Personalizing tomorrow: Unlocking personalized user experiences

Executive Director & Partner
Strategy Director

About the salon

Armed with access to more and more behavioral and demographic data, brand owners see an opportunity to grow both loyalty and cultural relevance with consumers. Personalization and customization have become an integral part of their strategy to build brand relationships with consumers, who are placing greater value in experiences that cater to their unique needs. However, personalization can mean different things to different people, and companies must be careful not to overstep the boundaries of privacy and data security.

How can we, as designers, help brands initiate and deliver personalized experiences that benefit consumers?

Virtual Smart Salon

Testing the limits

Designing the next wave of diagnostics

Virtual Smart Salon

Testing the limits

Designing the next wave of diagnostics

Our panelists

Xavi Cortadellas, head of innovation and design at Gatorade, is responsible for creating the vision for both the brand’s innovation efforts and the expansion of Gatorade’s sports-themed beverage and food products into technology platforms.

Allison Schloss is a senior product manager at Peloton Interactive, the pioneering at-home fitness program that is now the largest of its kind in the world with more than 5.9 million members.

Nasahn Sheppard is vice president of product design, UX, and UXR at Stash, a leading financial subscription service that helps democratize and simplify banking and investing to empower “everyday people” to create greater financial freedom.

Introduction

Our wide-ranging conversation covered the ways brands utilize personalization to improve the consumer experience, strategies to make personalization more meaningful, and the importance of transparency when collecting and using customer information. 

Here are the key takeaways from the evening’s conversation:

Personalization empowers people

Smart Design’s Tucker Fort opened the conversation by describing personalization as nothing less than “one of the next great design and innovation frontiers.” Yet while this holds much promise for brands and companies, personalization isn’t always straightforward or easy to get right. “Sometimes, no personalization is better than delivering the wrong personalization,” he observed. How does personalization work in the diverse sectors that our panelists represent: fitness, financial services, and sports beverages?

At Peloton, Allison Schloss explained that personalization sorts through the site’s many offerings in a variety of disciplines, programs, and instructors to provide members with what they want most: the perfect class. Recommendations are based on factors such as the members’ individual fitness level and specific goals, like building up their confidence. “Personalization really steps in here,” she added, so that “[users] get the most out of their workout and spend less time sorting through content because that’s what they’re looking for from us across the board.”

The personal-finance app Stash works in a similar way, according to Nasahn Sheppard, although the goal here is helping “everyday Americans” build wealth and reach their financial goals. To do that, he says, Stash personalizes what Sheppard calls “a depersonalized financial system largely geared to servicing the rich… [That starts with] understanding the user as an individual, not an aggregate.” Sheppard points out that 95 percent of Stash users have little to no investing experience at all. “This kind of personalization,” he continued, “empowers people beyond what they thought possible, Stashers are 15% more financially literate than the average American, and we offer that as a platform to help people grow wealth.”

Personalization was tricky for the mass-market sports-beverage brand Gatorade, which wanted to “bring [its] knowledge to everyday athletes and educate them about fueling preferences and needs,” according to Xavi Cortadellas. The company’s GX platform does this by measuring sweat and other factors that influence performance, and offering customized products and services such as a personalized sports-fuel formula and hydration pod.

Introduce the unexpected

Personalization can be a powerful tool to build client-brand relationships. But it can also become repetitive—and fast—and lead to the sort of confirmation bias that continually tells users what it thinks they want to know. 

To maintain a sense of discovery, Schloss said Peloton always ensures a balance of new information, music, and content for its diverse audience. “Part of raising awareness is giving people exposure to everything,” she said, noting that one personalization strategy would never work for all its fitness fans. Peloton uses a mix of priorities—the instructor’s personality, what users like about the product/service, as well as what might be interesting for them, and new classes (such as barre)—with “personalization at the heart of it all.” And even if there’s little chance a user may try barre, she explained, “We want to make sure you know about it and maybe while chatting with a friend, say, ‘Hey, did you know that Peloton has barre?’” 

Stash’s Sheppard acknowledges that sound long-term financial advice can be repetitive: long-term, diversify, and spread your investments over time. It’s therefore important that the platform respect subscribers’ time and intelligence and grow and change with them over a lifetime relationship. Sheppard, who admits to having tried to game the Spotify algorithm in order to find new music, likens this approach to “creating a museum with both the art you love and the art you don’t know, but can discover.” He imagines customization reaching the point where each Stash subscriber has a completely different experience with the platform —with evolving content, guidance, visuals, and language—whenever they log on. After all, he says, “Nobody wants to be jumbled together with everybody else, we are all unique.”

Take it slowly

Our panelists agreed that an incremental personalization strategy is likely to work better than trying to follow a master plan. In the beginning, “throw things out there and see what’s meaningful, and avoid a ton of complicated things,” Cortadellas advised. Use trial and error and pilot programs to see what’s sticky for different user groups—a professional athlete, or, say, “a young kid who wants to be the coolest guy in the locker room,” and then do it for everyone in the middle. 

When developing a personalization strategy, Schloss advises starting small and experimenting with something less important for the business (at Peloton, this was post-class recommendations). “Talk about goals and how this could be applied to the really big, flashy thing,” she said. When your brand gets started, Sheppard, for his part, advocates creating what he calls “customer first principles,” which become guideposts for the brand to follow. “You can really live by your principles from day one as opposed to making it up as you go along, in order to avoid making decisions under business or marketplace pressure,” Sheppard revealed.

Building trust is a priority

Establishing a trusting relationship with subscribers is absolutely critical for personalization to succeed. As Sheppard put it, “Trust is hard-earned and easily lost, just like in relationships with people, so I’d be careful not to treat personalization like a gold rush.” That’s especially important in the financial space, Sheppard noted, which is why he always asks his team, “Are you building trust, are you breaking trust, and how do we do that in a way that has a high bar of ethics? We have to be really thoughtful about this.”

For his part, Cortadellas concurs that relationships with brands aren’t all that different than with people—and if successful, can lead to more sharing and exchanges. Schloss added that this is especially important when brands are presenting and testing personalization programs, warning that you will “chip away at the trust” if the context isn’t right, when, for example, suggesting the “perfect” class for a member who has never expressed interest in it.

Imagine a smart toilet in your future

To close our conversation, Smart Design strategy director Jamie Munger asked the panelists to look ahead to three to five years from now and imagine what personalization could look like. Where is personalization going, as more and more data becomes available and the brand/customer relationship deepens?  

Cortadellas offered one surprising direction: smart toilets. “One place that is phenomenal to collect data is within the bathroom, and in particular, the toilet,” he said, tracing the evolution of this idea from smart homes to smart mirrors, scales, textiles, and wearables. A smart toilet pilot program—with the goal of “checking the status of users in real-time”—is already underway with professional sports teams.  Whether this concept eventually catches on isn’t certain, Cortadellas conceded. “But who knows, a few years from now it could be available to everyone.”

Conclusion

With user data being sourced from just about anywhere, personalization may appear limitless. For the moment, panelists agreed that personalization will continue to advance, helping customers make decisions and discover new things amid a flood of products and services. But if we reach too far, personalization could backfire without safeguarding customer privacy and ensuring they are comfortable with how their data is being acquired and used. As Sheppard acknowledged, “We’re on a journey of personalization, but we haven’t figured it out entirely.”

Tools for now

Use human-centered design principles to better understand customers as individuals

Find out who your customers are, and uncover their needs now—and what they might be in the future.

Create powerful one-on-one conversations with them that build trust.

Continually ask – Are we building Trust? Are we breaking Trust?

 

Develop brand/customer relationships slowly

Think of personalization as a long-term, incremental effort that evolves over time.

Launch pilot programs to assess and define key value propositions and enhance the consumer experience—and don’t stop using them.

 

Challenge your teams to keep information fresh and interesting 

Present customers with a stream of new offerings—to avoid repetition and confirmation bias.

Don’t think of personalization simply as a way to convert users to new products, or as a sales pitch.

 

Be transparent about how you collect and use customer data

Be aware of real fears consumers have about data misuse and breaches that could compromise and chip away at trust. 

Respect customer privacy about data. Let them know how it benefits them.

About Tucker Fort

Tucker Fort has led projects for Gatorade, Ford, Sephora, and Chobani that illustrate how personalization can build on existing offerings with new products, channels, platforms, partnerships, and retail concepts.

About Jamie Munger

Jamie Munger leads the strategy practice at Smart Design, including global projects for Amgen, Astra Zeneca, and OXO. She has acquired HIPAA certification for research and her book on human-centered public policy design was published in November 2020. She holds a BA in Sociology from Emory University, MDES in Design Research, and MBA from the Illinois Institute of Technology.

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