Designing customer experiences for the future

Anna Soisalo
Executive Director
Heather Martin
VP, Design

14,000 titles on Netflix.

30 million songs and 2 billion playlists on Spotify.

25 million people looking for love on

Thanks to rapidly advancing technology, consumers today have access to more options for connection and entertainment than ever before. But with so many to choose from, they’re beginning to develop decision fatigue — and need a helping hand.

Almost all industry sectors are in the midst of disruption, and personalization is seen as a top strategy for differentiating one’s brand in crowded and commoditized marketplaces. A recent report by BCG suggests that “brands that create personalized experiences by integrating advanced digital technologies and proprietary data for customers are seeing revenue increase by 6% to 10%—two to three times faster than those that don’t.”

That figure is serious incentive for companies to jump on the personalization bandwagon, but taking the time to do so properly is absolutely essential. Perfecting the user experience is critical to create a sticky and relevant offering, but it’s also important to understand and consider the impact of this transformation from a business perspective.

At our recent Smart Salon at Nobu in Shoreditch, we brought together four talented experts who are working on designing the next generation of personalized experiences:

Hosted by Smart’s own VP of Design, Heather Martin, and VP of Strategy, Anna Soisalo, we spent the evening discussing the future of personalization, trends and challenges they’ve encountered, and tips and tricks on how to meaningfully apply personalization technology through a user-centered design lens.



Omni-channel personalization requires a multi-faceted approach.

When it comes to personalization, AI is a driving force. As machine learning improves, and we access ever-flowing fountains of data, our capacity for creating unique products and services that can enrich daily lives, increases dramatically. But unless companies start with a strong framework of intent around how they will personalize these experiences within the context of their business ecosystem, they won’t be successful in generating new revenues to stimulate growth.

“It’s important to understand the intent around your ecosystem, and test the elements of personalization one by one,” says Cat in regards to Net-A-Porter’s approach to content offering. “It’s too complex to bite off all at once.”

Start by evaluating the skillsets required to execute on that intent. Hiring data scientists, for example, will help you not only gain a deeper understanding of your customer, but enable you to continually evolve those insights as you incrementally and deliberately add new touch points, features and elements to your personalized customer experience. And the sooner you bring in the right talent, the better: “Thanks to the competition,” Cat concludes, “there’s pressure to move on that stuff quickly.”

As you move forward, remain laser focused on that established intent over time. By taking a multi-faceted approach to creating holistic, connected, omni-channel experiences, you’ll be granted the ability to anticipate, respond and deliver on each of your customer’s expectations and needs in a much more immediate and sophisticated way.

It’s important to understand the intent around your ecosystem, and test the elements of personalization one by one. It's too complex to bite off all at once.

Cat Nygaard
Head of Product Design & Research at Net-a-Porter

Design with scalability in mind.

“If you want to have a scalable, personalized system that works, you need to focus on how you can break things down into the smallest piece, and build from there.” says Garrett, “Look at how you’re building something, make sure you can scale it, and when you add in the data from your user, you system should be able to maneuver to fit it quickly.”

Smart’s NEXT aviation entertainment concept implements this tactic: By partnering with third-party services that passengers already enjoy day-to-day, such as OpenTable, Amazon, and Netflix, airlines can easily tap into additional revenue streams by up-selling new experiences and integrations with products that are being added to the market and gaining popularity every day.

“The structure of data is the most important part here.” adds Mårten, “It’s very easy to think about solutions for how to apply artificial intelligence, but if you don’t have structured data, it’s just a pipedream.”

He maintains that this extends to having a device-agnostic approach, as well. With multiple possibilities for input modalities, designing for voice and touch, for example, should not be mutually exclusive, since the two collect different types of data. While your fitness band knows about your heart rate, your phone doesn’t, but the two combined, plus room for additional future inputs, will allow for scalability in collecting the data needed to create experiences that thoughtfully evolve with you.

Avoid the pitfalls of personalization.

When the Smart team was designing new TV experiences, we discovered that the human intervention of serendipity, or adding wild card recommendations in the system, was vitally important to make sure people didn’t get stuck in a boring recommendation loop. These pitfalls arise when companies rely too heavily on the data and algorithms that power their personalization, without forward-thinking consideration.

“Data sets are often limited in one way or another.” asserts Luba. She goes on to mention that a lot of data sets are also from the past, reflecting a society that no longer exists and representing things we don’t want to replicate in the future.

“Nowadays we have a lot of interest in ensuring we have equal pay. If we rely on salary data from the past where it’s been proven that women were underpaid, the algorithms will suggest that this trend continues, whereas as a society, we want to change that.”

If we rely on salary data from the past where it’s been proven that women were underpaid, the algorithms will suggest that this trend continues.

Luba Elliott
Curator, Researcher, AI investor

If we let only the machines learn and tell us what to watch, read, buy, or believe, then we lose some of the subtle nuances required to make an experience interesting, exciting, or unpredictable. Personalization requires designers to look carefully at what experience factors need to be introduced to make these customized choices a benefit, rather than a negative, repetitive customer experience.

There’s additional importance in understanding and combining all types of data (visual, audio, etc.) in order to inform context-driven action at any given point in time, spurring a sense of belonging in an experience. We shouldn’t simply design for functional benefit; the emotional advantages of personalization are just as important.


Maintain the human element.

This emotional tie brings us to the significance of maintaining the human element in personalization. When designing Gatorade’s personalized hydration platform, we wanted to provide every athlete with a sense of ownership and personal connection with their regimen. Elements such as individualized fuel recommendations based on player sweat profiles and physiology, combined with custom ID name rings to identify an athlete’s bottle, and live data tracking of hydration intake and delivery, allowed our team to deliver the functional and emotional benefits they were craving to optimize individual performance.

From a digital perspective, Mårten notes during our Salon, Spotify does a great job at blending the calculating AI precision of “Discover Weekly”, the social element of your friend feed, and the humanized components of Staff Picks and curated user playlists. “If you go to a curated list, you know it’s going to be hand chosen by somebody,” chimes in Garrett, “You may not like everything, but it’s got a little bit of heart, love, and something special in there, rather than an algorithm that’s just going to put stuff together for you.”

Adds Cat, in regards to Net-A-Porter’s approach to content, “You want people to have a considered journey, curated in a way that feels like it’s from a real editor.”

Perhaps most important to maintaining the human element of personalization, however, is ensuring that the tools we use to create these experiences remain accessible.

“There are various open-source libraries available to developers, and several tools that don’t require much programming or technical knowledge.” comments Luba, “Once you start interacting with them, it helps you understand how these techniques work, and you can influence what the art, music or text output will end up like.”

Handle your data responsibly.

One of the major challenges companies face when trying to get their customers to integrate these personalized experiences into their daily lives is, of course, convincing them to grant access to their data in the first place.

“The first thing you should think about when dealing with anyone’s data is responsibility. There’s a trust factor you should establish, and if you’re irresponsible with it, you’re going to lose those customers.” insists Garrett, “We need to make people understand it’s okay to share their data, because we’re bettering their lives. But if you don’t want to share your data, you should still be able to use products, as well.”

Health is interesting.” quips Mårten, “We have nothing to hide, but if I smoked a cigarette in my youth, will my health insurance cost go up in my fifties? There’s a threat here, and there should be transparency from organizations on how that data will be used.”


Getting started is the hardest part.

Adding personalization to your product offering isn’t easy: it involves innovating on multiple fronts simultaneously, which makes it daunting and challenging to know where to begin, not to mention difficult to scale efficiently and meaningfully.

According to BCG, only about 15% of companies can be considered true personalization leaders, and most of them are tech companies and digital natives. There’s plenty of room for companies in all sectors to help to grow that number, so why isn’t everyone jumping on board?

“There’s a fear of starting the design and not knowing what it’ll look like down the line.” notes Mårten, touching on Smart’s ‘start small to win big’ approach toward personalization, “There’s a shift in what people need to know, what users’ pain points are; you’re drawing different conclusions each time you analyze the data.”

“There’s an interesting reliance on data, and there’s so much of it.” Garrett chimes in, “How does a company harness that data? That’s the scary part.”

“Not everyone has these resources in house,” Luba adds, “and it’s difficult to attract and retain talent that will know what type of data points to gather, and what to do and build with it.”

The new reality.

It’s quite clear that personalization is a long-term project for any company looking to invest in it, rather than a short-term fix. Companies need to put brand individualization at the forefront of their strategy to influence everything they do, including marketing, operations, merchandising, and product development.

The new reality is that personal experiences and insights are not enough. Simple personalization used to be an easy path to create a competitive advantage, but it’s rapidly becoming the new baseline. Businesses risk a whole lot more if they don’t start customizing their products for consumers, and soon.

“It’s so wildly important, and we need to educate the ones who don’t understand it.” concludes Cat, “If brands aren’t embracing it, they’re not going to be around much longer.”