What is personalisation and why do we want it?

By Andrew on 29th April 2016 — 3 mins read

Jesse James Garrett’s famous diagram is in need of an update.

The elements of user experience - see jjg.net
The elements of user experience – see jjg.net

That dividing line in the middle, the one that separates the static web from the dynamic web (‘web as pages’ vs ‘web as software’) should probably move to the right – or be removed altogether. Noone seems interested in pages anymore. That’s old media.

We want content and functionality that responds intelligently to our context, that updates in real-time, that we can have a conversation with.

In the early days of the web, Personalisation was a small flourish of the ‘Welcome back Andrew’ type. These days some of our clients have access to some serious kit that allows them to tailor the user experience much more. Using every little thing we know about a particular user (their location, device, previous interactions and so on) we can determine what particular arrangement of content and functionality they see.

But two questions remain: how far should we take personalisation? and in what direction?

Conversational UX provides the answer to both?

Over the last year, there’s been a big surge in interest around the idea of designing conversations. Perhaps this is the moment in web design history where we get to grips with Personalisation at last. In other words, perhaps the qualities of a good conversation are the same as the qualities of good personalisation.

In the table below, I’ve listed out some attributes of a good conversation. It’s my hope that they can help us to think about how we might seek to personalise an experience.

QUALITY The experience it brings The experience it avoids
RELEVANT “They know exactly what I need to talk about!” “They offer me too many choices.”
WARM “They talk to me like a human being” “I mean nothing to them”
DEPENDABLE & CONSISTENT “They are right there when I need them” “I can’t count on them”
PROGRESSIVE “They have helped me to understand something” “They just keep saying the same things”
SMART “They offered to do something for me that I don’t like doing for myself” “They did something for me that I’d rather they didn’t!”
RESPONSIVENESS “They really listened to me” “They don’t remember what I tell them”
LEARNING “They learn from mistakes and improve all the time.” “They repeat the same mistakes again and again”
PURPOSEFULNESS “They ask me to do worthwhile things” “They want me to jump through meaningless hoops”
CONTROL “They let me choose the important things” “They don’t let me do what I want.”
DURATION “They keep it brief and to the point” “They think I have all the time in the world”
FREQUENCY “Occasionally, they call for attention” “They’re always pestering me”
APPROPRIATENESS “Their style matches the subject matter at hand” “They’re annoying! (e.g. this is no time to make a joke)”
COMFORT LEVEL “They put me at ease” “This is awkward”
MEMORABLE “What they’re saying is valuable to me” “This doesn’t mean much”

Manners and the leap to AI

Looking back through this list, it becomes pretty clear that being good at conversation means learning good manners. We have to design ways for our technology to do more that just refer to us by our name. It needs to get much smarter than that. Exciting times. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

For most of us, designing well-mannered experiences doesn’t mean that we’re building AIs. Nor does it mean that we have to create a personae for our well mannered tech. This is not about anthropomorphising or even mechanomorphising a product or service. It just means being less of a douche-bag – and remembering that there is a human on one end of the conversation.

The qualities listed above can be delivered through purposeful interaction design and carefully considered Voice and Tone. We need to use UCD (User Centred Design) to identify the scenarios where differentiated or personalised experienced matter most, then target some specific ways in which to improve the conversation with good manners. This is complex, but doable. We don’t need robotic intelligence to improve things – and we certainly shouldn’t wait for it to arrive.

Posted in: Design thinking

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