personalisation

I do not share the sentiments of those that say digital is merely a marketing ‘channel’, but I do believe that the noise about digital transformation has given rise to some thorny misconceptions. One is that personalisation is somehow the end-game of marketing.

The idea that, one day, the data and algorithms behind every personalised message we see will be unerringly accurate is poppycock (caveat: unless the so-called ‘neural lace’ becomes a reality and privacy is totally outlawed).

But more to the point, the idea that an accurately personalised experience is always an amazing one is poppycock, too, for a couple of reasons. The first is a matter of transparency.

As Jane Ruffino writes in a tweet, as part of a thread about how UX writers have to influence transparency: “If a service brags about ‘personalisation’ it’s our job to be clear where the data comes from. If it’s ‘gamification’ (ugh) are we letting people in on where our agenda is? Are we limiting choices to reduce ‘cognitive load’ but making it seem like we’re comprehensive?”

This limiting of choices could manifest as a fairly harmless ‘filter bubble’ effect, where users become isolated from the options they don’t realise they don’t have; or, more dangerously, as the mirroring of human bias or prejudice present in an algorithm’s training data. There are also plenty of sensitivities in between – see urban legends of parents finding out their daughter is pregnant through Target coupons sent to her in the post, or those people who have been retargeted for engagement rings with their partner looking over their shoulder.

You may find the customer’s idea of personalisation is more akin to excellent customer service, rather than a post-purchase email offering a similar-looking jumper on sale.

Even if you leave these transparency concerns aside, the experience that personalisation describes is often fairly mundane. Most of the time we’re talking about automation of follow-up messaging or fairly banal product recommendations.

Of course, these features may be gold for marketers, increasing engagement or average order value, but taken on their own they do not amaze the customer because, frankly, they are fairly impersonal. Collaborative filtering, for example, just seems obvious to users – yes I’ll have some batteries to go with that kid’s toy I’ve added to the basket, and yes I’ll have the bottom half of that shell suit to match the top half I’m browsing.

I’m not even that sure that customers always want personalisation. I…