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We Need to Rethink Personalization

Written by: Lane Fries

Article // September 11, 2017

Personalization is THE buzzword when it comes to ecommerce and technology as a whole right now. We have countless “personal” digital assistants available on our phones, computers, tablets, smart watches, TVs, and even speakers.

All of these objects have software and access to the cloud in order to learn about our preferences over time. In theory, this will save time for the user, making their experience with the device or software more intuitive, natural, or even human.

Some of this software is good at this. The weather app on your phone, for example, personalizes the experience by showing you the weather where you are right now. Google Assistant automatically tells you how long it will take to get home based on your daily route and current traffic. In Apple’s latest software update to the iPad, apps appear in the dock based on context. So if you open Netflix at around 10:00pm every night, it will appear around that time every day to make it easier for you to open. Those passive experiences may not be incredibly nuanced or complex, but they are tailored to you as a person (i.e. personalized).

In the coming months, there will be an overwhelming agenda to personalize every corner of your digital life. Some of it will be good, but most of it will be obstructive and annoying. Why? Because almost everyone is thinking about personalization in the wrong way.

The Premise

The basic concept behind personalization (or what has been deemed as such) is that fancy new-age algorithms will watch you, listen to you, and then show you stuff that makes sense based your who you are. In theory, this should mean that you’ll see stuff that’s relevant to you more frequently. In a perfect world, these algorithms would allow a movie app to guess which movie you want to see this weekend, purchase the tickets for you, put it on your calendar, arrange an Uber or Lyft, and then send you a reminder to exit your home when it arrives.

But how does this work in real life?

The Problem

In practice, none of this quite works the way we want it to. Why? Outside of the fact that people generally feel uneasy about their devices watching and listening to them, humans are a lot more unpredictable than we’d like to think. On the rare occasion that these personalized experiences are helpful, they save us only a miniscule amount of time. But most of the time, they actually slow us down. In these circumstances, personalization actually makes it more difficult for a user (shopper or otherwise) to accomplish simple tasks.

Let’s look at how a couple of major personalization and technology players are obstructing their users today.

Personalization Gone Wrong

Famously, YouTube is the second largest search engine in the world by volume. Many people use it every single day. It’s where they get their news, purchasing advice, tutorials, and entertainment. With Google’s billions, it makes sense that they’d want to experiment with ways to make it even more relevant.

Unfortunately, their experiments are going too far.

For years now, YouTube has had a tabbed browsing interface. The “home” tab displays an assortment of videos that YouTube believes will be interesting to the browser. This is based on keywords, video engagement, personal user watch data, and much more. This is personalized, and it does a fine job in this context, because the user expects to see a mixture of videos on various topics from creators they’re not familiar with. The next tab (trending) shows videos that are getting a lot of engagement right now.

The subscriptions tab is where things are starting to go wrong. Following suit with Facebook (and many other social media platforms)  YouTube is now trying to “personalize” this area. The big question in my mind is “why?” Rather than seeing a reverse chronological (newest to oldest) list of videos from channels you subscribe to, YouTube now displays whatever videos they think you’re most interested in. In some cases, YouTube is prioritizing videos published more than a week ago.

YouTube personalization gone wrong

Why is this bad?

For one, the “home” tab already displays content algorithmically and includes content from channels you subscribe to. Second, it prevents the user from seeing what they want, which is to say, the most recent videos from their favorite creators.

In theory, personalizing this page might seem like a good idea. The trouble is, it can’t work perfectly. Power users will always want to have ultimate control over what they see. “Personalizing” this area might surface more relevant content, but it also buries content that users will occasionally want to see. All of this is happening despite complaints from creators and their subscribers about a broken “sub-box” that isn’t showing videos to subscribers. Imagine if your mail man decided to “personalize” your mail box and discard pieces of mail he thought you didn’t want. Even if this was helpful 99% of the time, the one time that he threw out your paycheck, you’d probably be pretty frustrated, wouldn’t you? In fact, you’d probably ask him to stop “personalizing” your mailbox altogether in order to avoid that frustration.

Facebook, Instagram, and more recently, Twitter, have all taken that control away from users. Anecdotally, even after years of development, Facebook still shows me posts from people I don’t care to hear from, and hides ones from people I do. Instagram puts first pictures from accounts I never engage with, while those I do are further down.

Twitter is the most frustrating service to do this, showing me posts from hours ago, or even yesterday that I’ve already seen and ignored 2-3 times. These companies do measure these personalization efforts as being successful, however, from a monetary standpoint.

Twitter personalization gone wrong

Casual users, perhaps those that don’t use these platforms daily, end up engaging with more ads as a result of these algorithmic changes. But many users are left frustrated. While it’s true that things may be working out for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and Twitter in the big picture, none of these platforms have serious competition, and that makes them very different from you as an online retailer.

And importantly, if these giant media companies with billions of dollars in R&D funds can’t do this without frustrating a large portion of their users, what chance do we have?

The Right Way to Think About Personalization in Ecommerce

Ecommerce and social media are mingled, but they’re different. Personalization is starting to creep it’s way into the marketing and ad copy of numerous third party services. Many others are being much more cautious in their approach. Ecommerce is strictly a numbers game for store owners, and if they buy a service that promises to personalize something to the individual tastes of their users, there better be measureable positive effects from that.

So what’s the right way to approach this technology?

We must remember that motivated buyers already know what they want. When visiting your store, the visitors that are most likely to convert are the ones that know what they want, when they want it, and how much they’re willing to pay. If you make it harder for them to find it, they can easily find it somewhere else.

In practice, that means making any personalized elements transparent. Show them, and tell them that the page they’re on has been personalized, and give them the option to get back into the driver’s seat if they want to.

For example, when personalizing search results to show only items available in the shopper’s size, a UI element in the sidebar should make this obvious to the user, and give them the option to turn it off.

It would be easy to argue that most shoppers will prefer to see only the products that are available in their size or gender, but don’t people occasionally shop for their spouses, children, or friends? So personalizing pages in this way can be valuable much of the time, but it’s critical to think about the 1% of visits that will be hindered by these efforts.

Personalization should never make it harder for the shopper to find what they want, or prevent the user from seeing what they expect to see.

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