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  • Writer's pictureJakob Nielsen

UX Needs a Sense of Urgency About AI

Summary: UX professionals must seize the AI career imperative or become irrelevant. Guidance from a seasoned UX veteran who witnessed the game-changing impact of the dot-com boom.

UX folks are trapped in complacency while the AI techquake radically shakes up the computing landscape. We witnessed similar complacency during the dot-com revolution. It is high time we shake off inertia, embrace AI design, and prevent engineers from monopolizing the new UI paradigm.


In 1994, my journey into web usability began. That year, the Web exploded by a staggering 1,450%, from 800 to 11,600 websites. Despite my prior years spent exploring hypertext usability and publishing my first book on the topic in 1990, I was still late to the party in retrospect.


While the Web mushroomed, most UX professionals clung to their sanctuary — working on PC applications, shying away from the burgeoning realm of Internet-based hypertext. For a good chunk of the mid-90s, I found myself a solitary figure in the UX landscape, championing web usability while most UX designers and researchers hesitated till it was too late.


By the time more UX designers and researchers started doing web projects in the late 1990s, web design had already been defined by those who embraced it early. Unfortunately, these pioneers were predominantly advertising designers, not interaction designers, resulting in a lack of user testing (except for studies in my lab and a handful of other places). Aesthetically pleasing but horrendously unusable websites dominated as the dot-com explosion got underway, passing a million websites in April 1997 and doubling to two million by March 1998.


As we glance back 25 years, the internet’s transformative power is undeniable. Now, websites have finally become good, with virtually all significant online properties employing substantial UX teams. But oh, what a lost decade it was for web usability! Early UX intervention could have been a game-changer, offering role models of usability rather than mindless flashiness.


The AI Urgency for UX

As Mark Twain supposedly said, history doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes.

UX practitioners today echo the complacency of their predecessors in the mid-90s. They seem content to tinker with their personas and the deluge of deliverables from our constantly expanding methodology toolbox while designing yesteryear's UX instead of focusing on next-generation UX.


I know, I know, you’re busy:

UX designers, time to shake off that lethargy and dive headfirst into researching AI user experiences. Yes, you're juggling projects, but the future isn't going to send you an invite. It’ll crash your party. (“Busy designer” image generated by Midjourney.)


As UXers busy themselves elsewhere, engineers are shaping the future: AI-driven user experiences. I firmly believe that AI holds the key to the future of UX. UX needs an espresso shot of urgency around AI for two reasons: the quality of user experiences globally and your career advancement. Let's dissect each of these.


Help Users

Current AI-driven tools are far from user-friendly with their clunky, prompt-driven interfaces. Even so, the existing dreadful tools are already good enough to make business executives salivate at the thought of those productivity increases that are already proven. Businesses worldwide are marching forth, eagerly incorporating AI applications with a sense of unyielding purpose.


The current need for "prompt engineering" hurts the usability of AI tools.


While this has its merits, the lessons from the dot-com saga signal that engineering-biased and marketing-fueled designs yield subpar user experiences. Businesses might see some productivity gains, but these fall far short of the potential benefits from a user-centric design approach for the slew of industry-specific AI tools to be rolled out in the next 2–3 years.

Meanwhile, users will be the victims of shoddy design.


The necessity for user research into AI tools is evident, as is the need for bona fide UX designers to shape the next wave of AI applications. Regrettably, economists rather than UX professionals have done most of the significant task performance research with AI tools. While that research is great for collecting the productivity data that makes executives emulate Pavlov’s dogs, it lacks the qualitative insights to drive better UX design for AI products. Oh, for a few field studies done by UX anthropologists to inform the choice of features for industry-specific AI applications. Or some qualitative usability studies to inform AI UI.


Time waits for nobody. The world will continue to demand new products, regardless of whether they're backed by solid UX work. The clock is ticking:



Time’s ticking away, and UX professionals are still in spectator mode. (Image by Midjourney.)


Help Yourself

My journey through the dot-com era imparts another valuable lesson for the unfolding AI epoch. UX professionals who adapt now will reap significant benefits in the future.

During the dot-com bubble's initial years, commercial websites were limited to a few thousand, dwarfed by academic and hobby sites. Yet, exponential growth implies a time when demand skyrockets, despite maintaining the same proportional growth rate.


Let’s say that the number of commercial websites grew by 500% per year during the early phase of the dot-com bubble. We expanded from roughly 1,000 to 6,000 commercial sites in the first year. Worldwide, this didn’t move the needle on the employment market, especially since few of these sites employed UX professionals. We went from 6,000 to 36,000 sites the second year, or 30K new sites. Still, not that much. However, an explosion from 36,000 to 216,000 in the third year meant 180,000 new sites. Even if just 10% heeded my call to hire a UX professional, this would create a demand for 18,000 UX professionals, preferably with a minimum of two years’ experience in web usability. Rewind to two years prior when only 1,000 commercial sites existed. Even generously assuming that 10% employed a UX professional, there would only be 100 professionals with two years of experience available in the third year.


100 individuals in high demand by 18,000 websites needing a UX specialist with two years of web usability expertise. That's why those pioneers struck gold then.


Same with AI user experience, except that the numbers are bigger now, given AI's relevance across all sectors, unlike early profitable websites primarily within retail. Moreover, AI growth rates could surpass web commercialization due to today's easy integration of AI platforms into applications, a feat challenging with high-performance websites in 1998. (You had to buy some of those Sun Microsystems servers that my old company sold at high prices. And procure even more expensive Unix geeks to babysit the servers. Today, it’s all in the cloud using AI platforms designed for easy integration into new applications.)

So, to rerun the scenario for today’s world:


With my empirical observation of most UX professionals complacently tackling yesteryear's problems, we probably have only about 2,000 UX professionals gaining AI experience in 2023. This serves current demand as most AI projects proceed in blissful ignorance of users' needs, thanks to AI's superior utility that overcomes poor usability.


Fast forward to 2025, and I predict that at least a million companies worldwide will scramble to hire UX professionals with at least two years of AI usability experience. Guess what? There will be a scant 2,000 such experts since the prerequisite of a two-year AI usability experience in 2025 can only be met by those starting their journey in 2023.


With approximately 500 job opportunities for each eligible applicant, they can write their own ticket!


(What about the remaining 499 vacancies? They will be filled by less experienced professionals, given that even an imperfect UX expert trumps having none due to the colossal profitability derived from design grounded in user research. Half of “colossal” is still huge.)


Who Will be the Jakob Nielsen of AI UX?

It won’t be me. I dedicated over a decade of 80-hour work weeks to delve into the complexities of web usability and disseminate my findings globally. This was feasible 30 years ago when I was young(ish). Not anymore.


Instead, the field is wide open for somebody else to go all-in researching and understanding the AI user experience and define our field for the future. I have my eye on two women and one man with strong potential, but the opportunity is open to anyone ready to commit fully. You must be exceptionally intelligent and work relentlessly for the next decade: If this resonates with you, go for it. We need game-changing contributions, as the UX field can't solely rely on knowledge from the old world, no matter how much I treasure those discoveries, having made many myself.


Conclusion: You’re Either the Windshield or the Bug

My erstwhile boss, Scott McNealy, quipped that in the face of momentous tech revolutions, either you’re the windshield or you’re the bug. Visualize a high-speed car confronting an insect on the road, a metaphor for technology-induced changes. Be the windshield, mastering AI and its applications. If not, prepare to be the bug — outdated and squashed by AI-driven competitors.


Yes, you can luxuriate in traditional UX work for the next 2–3 years and still be amply rewarded. Organizational change is slow, especially on a global scale and in less tech-driven sectors. There will always be a demand for UX specialists skilled in all the refined techniques we've developed over the last two decades: design patterns for traditional websites and applications, mapping methods, and other good stuff — maybe even some omnichannel juice to bridge silos. Solid UX methods will endure even after transitioning to the new user interface paradigm.


But the execution of UX projects will undergo a transformation with AI tools. Sticking to the old ways is akin to crafting buggy whips in the era of Teslas. It's not AI that will snatch your job, but the individual leveraging AI to outpace your performance.


Stay old-school UX, and you’ll be Scott’s bug. The windshield of the AI onrush will squash you. Like a bug, yeah.


Infographic to Summarize This Article




Feel free to copy or reuse this infographic, provided you give this URL as the source: https://jakobnielsenphd.substack.com/p/ux-needs-a-sense-of-urgency-about


Quick Quiz


I made ChatGPT give me 5 questions about this article (Q1-5), and then I got 5 more from Claude (Q6-10). Answer to check your understanding of what you just read. (Answers are at the end, after the illustration. By the way, one of the ChatGPT answers was wrong, but I fixed that since I did review before posting!)


Question 1: According to the text, what was the general attitude of UX professionals during the early stages of the dot-com revolution?


A) They embraced web usability early on

B) They were reluctant to work on Internet-based hypertext

C) They dominated the field of interaction design

D) They conducted extensive user testing


Question 2: What is the author's view on the current state of AI-driven user experiences?


A) They are already user-friendly and well-designed

B) They are lacking in usability and user-centric design

C) They have surpassed traditional UX methods

D) They are predominantly shaped by UX professionals


Question 3: Why does the author emphasize the importance of UX professionals adapting to AI user experience?


A) To prevent engineers from monopolizing the new UI paradigm

B) To ensure businesses achieve productivity gains from AI applications

C) To address the shortage of UX professionals in the job market

D) To promote the integration of AI platforms into applications


Question 4: According to the text, what is the author's stance on the future of UX professionals with AI usability experience?


A) They will be in high demand and have numerous job opportunities

B) They will face tough competition from less experienced professionals

C) They will be overshadowed by engineers in the AI industry

D) They will struggle to find employment due to poor usability in AI tools


Question 5: What metaphor does the author use to describe the impact of technology-induced changes?


A) The eagle and the prey

B) The hammer and the nail

C) The windshield and the bug

D) The wind and the sail


Question 6: What happened in 1994 regarding the web?

A) The number of websites grew by 1,450%

B) The author published his first book on web usability

C) The author started his journey into web usability

D) Most UX professionals started working on web projects


Question 7: What does the author think most UX professionals are complacent about today?

A) Personas and UX deliverables

B) Web design

C) AI user experiences

D) Omnichannel UX


Question 8: What does the author predict will happen in 2025 regarding UX jobs?

A) There will be 500 job opportunities for every UX professional with 2 years of AI experience

B) Most UX jobs will require at least 2 years of experience in AI usability

C) Demand for UX professionals will skyrocket to 1 million worldwide

D) Only 2,000 UX professionals will have 2 years of experience in AI usability


Question 9: What does the author say sticking to traditional UX work is akin to?

A) Crafting buggy whips in the era of Teslas

B) Being the bug squashed by the AI windshield

C) Outdated techniques that will be replaced by AI

D) Slow organizational change in less tech-driven sectors


Question 10: What does the metaphor about the windshield and the bug convey?

A) Changes in technology lead to the demise of certain jobs

B) You can either master new technologies or be outdated by them

C) Keeping up with innovation is necessary for career success

D) The future belongs to those who can leverage new tools


More on AI UX

This article is part of a more extensive series I’m writing about the user experience of modern AI tools. Suggested reading order:

  1. AI Is First New UI Paradigm in 60 Years

  2. AI Vastly Improves Productivity for Business Users and Reduces Skill Gaps

  3. UX Needs a Sense of Urgency About AI

  4. Getting Started with AI for UX

  5. Ideation Is Free: AI Exhibits Strong Creativity, But AI-Human Co-Creation Is Better

  6. Big Productivity Gains in Office Use of AI

  7. AI Is More Creative Than 99% of Humans — on One Metric

  8. Search vs. AI: What’s Faster

  9. AI Helps Elite Consultants: Higher Productivity & Work Quality, Narrower Skills Gap

  10. AI vs. Metaverse: Which Is the 5th Generation UI?

  11. Generative AI Enhances Old Users’ Intellectual Performance

  12. The Articulation Barrier: Prompt-Driven AI UX Hurts Usability

  13. AI’s Role in Human-AI Symbiosis: Originator or Refiner

  14. UX Portfolio Reviews and Hiring Exercises in the Age of Generative AI

  15. 4 Degrees of Anthropomorphism in Using AI

  16. AI Makes Happy Geeks

  17. Classic Usability Important for AI

  18. Automated Content Strategy and Tone-of-Voice Metrics

  19. Analyzing Qualitative User Data at Enterprise Scale With AI: The GE Case Study

  20. 3 Wishes for AI UX

  21. Navigating the Web with Text vs. GUI Browsers: AI UX Is 1992 All Over Again

  22. SEO Is Dead, Long Live AI-Summarized Answers

  23. Website Survival Without SEO in the Age of AI

  24. AI Companions: Good or Bad for Users?

  25. Unreliability of AI in Evaluating UX Screenshots

  26. The AI Revolution Won’t Cause Mass Unemployment

  27. AI Generates Complex Text, Challenging Many Readers

  28. Operant Conditioning in Generative AI Image Creation

  29. AI Visualizing AI: Beyond the Robot Stereotype

  30. The Need for Speed in AI

  31. Business professionals with experience using AI are more optimistic about its potential than are colleagues who have not used AI

  32. Compare AI to Average Humans, Not the Best Human

  33. Will AI Cause Wage Stagnation or Growth?

  34. 2,500% ROI from Microsoft Office AI Copilot

  35. UX Experts Misjudge Cost-Benefit from Broad AI Deployment Across the Economy

  36. ChatGPT Does Almost as Well as Human UX Researchers in a Case Study of Thematic Analysis

  37. How Much UX Do You Need for AI Projects?

  38. “Prompt Engineering” Showcases Poor Usability of Current Generative AI

  39. AI Can Boost Education

About the Author

Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., is a usability pioneer with 40 years experience in UX and the Founder of UX Tigers. He founded the discount usability movement for fast and cheap iterative design, including heuristic evaluation and the 10 usability heuristics. He formulated the eponymous Jakob’s Law of the Internet User Experience. Named “the king of usability” by Internet Magazine, “the guru of Web page usability” by The New York Times, and “the next best thing to a true time machine” by USA Today. Previously, Dr. Nielsen was a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer and a Member of Research Staff at Bell Communications Research, the branch of Bell Labs owned by the Regional Bell Operating Companies. He is the author of 8 books, including the best-selling Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (published in 22 languages), Usability Engineering (26,431 citations in Google Scholar), and the pioneering Hypertext and Hypermedia (published two years before the Web launched). Dr. Nielsen holds 79 United States patents, mainly on making the Internet easier to use. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award for Human–Computer Interaction Practice from ACM SIGCHI.

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Quiz Answers

Question 1: According to the text, what was the general attitude of UX professionals during the early stages of the dot-com revolution?

Correct answer: B) They were reluctant to work on Internet-based hypertext


Question 2: What is the author's view on the current state of AI-driven user experiences?

Correct answer: B) They are lacking in usability and user-centric design


Question 3: Why does the author emphasize the importance of UX professionals adapting to AI user experience?

Correct answer: A) To prevent engineers from monopolizing the new UI paradigm


Question 4: According to the text, what is the author's stance on the future of UX professionals with AI usability experience?

Correct answer: A) They will be in high demand and have numerous job opportunities


Question 5: What metaphor does the author use to describe the impact of technology-induced changes?

Correct answer: C) The windshield and the bug


Question 6: What happened in 1994 regarding the web?

Correct answers: A) The number of websites grew by 1,450%, and C) The author started his journey into web usability


Question 7: What does the author think most UX professionals are complacent about today?

Correct answer: C) AI user experiences


Question 8: What does the author predict will happen in 2025 regarding UX jobs?

Correct answer: A) There will be 500 job opportunities for every UX professional with 2 years of AI experience


Question 9: What does the author say sticking to traditional UX work is akin to?

Correct answer: A) Crafting buggy whips in the era of Teslas


Question 10: What does the metaphor about the windshield and the bug convey?

Correct answer: B) You can either master new technologies or be outdated by them

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