Ad schools are scrambling to add AI courses

In 2016, two VCU Brandcenter students, Xia Du and Yanci Wu, won a Cannes Future Lion award for their concept Amazon Emma, an artificial intelligence application for Amazon Echo to combat dementia in seniors.

Using natural language processing and machine learning algorithms, Amazon Emma could have personalized conversations with seniors to stimulate their minds and reduce feelings of social isolation. The project won at Cannes because it used new technology to address users’ needs — something agencies and brands constantly strive to do.

As agencies and brands continue looking toward AI to reach consumers in increasingly customized ways, there is a greater need for marketers who can create experiences like Amazon Emma. In response, ad schools across the U.S. are introducing new degree programs, boot camps and classes on how to prepare students to use AI, and some brands have started advising schools on their approach.

Ad schools that have long had interactive design curricula, like General Assembly and VCU’s Brandcenter business program are adding new courses or revamping old ones to include AI into the overall user experience. Meanwhile, new experience design schools like Center Centre have opened with mainstay AI classes.

AI courses typically fall under user experience design degree programs, where students are taught to design experiences across multiple channels, often using other technology like augmented reality and virtual reality, as well as how to improve the user experience across those channels.

Du and Wu graduated in 2017 from VCU Brandcenter as part of the school’s first class of user experience designers. VCU Brandcenter was ahead of the marketing industry when it began offering user-focused design classes as part of its creative technology track nearly 10 years ago. Three years ago, the school revamped its creative technology program, referring to it as user experience design and launching classes around data tracking and how to engage users. But the program remains in a state of flux as new technologies emerge in the marketing industry.

For the fall 2018 semester, for instance, VCU Brandcenter aims to add more classes on human-machine interaction and AI. “Those are burgeoning areas where we have to be thinking ahead,” said Andrew LeVasseur, professor of experience design at VCU Brandcenter.

General Assembly is also incorporating more AI into its courses, according to Tyler Hartrich, lead instructor for user experience design at General Assembly, who teaches a 10-week user experience class.

“The big thing we look at is how can UX designers better position themselves in their fields to be relevant,” said Hartrich. “Not all creative agencies or product teams are considering AI yet, but if they do in the next 12 to 15 months and we aren’t offering any instruction on it, our students could be behind.”

The jobs at agencies, tech giants and brands that user experience designers fill once they graduate vary. A new role that has emerged in the past year is AI designer, according to LeVasseur.

User experience designers can also work their way up the corporate ladder to become a chief customer experience officer, also known as head of customer experience, a C-level position that LinkedIn identifies as one of the top 20 emerging jobs in 2018.

“It’s not that the traditional titles are falling off,” explains LeVasseur. “It’s that everybody’s jobs are getting redefined based on the problems brands have to solve.”

There is a definite need in the industry for AI roles. A World Federation of Advertisers study in November found that 73 percent of marketers are experiencing a lack of AI skills like predictive modeling, outweighing other in-demand areas like AR and VR.

In general, user experience design roles are in high demand. The salaries that user experience designers earn at their first jobs substantiate this. In December, VCU Brandcenter surveyed its alumni who graduated between 1998 and 2017 and found that junior-level experience designers earn the most out of the entry-level marketing jobs, making an average of $68,125 a year, around $10,000 more than junior art directors, copywriters and brand managers.

“What’s happened in the last three years is the experience design role has become more prominent and increasingly valued,” said LeVasseur, “especially if you look at what juniors are paid.”

But keeping these students ahead of the trends in the industry is not easy. Advertising and design schools must pay attention to emerging technologies and successfully implement them into their curricula so students are prepared for jobs ahead.

To help, brands have provided guidance to schools when it comes to offering AI and user experience courses. SCAD developed its bachelor’s program in user experience design with Google’s help in November 2015, and IBM advises General Assembly on its curriculum.

“It will be very limiting to be a marketer five years from now if you don’t really understand AI, if you’re not very prolific with analytics and data and if you’re not a user experience expert,” said IBM CMO Michelle Peluso.

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