Agentive Technology, or How to Design AI that Works for People, Part 1

I originally wrote and published this post on Normative Design’s Ratsnest blog as the first part of a two-part synthesis of Design+AI, a monthly meetup hosted by Normative Design to explore how we design in a world augmented by AI. On the Sept 21, 2017 edition of the meetup, Chris Noessel, author of Designing Agentive Technology, joined us to shed some light on the area of designing agentive technology; specifically:

  • What is agentive tech?
  • What is narrow AI versus general AI?
  • How do designers need to modify their practice to design agentive tech?
  • Do agentive tech pose unique operational burdens?

Before the conversation got going, the group indulged me by playing a game of “what is and isn’t agentive tech”. Players considered a pair of options and identify which was agentive.

Unsurprisingly, only one person correctly identified the agentive tech. Hint: most of the pairs are both agentive to some degree, while some of the pairs contained only one example of agentive tech, and one contained a super artificial intelligence. So be warned…

What the heck is agentive technology?

I asked Chris to level-set on what he mean when he says “agentive technology”.

Agentive tech was an idea that arose from two forces that came together. On the one end, Chris had been challenged by one of his designers on his vision of the future from a designer’s perspective. On the other end, Chris started to see a pattern in his own work over the past two decades.

In short, it’s a new mode of interaction enabled by recent advances in narrow AI, in which the technology does something on behalf of the user, persistently and in a hyperpersonalized way. To understand more, we have to go back in time a bit.

What is the largest possible context for the world of interaction design?

Chris posits that the history of interaction design starts in WWII with human factors engineering. Highly trained and competent pilots were crashing planes. We learned through research that the machines were just too complicated: they represented a level of cognitive load that competed with other tasks and objectives and overwhelmed the pilots. The legacy of that research is human factors engineering.

If interaction design started with HFE, where’s the other end? When will our jobs be moot? Chris hypothesizes that “General” AI is the end of our jobs as interaction designers. Once we have something that can do what we do but is smarter and faster and can collaborate with the hive mind around the world, that’s pretty much the end for interaction design as a specialist job (if not well, almost all jobs). The question is: where are we now as we head into general AI? How close or far are we from general AI?

A new mode of interaction: outsourcing the work of achieving outcomes

Over the course of two decades, Chris has worked on various solutions that all involved outsourcing work to software in order to achieve outcomes. Based on his work as well as his personal experiences of different consumer devices, Chris started to see an emergent pattern. So, what do underwater science robot towers, automatic cat feeders, robo-investors, and Roombas have in common? Let’s look at each of these examples.

At Microsoft, he worked with the University of Washington to design underwater robots with sensors for seismic measurements. The robots would be pre-programmed to watch for certain things and then travel to different areas to collect different sorts of data, areas where humans couldn’t go with measuring tools in hand. These robots weren’t directly controlled by scientists, but did work for them.

When he travels for work, Chris’ used an automatic cat feeder to keep his cat from going hungry. That said, early edition cat feeders had a limitations: when they worked, they did, and when they didn’t, they didn’t, but you wouldn’t know either way, and either your cat would go hungry or you’d be worried about your cat going hungry. It should put food in the cat’s belly and assurances of the same into the user’s attention.

His work on robo-investor software taught him that despite knowing that the algorithm had data and reaction times that were better than human, people still wanted to see if they can beat the algorithm. People wanted room for play, for serendipity.

Roombas promised set-it-and-forget-it convenience for a household chore that many of us would rather not do. Who doesn’t love the feeling of coming home to clean floors without having had to do the work? The Roomba is not a fancy way for you to do vacuuming.

Granting agency to software

All these things started to feel like they were “of a piece”. There’s a pattern that felt like “I’m not doing the work. It’s doing the work.” Chris observed that in the past, he would design things to help people do work, build tools for people to do work, but this new type of thing was different: he was telling things how to do the work, and they would handle it from that point forward.

For example, even the humble automatic feeder wasn’t a tool to better feed his cat. Chris told it when to dispense food, told it how much food to dispense, and to continue doing so until further notice. Roomba isn’t a tool for us to push a vacuum cleaner around. We tell it when to clean, and it does. A robo-investor isn’t a tool for data and information; we tell it our financial goals, and from that point forward, it would do its best to achieve them. We can still look in and provide feedback, change up a few parameters, but it would continue operating on its own. We are granting these objects agency.

Disambiguating agentive technology

Chris saw an emergent pattern: the things he was designing and using were not automatic because automatic things didn’t need his attention at all. Think of a pacemaker as a good example of an automatic tech. If the human needs to get involved, automation has failed, and that’s not a design problem but an engineering problem.

The types of things we’re talking about are not helping us do things the ourselves. Smart assistants help us do things. Agentive tech, in contrast, does the things for us. For example, you can tell Google Keep to remind you to do a task when you’re at a location and/or at a certain time, but that’s all it does: it reminds you but doesn’t do it for you. It’s an agentive alert because it watches for your location in space and time, but it’s not like those other agents because you, the human, still have to act on the reminder. This notion of “help me do things” versus “do things for me” (or assistants versus agents) is a way for us to explore and understand a new class of interactions.

This class or pattern of interactions is marked by software that takes our directives, then implements on our behalf. As he cast about for a way to describe this class of technology, Chris looked for the adjectival form of “agent”, which turned out to be “agentive”. Agent-ive…saying it like that helps people realize it has to do with agents. In fact, in Japan, agentive technology is translated as “agent-based AI”.

Within the context of the general trajectory of general artificial intelligence that our industry is on, this pattern of agentive interactions is a “weak” kind of AI called narrow AI. It’s narrow because it’s smart in narrowly defined domains. It can’t generalize its knowledge to new domains.

Agentive technology is persistent, always-on, domain-specific narrow AI that acts on its user’s behalf in a hyper-personal way.

AI versus Narrow AI versus General AI

Invariably, the question of “what is AI” reared its head. From Chris’ vantage point, asking the question “what is AI?” is both interesting and not interesting. It’s not interesting because the term AI is too ambiguous to be useful or pragmatic. We’ve been talking about it since the 1950s and still can’t quite agree on what we want it to mean. For starters, the term “artificial” somehow implies fake, or at least made by humans. Maybe? As for the term “intelligence”, we don’t have a grasp on what that is, even after 100 years of studying it. And now we’ve combined these two notions into something we call “artificial intelligence”, begging the question — what does that even mean?

Having an adjective to the term “AI” perhaps gets us a bit closer to understanding what we’ve been doing, the implications and ramifications, and more important, our responsibilities. Thinking about in terms of “general AI” versus “narrow AI” begins to unpack some of the types of “artificial intelligence” work that we’ve been doing. We can posit that “General AI” refers to a human-like intelligence; specifically, an intelligence that can generalize from domain to domain. Not only can it learn, but it can learn across domains. Roomba is not that: it can’t generalize what it’s doing to other domains. It can only vacuum.

When we use the term “general AI”, we tend to mean human-like. Narrow AI is the stuff that comes before it; it’s an asymptotic approach to general AI or human-like intelligence. Narrow AI is the suite of technologies that are improving and getting human-like in their intelligence in a specific narrow domain.

As a designer, I take the maker’s approach: learn about the thing by making it, playing with it, testing its limits. To channel Richard Feynman, “What I cannot create, I do not understand.” While it’s fun in a hurts-my-brain way to participate in armchair philosophy about a monolithic AI, its breadth and non-specificity leaves me struggling to answer the “so what does it mean for me” and “now what do I do” questions. It also leaves me no closer to clarifying my own thoughts on the ethical implications of technology. Framing the mission in terms of narrow AI, however, does help me get down to where the rubber meets the road and to begin to understand what it really means to use “artificial intelligence” to solve human problems.

In Part 2, we’ll explore how our design practice needs to adapt when designing agentive technology.


Disclaimer: The ideas and opinions expressed in this post are my synthesis of Chris Noessel’s session at a Design and AI meetup hosted by Normative, where I work. My views are not necessarily those held by Normative nor by Chris Noessel, and any technical errors or omissions are mine alone.

A Framework to Design for Impact

Design serves a purpose, solves a problem, addresses a need. This gives us the natural boundaries to create a design framework that we can use repeatedly to deliver results. To make an impact as designers, we must be motivated by delivering results. The good news is, there’s a repeatable process we can use that many designers before us have proven.

To design for impact, we need answers to three main questions:

  • Whose problem is it?
  • What’s the real problem we’re trying to solve?
  • How will we know if we’ve succeeded?

Whose problem is it?

Our goal here is to build empathy: for the business, for customers, for the technical landscape. We’re seeking to understand what other people are going through and what the system is capable or incapable of in order to solve problems and find solutions. This desire will drive our commitment and creativity. But we don’t want to get so immersed that we lose objectivity.

We need to walk that mile in someone else’s shoes, then put our own back on.

To understand the problem we’re trying to solve, we need context: business and customer context, as well as any delivery constraints. Often, business stakeholders ask for a feature to solve a customer problem when, in fact, it’s a business problem. Or worse, a problem that customers experience is actually one that’s created by the business, rather than a customer need.

Understand the business context

Why is the business asking for a feature? They almost always frame it as a feature rather than a problem. It’s our job as designers to de-construct that feature into a problem statement in order to unpack the motivations.

  • Why is the business asking for the feature / problem to be solved in the time frame that they’re asking?
  • Is there competitive pressure?
  • Is it a first-mover advantage that the business wants to take advantage of?
  • Is that team’s funding dependent on this problem being solved?
  • Etc.

For every “crazy” request, there are usually deeper reasons. Find out what those reasons are. As designers, we’ve been conditioned to have empathy for users. Go one step further: build empathy for stakeholders. This delivers a one-two punch: first, building empathy for stakeholders help us unpack the reasons behind the seemingly crazy requests, and more important, the empathetic relationships we build foster mutual trust and may actually empower us to dial down the crazy.

Understand the customer’s context

Dig into the motivations behind the requested feature or the problem statement from a customer’s perspective:

  • Why are customers asking for the feature?
  • What are the underlying motivations?
  • What conditions generated the problems that customers are experiencing?
  • Could the problem at hand be eliminated by resolving an issue upstream?
  • Etc.

Understand the delivery constraints

Often, especially in enterprise settings, the most usable/user-friendly/customer-centric solution is not feasible for a variety of reasons:

  • The existing antiquated technology infrastructure can’t support the solution
  • The solution runs counter to the organization’s business model
  • There’s no business appetite to pay for the ideal solution.
  • The technology needed to support the solution doesn’t exist right now
  • Etc.

We can sit around and bemoan the delivery constraints, or we can find ways past or around them. It’s not helpful to think in terms of ideal versus compromise. The real world is all about costs and benefits, pros and cons, give and take: our job as designers is to find a balancing point that delivers a user experience that the business can feasibly fund and that engineering can technically enable.

What’s the real problem are we trying to solve?

The business, customer, and technical context we gathered gives us the data we need to triangulate the real problem we’re trying solve.

The project might have started off with one request, but in digging behind the request, we may uncover something deeper. True story: once upon a time, the business asked for an ‘download PDF’ feature, but digging deeper revealed what customers actually needed was a spreadsheet they can manipulate for custom queries they need to run. Without the research, we would’ve agonized over a ‘download PDF’ feature that included trying to figure out how to message customers whose PDFs take 24 hours to generate, when all they really needed was a .csv export. In fact, because a PDF is a static artifact, customers are copying and pasting the data from the PDF into a spreadsheet.

Defining the right problem is more than half the battle. We can’t reliably deliver an effective solution if we focus on the wrong problem.

How will we know we’ve succeeded?

Building in a feedback loop is critical to the success of any design solution.

  • Did we frame the problem statement correctly?
  • Did our solution create any new problems?
  • Did our solution solve the problem?

Always be testing

In the problem framing stage, we talk to customers to validate our problem statements. We believe our idea Y solves problem X. First, we need to be sure that problem X represents a real business opportunity. Many ideas arise out of problems we’re solving for ourselves. For our solution to be financially viable, we need to find out if enough other people share the same problem and are willing to pay for a solution. In other situations, businesses create problems for their customers and then try to sell a new solution for those problems; is it possible to eliminate the original problem to begin with? Perhaps the real problem to be solved is further upstream.

In the solutions framing stage, we test our solutions to identify any usability issues before we release our solution into market. If our solutions are complicated, hard to use, or otherwise unusable, we haven’t actually solved the problem. Testing solutions before we commit the time and resources to make those solutions is a gut-check: the goal is to identify as many usability issues as possible. Better that we discover and address usability issues than to have the support team be overwhelmed by customer complaints.


In the delivery stage, we need to bake measurement points into our solution to feed us the data that tells us whether our solution worked. These measurement points can range from specific things we want people to do, such as calls-to-action, to behind-the-scenes tools such as heat map and click analytics tracking.

Often, we release and walk away. As designers, we should hold ourselves and our work more accountable. From a career perspective, holding ourselves accountable gives us credibility. If we work as consultants, holding ourselves accountable is also good for business: it presents natural opportunities to check in with clients after the project is done.


If we can’t answer the following two questions, we need to go back to problem-framing:

  • What do we want people to do?
  • How will we know if they’ve done it?

Being clear on what we want people to do helps us understand how to measure success. Maybe it’s “sign up for our services”;  “buy our products”; “create better onboarding so that customers don’t have to waste time calling us for support”. Sometimes, it can even uncover business gaps or opportunities: for instance, if we want people to go to a brick-and-mortar store to complete an action, we need to be prepared to handle the increased store traffic or risk alienating hard-won new customers.

Easier said than done

Three steps. Is that all? Yes, these are admittedly three giant steps. And they’re not easy either. However, they offer a structured, foolproof way to get started. For projects that are complex, this 3-question design framework can help us manage the chaos. For projects that appear simple, this 3-question framework can sometimes expose underlying complexities early enough for us to organize around. It’s a framework that has served me well and helped me design for impact.

Held Hostage: the Forgotten Users of Software for Business

I had to write down step-by-step instructions so I could remember what to do.
Usage was incredibly frustrating. The dark green with black text is impossible to read at a glance, and the contrast with the bright yellow is really harsh if you’re trying to find something. You can resize the columns and sort by the columns, but resizing and sorting needs to be done every time you come back to the screen. So the filter option is the only realistic option.

Meet Valerie and Michelle – two individuals I happen to know.

I reached out to them on Facebook. They don’t describe their experience with Facebook in the same way.

The thing is, they’re still Valerie and Michelle whether they’re using software for work or for pleasure.

Business software: we have no choice but to use it.

Most business software is badly designed. From custom software that’s home-brewed by engineers and business analysts working in big companies to design software like Photoshop, users of these products face steep learning curves. These steep learning curves are a harbinger of opportunities for improvement, if not downright disruption.

It’s easy to find companies that peddle consumer-grade software caring about design. The resulting usability of well-designed products reap measurable dividends. A key reason these products succeed is the focus on the user. Before “user experience” was all the rage, “user-centred design” was the big awakening. In all the excitement, business-grade software – and the humans who are forced to use that software – were left behind and forgotten.

It’s hard to find designers with the appetite and aptitude to design business software. Paul Adams’ pithy coinage of the phrase “the dribblization of design” reflects the persistence of design being perceived as visual or graphic design. It’s a mental model that plagues designers and non-designers alike.

I’m certainly not the first or the only one to have raised this point.

Dylan Willbanks recently noted, “…when you talk to the leadership of these enterprise companies, they want a consumer-grade experience built into their SaaS-based billion dollar applications. So they bring in consumer-grade user experience designers, raised on user-centered design, taught that “innovation” is supreme. Bolstered by a “make it pretty” attitude in the executives, they set to work trying not for Olive Garden but more Eleven Madison Park — locally foraged! Haute cuisine! Sous vide! And their resulting designs end up emphasizing the wrong things. Icons get prettier. Cool new animations in a cool new iOS version of the application. The aesthetics are greatly improved. But the underlying functionality is still a mess, performance is still slow, and even as they’re defending their slick new mobile app[,] there’s a nagging doubt whether someone really does want to review complex spreadsheets on their phone. The drive is on presentation, but experience driven design goes by the wayside.”

Tom Hobbs, back in 2015, issued a ‘call to arms’ for improving the design of enterprise software. And earlier this year, Facebook’s Margaret Stewart was at O’Reilly’s Design Conference trying to rouse the troops to take up the cause of designing for business users. And yet others, such as Uday Gajendar, have felt the need to be apologists for heeding the call.

Business users are people, too!

I’d like to add my voice to the ‘call to arms’ by making the case from the perspective of the users.

The design community has made great strides in improving the experiences for many people when they use software for pleasure. We can do the same by remembering that these same people also need to use software for work. In fact, they’re the same people for whom we designed Pinterest, Uber, and all the other digital darlings du jour.

What if the software they use for work sucked a little less?

So, what’s the field of play? What’s software for business? Most people define it as software built by companies for use internally by employees. I would also include software designed, built, and sold by companies to their customers, as well as software designed and built by companies for use by their customers. Most of this stuff is terrible; some of it is really terrible. And the kicker is that lots of time and money was involved in producing this terrible stuff to be inflicted on hapless people who have to use this software every mind-numbing, rage-inspiring day.

We can do better. We should do better.

How can business software be more human-optimized?

Back to first principles. Our designer’s toolkit is still valid, though some of those tools may need a bit of imagination and creativity to be adapted to handle the more complex data models and mental models of the business landscape:

  • Develop empathy for the people who have to use it
    • users of business software are humans, too
    • go beyond tasks to understand the real reason they’re using the software
    • understand the workarounds they’re coming up with to get through their day and still catch their commuter train home despite the bad UX of the software they need to work with
    • creating taxonomy, IA, and mental models that are understandable by users rather than the engineering vocabulary used to describe the system;
  • Design for the network
    • no enterprise software exists in isolation: it’s always connected to something upstream, something downstream, and often something adjacent
    • work flows in a single application typically traverse multiple systems, some of which aren’t even digital;
  • Consider AI augmentation
    • consider the possibility of designing parts of the system to offload work that scripts and bots can do in order to free up humans to do the work that only humans can do.

Business software is the next frontier of UX design, rich with opportunities and relatively free of competition for right-minded designers to make our mark.