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Can You Teach AI To Design? Wix Thinks So

"It’s trying to take the brain of a designer and make it into a machine," says Nitzan Achsaf, the head of Wix Advanced Design Intelligence.

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There are myriad services that make designing a website very easy, like Squarespace, Adobe Portfolio, and Google's Material Design Lite. But Wix, the website builder with 85 million users, wants to go one step further than its competitors—with an artificially intelligent design service based on carefully honed machine learning models.

"How do you make something complex, like building a site, trivial for a user?" asks Nitzan Achsaf, the head of Wix Advanced Design Intelligence, or ADI. "When we talked to our users, we learned that the two main problems they faced are how to write great content and how to actually design a website so it looks beautiful."

The ADI technology works like a virtual graphic designer. Rather than offering cookie-cutter templates, it tailors the design through a series of prompts given to the user, while also pulling in information from the web. Since the user offers feedback as the design progresses, the finished product ends up being unique.

It's not completely automated, but it comes pretty close.

Teaching Machines To Design

To build ADI, Wix's team of dozens of engineers and developers who specialize in AI developed many machine learning models for the many different layers of a web page, such as color, layout, and more. "It’s trying to take the brain of a designer and make it into a machine," Achsaf says. "I'm calling it 'automagically' making a site."

The first step in the process was training the ADI system to understand what made a great site and what type of content—like text and images—and structure makes sense for any given profession. "Think of a lawyer versus a plumber versus an art director," Achsaf says. "Each one has different needs and wants a different look and feel."

To do this, Wix found enough visually stunning websites to train the models what a "good" site looks like. Then it mined the web, analyzing the best-performing sites for attributes like traffic and conversions. It then used those insights to form best practices that the AI system uses to create websites. Starting with visuals first then moving to metrics ensured that "ugly" sites with high traffic didn't skew the models.

A Model Trained On The Web's Best Design

Here's how the service works. First, you select your profession from a drop-down menu of more than 5,000 different jobs, everything from photographer to lawyer to beekeeper. Then you type in the name of your business and select its location and on the next screen. The ADI then uses that to gather information about you from the web and uses that to build the site. Though Achsaf declined to state precisely where the system is pulling information—"It's part of our secret sauce," he says—he did say that it comes from local databases and different social networks, and the system ranks the sources of information for quality and reliability.

The live demo I saw used an existing fitness business as fodder. The system mined a Google listing for reviews and basic contact information and input it into its website builder. Users can then augment the information. If you don't have an existing website, you can fill in everything from scratch.

Then, the ADI guides users through a series of prompts to create the site's look and feel. First, users can select from a series of "kits" built around adjectives—targeted to the professions—that describe the design sensibility. In the case of the personal training site, it was terms like "bold" and "agile." In another demo I saw for an architect's website, the terms were along the lines of "clean," "classic," and "minimal."

To create these "kits," the ADI analyzed the colors and fonts used on some of the best performing sites for each particular profession. A team of (human) designers then synthesized that into the kits. In essence, the system is creating a universal average of the best designs as a baseline. If some of these attributes are someone else's intellectual property, Wix purchases the licenses.

After users select the aesthetic that looks the most appealing, the ADI then serves up a checklist of what site functionality make the most sense, like an "about" page, a section to schedule a consultation, testimonials, and so on. "All these goodies are edited automatically for you," Achsaf says. After deciding what you want, the ADI presents the first few mock-ups. "It gives the user the type of information they should think about when they write their own bio," Achsaf says. "If the bio exists somewhere on the web, we're using that. If not, we're providing relevant info for you." (Wix's team actually spent a lot of time writing dummy copy for each of the 5,000 business types on the site.)

Based on the type of information you include, the ADI then tweaks the design. For example, if a section has a lot of text compared to another, it will reorganize the layout so it looks balanced. It will then ask you if you like it (or not). If you don't, it will offer another iteration. These visual standards for the ratio of text-to-images-to-blank space are based on the universal averages of Wix's machine learning model.

"The system knows how to edit options, how to make something that looks beautiful, how to change the layout dynamically, and how to offer you multiple layouts for the same content," Achsaf says. The templates that the ADI suggests are based on popular web design principles, like parallax scrolling and responsive design, to make sure the page looks good on desktop and mobile platforms.

But Is It Design?

To Achsaf, Wix ADI is about allowing more people to have better websites by making the design process easier to execute. "Better means that more people will be able to complete their websites, more users will love and be proud of what they have as their online presence," he says. "It means that they will be successful businesses. There's a tight correlation between a website that looks professional and beautiful to the ability to sell. If a website doesn't look good, you don't trust it. If you don't trust it, you don't buy the product or service."

Meanwhile, Wix argues that since there are billions of options in any web page design, the chances of two websites looking the same are like winning the lottery.

Automating design is a double-edged sword. It can give people polished websites with different colors, layouts, and copy; however, starting with a baseline of mathematical averages means that the model isn't doing anything truly "new" since it's learning from existing information. Most professional designers would likely say that a machine is no match for the human brain. Moreover, what's popular today in website design could easily feel tired in a few months. Still, for a small business that can't afford a professional graphic designer, Wix ADI could prove appealing.

It's free to create the site, but as with its other website services, Wix charges a monthly fee when you want to link it to a domain. ("It's between two and five Starbucks coffees a month," Achsaf says, so roughly around $15 depending on the features you have.) The service is still rolling out, but will be available to customers later this summer.

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