The earth is round, but the future is flat

Personalisation — the next revolution?

Image from Pexels

When the world revolves around you

Picture this: You schedule an Uber ride, the driver reaches your front door right after you step out of the house. You enter the car, greet by the friendly driver, and your favourite ACDC song — Thunderstruck, started playing. En route to the office, the driver engages in a conversation with you. The driver has the same common interests as you, both of you are tech fanatics. This is not a coincidence, the algorithm knows what you are interested in, therefore arranged a driver that has the same interests as you to pick you up. He is not too gushing, you really enjoy talking to him — feeling as if you are reconnecting with an old friend of yours. Both of you have a great discussion on technological utopianism. Knowing that you are not rushing and likes scenery, the app direct the driver to take the scenic route, so that you get to enjoy the scenery along the way.

3, 2, 1, cut, get back to reality.

Isn’t it wonderful if all of your life experience could make you feel like the world revolves around you? This is what can be happened in the future. In a world dominated by data and algorithm, personalisation is king.

The world’s most valuable resource is no longer oil, but data.

Horizontal Segmentation

During the 70s, a market researcher and psychophysicist named Howard Moskowitz was tasked to find the perfect level of sweetness for Diet Pepsi. His objective was to figure out the perfect Diet Pepsi taste that will appealed to the largest audience. He did multiple experiments and collected data. Much to his surprise, the data was too scattered, it was impossible for him to find any similarity among the data! After much thinking, he came to the realisation that:

There was no one perfect level of sweetness. Only perfect levels.

What is the lesson learned from this story? There is no one-size-fits-all solution. According to Wikipedia:

A horizontal market is a market in which a product or service meets a need of a wide range of buyers across different sectors of an economy.

It is the understanding that humans aren’t all the same.

Instead of focusing on the verticals, businesses are focusing on the horizontals (flat), providing different solutions and more options to reach a wider audience.

Personalisation — the new normal

Technology is the enabler of personalisation. With data, algorithm and machine learning, businesses can figure out and understand their users’ desires, wants and needs easily and more accurately. This allows them to offer ‘exclusive’ services and personalised product experiences to different users, thus increase user retention rate and conversion rate.

The idea of personalisation is not new, in the book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg outlined how Target uses customer’s data and shopping habits to expand sales with personalised marketing. If the shoppers habitually purchase swimsuits in April, send them coupons for sunscreen in July and diet books in December. If the customers have kids, send them catalogs that feature toys just right before Christmas. This was also how Target accidentally found out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did.

Personalisation has become a norm, it is prevalent in the products and technology that we used in our everyday life. The transition has already begun.

Basically, you are what you ‘like’.

Personalised Content & Recommendations

From Facebook to Netflix, social media platforms use personalisation to tailor content to their users.

Spotify is a great example of a service that makes use of personalisation to deliver tailored content.

One of their feature Discover Weekly, provides you a personalised playlist each week based on your listening history. To make it even more personal, Spotify uses your profile image as the playlist’s cover image.

If you ever create your own playlist, you will notice that below the playlist, Spotify recommends songs that you might like and allows you to add the suggested songs to the playlist without any hassle. If the playlist mainly contains indie songs, most likely Spotify’s algorithm will suggest indie songs that you may or may not listen before. Songs exploration has never been so easy!

Remember in the past (before even Shazam came out), whenever the radio plays a new song that we really like, we pay attention to the radio DJ to mention the song title right after the song is being played; or we try to remember the lyrics so that we can Google search for the song title and download the song illegally? Those days are gone.

Personalised Search

Ermmm.. Not feeling lucky anymore.

Another good example would be Google SERP. Over the years, Google search algorithm has changed. Keyword rankings are not accurate anymore, this is due to the need for personalisation. Let say you and I are going to do a Google search right now, with the same keyword — “MacDonalds near me”, are we going to get the same search results?

The answer is no. This is because the search result is being personalised, based on our device location and timezone. Even if a website is well-optimised for top search keywords, showing up and ranking #1 has become a completely different story.

Google is slowly shifting away from Search and moving towards Suggest. Year after year, the search engine approach has been exhausted. Users need an immediate way to get their questions answered, without having going through several webpages to find the answer.

Personalised Interface

Recently after updating my Facebook app, I noticed that there is a slight change to Facebook navigation. Yes, you guess it right, Facebook added a new feature — personalised navigation bar.

According to the Verge, “the new navigation bar will feature four to six of your most frequently used services”.

My friend’s Facebook timeline (left), my Facebook timeline (right).

If you look at the screenshots above, my Facebook navigation bar contains the profile icon, instead of the marketplace icon.

I like to read articles on Pocket, as it allows me to save articles to read offline. Whenever I came across a good article, I will share it on Facebook via the app. After sharing an article, I often visit my profile page to check whether the article is posted. Facebook noticed this behaviour, hence, replaced the marketplace icon (which I don’t really use) with the profile icon, allowing me to access my profile page and complete the task quicker.

Nir Eyal, the author of the book — “Hooked”, talked about Web 3.0 on his blog, he noted that:

The Curated Web is characterized by a fundamentally different value to users than the social web. Whereas Web 1.0 was characterized by content published from one-to-many and social media was about easily creating and sharing content, from many-to-many, the curated web is about capturing and collecting only the content that matters, from many-to-one. — Nir Eyal

Perhaps in the future, it is not surprising to see algorithm restructures the contents and the modules of a website and tailors it to different users, based on their demographics and maybe, browser history and cache (while I hope that the future web will be decentralised & transparent).

Customised or Personalised?

Personalisation is done by the system being used. Customisation is done by the user.

Customised Your Burger

In recent years, MacDonalds has launched the “Create Your Taste” custom burger option. Indeed, there is no one single perfect burger. Some people may prefer burger with extra cheese, extra egg, extra vege or maybe even extra bun.

Image from Business Insider

Most of the MacDonalds outlets now have touch-screen kiosks that allow customers to customise their burger. Customers has the options to select their own bun, cheese, topping, and sauce, pretty much like Subway eh? In this case, customisation enhances user experience because it gives them the freedom to make their own decision.

If we look beyond the burger and focus on customer’s touchpoints, can we say that the customers has the ability to customise their experience? For instance, customers can choose to make an order at the counter or the kiosk. A socially awkward person who wants to avoid conversation may prefer to use the kiosk, while someone who is not very tech savvy can still make an order at the counter. During checkout, customers can decide whether to make the payment via cash, card, or mobile app. (Psst, never, ever buy fast food with bitcoin, if there is such option)

So… Customisation or Personalisation?

One would argue that personalisation is more important than customisation, reason being that customisation imposes higher interaction cost. When we give users the freedom to choose and make decisions, we are increasing their cognitive load. On the other hand, with personalisation, most of decision-making process is being done by the system. This is definitely agreeable.

Personally, I feel that both customisation and personalisation has the power to enhance users’ experience, but only when carefully implemented. In this case, context will play an important role.

White Hat Designer

With a vast amount of data, designers can better understand their users’ wants, needs and deepest desires. It is almost impossible for us to wipe out our digital footprints. With these knowledge, it is easier for designers to use psychological tricks, such as dark patterns to manipulate users into specific behaviours, with the goal of gaining profit.

How Uber Uses Dark Patterns To Game Its Drivers

If personalised design is here to stay, as a designer, we should always remind ourselves that design is supportive, rather than manipulative.

“Fundamentally, it’s about taking responsibility for the things we unleash in the world.”

Afterthoughts: what will personalisation brings?

Personalisation will likely continue to be used in new ways that enables user to complete and fulfil a task easily. We cannot afford not to agree that algorithm has been secretly running our lives.

If data + algorithm is going to become so powerful in the future, rather than always following the solutions presented by AI (my mentor called it convenience thinking), will we still have the ability to use our powerful mind to analyse, think, look for alternative solutions that are not presented by the algorithm and question other possibilities?

Just like we always order food that are listed in the menu, the menu ‘frames’ our mindset. We seldom / do not question whether if a restaurant sells a particular food that is not listed in the menu (just a metaphor, I am not encouraging you to order pizza at MacDonalds). Has the technology makes us lazy to think and consume whatever information presented to us through algorithm?

On the other hand, will personalisation educates people to be more self-centered subtly, if our needs and desires are constantly being met instantly?

These are just some open-ended questions that is on top of my mind.

Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment, I would love to know your thoughts.


The earth is round, but the future is flat was originally published in UX Planet on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.