We. Are. Not. The. Robots. (Working humanely in the age of AI)

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We are not the robots

Kraftwerk is always in heavy rotation at my house. But their song “The Robots” was hitting pretty hard a few days ago. I’d just finished reading a section of Kevin Roose’s Futureproof: 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation, and my mind was churning. The main gist of what I’d read was that (a) you don’t want to become one of the robots, because that’s a fast track to redundancy, and that (b) to avoid this, you should show that your work can’t or shouldn’t be done by a robot. He then explains in detail several ways that you can start leaving a human watermark on your work and interactions. (Roose is all about showing how your work is really craft. Craftwork! Wait—what’s going on here?)

We are programmed just to do anything you want us to. We are the robots.

Roose writes that leaving human handprints on your work “is not just about showing off or taking credit for as much work as possible.” After all, a robot can almost always accomplish more than even the most hustling hustler that hustle culture has ever seen (and that’s not you, Elon).

“Hustling is about how hard we work,” he writes. “Leaving handprints is about how humanely we work.”

Data from Star Trek holding a robot head and looking at it with curiosity.
Data from Star Trek, The Next Generation, longs to be human in spite of his strength, ability to operate without sleep, and other superpowers: "I am superior, sir, in many ways. But I would gladly give it up to be human."

Roose got interested in this topic when he realized AI can already do a bang-up job on technical articles such as stock market reports, and that it was well on its way to being able to write even more nuanced prose such as book reviews. Roose even published an AI-written book review to make this point.

So, we know what AI can do for long-form content. We’ve seen it enter the world of graphic design via the DALL•E 2 art generator. AI can even create terrible Thanksgiving recipes that we know will get better by next November. AI is already available to assist us UX writers with our work, and there’s a ton of buzz around the latest in natural language AI technology: a chatbot from OpenAI called ChatGPT.

an AI-generated photo of robots having a nice conversation. Courtesy DALL•E 2
Here's an AI-generated photo of robots having a nice conversation. Courtesy DALL•E 2.

I’m sure I’ll be interfacing with AI at some point in the near future. And when that time comes, it’s going to be essential that I can show those I work with the value of the contributions I, myself, make as a non-bot.

The human touch

Showing that a human exists behind the work you are doing can accomplish several things. First, it can show that having a human on at least some of these tasks is essential to getting the job done, or at least, to getting the job done well. Second, though, knowing that human effort is behind a project can add value to that project for no reason other than that it feels right to the person reviewing or purchasing or using whatever it is you created. For instance, Roose describes a talk in which a $40 DVD player is compared to a $700, handmade piece of pottery. Why is the simple pottery so much more pricey than the DVD player? Because of the human effort behind it (or, in social science talk, the “effort heuristic”). In short, people prefer products that require obvious human effort over those that do not—even if those products are identical.

So, what does Roose suggest as ways to leave handprints?

Five ways to show your humanity in your work

1. Make invisible labor visible

Ever feel the urge to mutter, “They have no idea how hard I worked on this”? Well, mutter no more. Share how hard you worked. This might mean telling a dramatized work story on a shared whiteboard, or translating a technical aspect of your work into plain English. I recently had success with this. I was working super hard to get through the first step of my content-writing process, which is gathering the full requirements for the feature I was working on. Gathering the requirements was taking forever; I hadn’t even started writing yet! That same assigned kanban card, “Gather Content Requirements,” sat and sat and sat and sat and sat in my to-do column, and I think colleagues were wondering what was going on. I finally decided to explain the situation, taking my team along with me, on my intrepid journey of gathering content requirements, via whiteboard presentation. And let me tell you, they were like, “Whoa, that’s wild! You’re so… brave!” Yep, a human had to navigate that marshland of requirements. I finally got some much-needed recognition for my slow progress.

2. Go the extra mile

This can be as simple as just showing that you care for the people you work with. Channel the barista who remembers her customer’s regular drinks, or the real estate agent who sends a housewarming gift to her clients after a purchase. In the world of UX writing, this might look like including a personal sign-off on your emails, making a shared joke at a meeting, or sending a colleague an article that made you think of them. At my job, we use the “Praise” function in Teams a lot to make sure that people on the team get the shoutouts they deserve.

3. Let go of the “view from nowhere”

Roose writes about leaving his personal stamp on his writings rather than attempting to use that well-trodden journalistic view from nowhere (which plenty of people argue doesn’t exist, anyway). We obviously can’t use our personal voice in our work as UXers—we have to use the voice of the organization we work for in our writing. But we can still leave a mark by bringing our professional concerns to the table when strategizing on content: from accessibility issues to price transparency, there are all sorts of concerns we can emphasize as we operate within our designated writer roles. I recently worked on some legal text for my organization. Up until now, legal text has usually been published almost exactly as written by our lawyers. However, I believe strongly that people should understand what they are signing, so I brought my concerns about the legalese up with our legal and content teams, and together, we crafted more user-friendly texts. It’s a stamp on the product that I can be proud of.

4. Contribute to your organization in human ways

This is particularly important, writes Roose, for remote workers, who are interfacing with Zoom for most of their interactions. These contributions might look like helping a coworker with a personal matter; setting up a virtual water cooler at which to discuss work or personal topics; or using your own friendly writing voice in your emails. At my job, we have a scheduled weekly block of time dedicated to talking about topics other than work. It’s called Friday Funday, it’s our team’s primary point of social contact, and it’s totally awesome. It’s helped me get to know everyone better and has certainly helped me feel more comfortable being vulnerable when I need to share my UX work with my team. I could see this expanding in other ways, however. Funday has a no-work-talk rule, but other meetings tend to be so highly structured that they don’t allow for the generation of spontaneous ideas about our UX work. Setting aside channels through which we can shoot the breeze about work topics could help us engage in more spontaneous creativity.

5. Expand your professional interests outside of your job

To be clear, Roose doesn’t quite put it this way; he instead emphasizes social engagements with colleagues and other remote workers. But I think he’d agree that our creativity—and thus our value as human workers—expands whenever we engage with the world in novel ways. This engagement could be attending a social event with work friends, reading some fresh publication, attending a conference or local workshops, or even pursuing an unrelated hobby.

Further Reading

Top 6 AI Writing Tools To Help Create Great (Human) Content

The current state of AI copywriting

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