How Cognitive Computing Could Dramatically Alter the User Experience

As applications become smarter and more adaptive, user experience is about to undergo a massive change, one that will make the way we interact with our computers and devices a lot more natural.

For IBM, whose Watson cognitive computing platform powers a variety of applications, the goal is to turn human-computer interaction into a conversation that’s similar to one between two people.

“I would say a sentence and Watson would understand not just what I’m saying but what’s the intention of what I’m saying,” says Melanie Butcher, the program director of the Commerce UX Design Studio at IBM.

She’s helping to develop products that could allow a marketer to plan and execute an entire campaign through a conversation with a Watson-powered software assistant.

But this isn’t just a vision of a Star Trek computer that understands questions and voice commands based on context; it’s one that also allows for applications that feed information gathered from the user’s behaviour back into the app to help guide the user through its functions.

“If somebody is in a screen and they’re kind of clicking around and they click on help and they search for something but they close it right away, it’s clear that they’re a little frustrated,” she says.

The application could then use that information to offer help based on what the user was searching for and what they were trying to do before they got frustrated.

“I don’t want complexity to rule our interface,” Butcher says. “I want it to unveil itself over time.”

It’s technology that’s currently under development.

Butcher says this approach could be used to help a user navigate a new piece of software the first time they use. Or, she says, it could be used to help people search for something in an online store—even if they don’t know exactly what they’re looking for.

For instance, if you have a problem with your plumbing, you might not know the part you need – or what it’s called, she says. If you go to a physical store with experienced staff, they can direct you, but that sort of experience hasn’t been possible online. But it will be soon.

The ability of cognitive computing programs to learn and to deliver information based on context, means that they can help marketers target ads in a much more sophisticated way. That could mean serving different ads to different users on a shared computer or not showing people ads for products they searched for and then purchased.

It’s just one way, she says, that user experience is beginning to go beyond specific applications.There’s also been a shift in the way IBM approaches design, Butcher says, one that puts more focus on learning about the end user, what they’re trying to do and why.

It’s a shift from design approaches that focused mostly on the how of problem solving. And it’s a move away for traditional enterprise software design. Butcher says bad UX just isn’t acceptable anymore.

“I like to call it a Sunday to Monday experience,” she says. People who are using consumer products, with good UX, on Sunday evening don’t want a jarring change on Monday morning.