Why giving customers what they want just got personal

Heather Martin

Once dismissed as a marketing fad, personalization has cemented its status as a major trend in products, services and experiences and one that shows no sign of waning. Rather than investing time in tailoring advertising to the customer – focus your energy and investments on personalizing what they actually experience.

Delivering a defined and targeted offering has become a powerful differentiator heralding an era in which personalized products, services and experiences will underpin all aspects of our lives, from the cars we drive and how we bank to how we keep fit.

However, personalization using technology and data is not enough on its own. Personalization also requires designers to look carefully at what experience factors need to be introduced to make these personalized choices a benefit rather than a negative customer experience.

So how do we go about it? Here’s my four-point guide to creating personalized product and service experiences.

Think person, not audience

One size does not fit all. It’s a theme across many diverse sectors that is driving personalized healthcare, made-to-order luxury handbags and personalized in-flight entertainment experiences.

Central to a personalized ethos is the need to see people as individuals rather than a mass audience, a shift no better exemplified than in the entertainment industry. Think back to those days when the viewing habits of an entire population would be confined to just four channels. While our options may have grown exponentially in recent years it took the disruptive arrival of Netflix to turn what was still passive mass consumption on its head by giving the viewer more control over their viewing preferences, tracking their behavior and creating personalized offerings based on that data.

Netflix may have been a pioneer on personalization that changed the game but it didn’t nail the user experience straight away. What it did do was demonstrate that when it comes to choice, you can have too much of a good thing. The excess of options proved to be a step too far from the lean back passive TV viewing experience that we knew and loved. Yes, we want personalized content based on our past viewing history but we don’t want an abundance of choices and decisions to access it as it makes the experience way too demanding, which is the antithesis of a lean back passive experience that traditional TV offered.

The aim of striking a better balance informed the collaboration between Smart Design and Viaplay.  The team explored how to collect personalized content for individuals but present in a much more lean-back way. The system would learn your viewing habits over time and start to select the most relevant content from multiple sources and then place this content back-to-back in unique personalized channels for an uninterrupted personalized TV-like experience. The result is a set of unique channels for each person, rather than the same channels for a mass audience.

Start small to learn and continually iterate

Once you have a hypothesis about the kind of personalization that could drive value for your audience, it’s worth testing it on a small section of your customer base. The key to striking this kind of balance is to start small, and move quickly. Failing fast has become a recurrent theme in business denoting the agility and foresight needed to regroup and start again when an initial plan doesn’t pan out. It’s highly applicable here where the inherent complexity of personalization and the many nuances involved means trial and error and experimentation are prerequisite.

In the confines of the design studio, accurately predicting how people are going to respond to specific elements of the personalization in the real world means prototyping and piloting need to feature heavily. Only through this greater insight can both the functional and emotional needs of the customer be gleaned.

Notably, personalization rarely has an end; it’s a beast that must continually evolve and respond in line with the changing needs and behavior of the customer. Keeping people continually engaged with a proposition is a substantial undertaking and demands a long-term commitment – think years rather than the next quarter.

Balance speed with scalability

Effective pilot projects will further expose the opportunities for personalization that can be scaled up quickly versus ideas that are too time and/or cost-intensive to be a viable proposition. Although bespoke and personalized products might seem the right solution, they still need to make commercial sense to succeed. This is when design expertise blended with strategy becomes a vital ingredient in being able to make these distinctions.

This intervention will start from a human-centered design standpoint, a foundation based on a designing for high usability and a universal audience which can then be adapted, by personalizing specific elements while leaving others alone.

Collaborate to succeed

No man is an island when it comes to personalization. Heightened customer expectations have led to all kinds of brands hooking up with the relevant software giants to maintain a competitive edge, exemplified by the roll call of partnerships from Google and Fiat Chrysler to Adidas and Spotify. These partnerships often enable the kind of disruptive innovation that would be impossible for one company to achieve alone, as well as adding entirely new revenue streams for both.

But tech titans don’t have every answer, which is why partnerships with designers and strategists at this stage remain pivotal to uncover actionable insights and create an appropriate strategy. For example, when Ford wanted to explore the idea of an on-demand shuttle service that could disrupt the traditional commute, it partnered with Smart Design to help design and test new mobility ideas and address congestion challenges. Personalization was central to rethinking how the urban commuter could transition from passive – jumping to the tune of a set travel schedule – to in control and able to request unique one-off trips on-demand via a smartphone app. How the service integrated with existing transport infrastructure was key to success. Without such collaboration, the service would struggle to survive.

In summary, personalization must be approached as a hybrid of slow burn and dynamism. Success hinges on putting in the groundwork, the research, the prototypes – while cutting to the chase when it matters.