would have you believe.

When I was hosting the DiBi conference last week, there was a little section on generative “AI” tools. Matt Garbutt covered the visual side, demoing tools like Midjourney. Scott Salisbury covered the text side, showing how you can generate code. Afterwards we had a panel discussion.

During the panel I asked some fairly straightforward questions that nobody could answer. Who owns the input (the data used by these generative tools)? Who owns the output?

On the whole, it stayed quite grounded and mercifully free of hyperbole. Both speakers were treating the current crop of technologies as tools. Everyone agreed we were on the hype cycle, probably the peak of inflated expectations, looking forward to reaching the plateau of productivity.

Scott explicitly warned people off using generative tools for production code. His advice was to stick to side projects for now.

Matt took a closer look at where these tools could fit into your day-to-day design work. Mostly it was pretty sensible, except when he suggested that there could be any merit to using these tools as a replacement for user testing. That’s a terrible idea. A classic hammer/nail mismatch.

I think I moderated the panel reasonably well, but I have one regret. I wish I had first read Baldur Bjarnason’s new book, The Intelligence Illusion. I started reading it on the train journey back from Edinburgh but it would have been perfect for the panel.

The Intelligence Illusion is very level-headed. It is neither pro- nor anti-AI. Instead it takes a pragmatic look at both the benefits and the risks of using these tools in your business.

It has excellent advice for spotting genuine nails. For example:

Generative AI has impressive capabilities for converting and modifying seemingly unstructured data, such as prose, images, and audio. Using these tools for this purpose has less copyright risk, fewer legal risks, and is less error prone than using it to generate original output.

Think about transcripts of videos or podcasts—an excellent use of this technology. As Baldur puts it:

The safest and, probably, the most productive way to use generative AI is to not use it as generative AI. Instead, use it to explain, convert, or modify.

He also says:

Prefer internal tools over externally-facing chatbots.

That chimes with what I’ve been seeing. The most interesting uses of this technology that I’ve seen involve a constrained dataset. Like the way Luke trained a language model on his own content to create a useful chat interface.

Anyway, The Intelligence Illusion is full of practical down-to-earth advice based on plenty of research backed up with copious citations. I’m only halfway through it and it’s already helped me separate the hype from the reality.

Monday, May 15th, 2023

Hosting DIBI

I was up in Edinburgh for the past few days at the Design It; Build It conference.

I was supposed to come back on Saturday but then the train strikes were announced so I changed my travel plans to avoid crossing a picket line, which gave me an extra day to explore Auld Reekie.

I spoke at DIBI last year so this time I was there in a different capacity. I was the host. That meant introducing the speakers and asking them questions after their talks.

I’m used to hosting events now, what with UX London and Leading Design. But I still get nervous beforehand. At least with a talk you can rehearse and practice. With hosting, it’s all about being nimble and thinking on your feet.

I had to pay extra close attention to each talk, scribbling down potential questions to ask. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I’m liveblogging talks.

There were some line-up changes and schedule adjustments along the way, but everything went super smoothly. I pride myself on running a tight ship so the timings were spot-on.

When it came to the questions, I tried to probe under the skin of each presentation. For some talks, that involved talking shop—the finer points of user research or the design process, say. But for the big-picture talks, I made sure to get each speaker to defend their position. So after Dan Makoski’s kumbaya-under-capitalism talk, I gave him a good grilling. Same with Philip Lockwood-Holmes who gave me permission beforehand to be merciless with him.

It was all quite entertaining. Alas, I think I may have put the fear of God into the other speakers who saw me channeling my inner Jeremy Paxman. But they needn’t have worried. I also lobbed some softballs. Like when I asked Levon Sharrow from Patagonia if there was such thing as ethical consumption under capitalism.

I had fun, but I was also aware of that fine line between being clever and being an asshole. Even though part of my role was to play devil’s advocate, I tried to make sure I was never punching down.

All in all, an excellent couple of days spent in good company.

Hosting was hard work, but very rewarding. I’ve come to realise it’s one of those activities that comes relatively easy to me, but it is very hard (and stressful) for others. And I’m pretty gosh-darned good at it too, false modesty bedamned.

So if you’re running an event but the thought of hosting it fills you with dread, we should talk.