Forget The Dark Web – “AI” Is On Track To Create The Bland Web

Managing Director, Digital Strategy Peter Petralia explains how automated web design tools threaten true creativity

This article originally appeared in The Next Web on November 28, 2016. 

Every year there are a handful of shiny objects that emerge that promise to disrupt the way brands market their products and services. This year has, in many ways, been the year of Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, and Artificial Intelligence. AR and VR have sent marketing budgets into a spiral, but what should marketers make of AI? AI has been around a long time but it hasn’t always been as much intelligent as it has been artificial. There has been some progress: Siri is ordering Ubers; Alexa is reading Twitter; and Cortana is learning what email is all about. While AI-powered personal assistants have steadily made improvements to functionality and begun embedding themselves into daily life, automated web building tools have started to emerge with the promise of bringing artificial intelligence to web design to make it easier for marketers to have the website of their dreams. Well, I’m here to say, “don’t believe the hype”. At least not yet.

Web design for all, individuality for none

As the Internet has become more integrated into the fabric of consumers’ lives, brands have invested heavily in making sure their websites not only work well, but also clearly live up to their brand promises. In the old days, that meant custom created websites built on hard coded frameworks that didn’t provide very much flexibility or ease of updating. Eventually, free options like Blogger, WordPress, and WIX emerged that provided the technical infrastructure and templates necessary for brands to quickly create a website without a huge expense. These free tools promised to democratize web design, but the lure of inexpensive web development actually gave rise to websites that looked exactly the same through their reliance on out-of-the-box templates and themes (Hero image anyone?). At the same time, consumer expectations for bold user experience (UX) and interactivity has risen, and a divide emerged between the Squarespaces of the world – in which user interfaces (UI) are solid, costs are low, and customization is limited – and the enterprise-level platforms like Sitecore and AEM that allow for heavy customization but have high license and development fees.

Customized doesn’t mean one-of-a-kind

This is the context in which players like Heek, WIX ADI, and The Grid have emerged. These companies, and others, promise to use artificial intelligence to deliver custom UX and UI on the cheap. And while the premise sounds good, the reality is that they aren’t really using AI but rather a form of algorithmic development – often an intelligent theme selector at best. The way these tools work is that they ask a series of questions that lead to a set of templates based on an ‘intelligent’ understanding of the brand personality and goals. Using questions as a way to understand the needs of a brand make these services feel smarter, but brands are still only left with the same set of templates (and with more brands hopping on board, there are more chances that the web will be filled with more duplicate designs). These services are creating the bland web under the guise of the buzzword of AI, and as a result actually making innovative UI and UX even harder to achieve. They also insinuate that creativity can be automated, an idea that I’m sure has Picasso turning in his grave.

It’s not all bad, though

While these “AI” platforms aren’t the best answer, there’s no need to balk at the advancements that platforms like WordPress, Squarespace, or original WIX have made in allowing for customized – and affordable – websites. Smart marketers can adopt these templates, as long as the focus remains on the areas of a website that will are uniquely you: the color palette, typography, and most importantly the content. With a limited budget, spend time and money creating copy, infographics, animations, and videos that serve user needs and represent your brand in a way that you can stand behind.

So, with this in mind, when is an AI-driven website tool actually a good choice? Never, for now. There is real promise in the idea of leveraging AI to create websites that improve themselves over time, where analytics are used to drive improvements or make recommendations to a brand about how to optimize their digital presence. But right now, AI site builders aren’t worth the risk. Rather than being seduced by the promise of AI, focus on getting the basics right – whatever the budget.