On Personalization

Personalization is a concept from the world of web, meaning the ability of the web application to recognize and tell apart different users and act differently on per-user base.

To enable personalization, users almost always have to invest time, and sometimes money, to sign on. In exchange, they can obtain direct services, for example, remembering their filtering and sorting choices and other preferences, their payment and delivery data, or providing them with a unique identity by allowing to use specific nicknames and avatar images. Such services are the reason the user would sign on in the first time.

Besides, some indirect services or improvements can be provided, for example, using user’s first and last name in the communication, or taking the user’s gender into account when rendering the user interface. Such services often include psychological tools with the purpose of influencing user’s emotional state, and are therefore trickier to get right. You have to take the internal logic of the user’s interaction into account to decide how or whether to implement such personalization.

A simple example can be given speaking about personalized greeting. In the beginning of the web, when a cookie has been invented and made login possible, it was a custom to start each and any start page of a personalized web site with a “Greetings, Firstname Lastname, and welcome to this page”. This practice has been abandoned completely with the beginning of Web 2.0, when people started to think more carefully and thoroughly about emotional value of their UI and its influence on the user interactions. The user’s name is still present on home, but not in the greeting form. The single known exception of this rule is Amazon. Interestingly enough, personalized greeting remained intact in newsletters and generally in e-mails, and made it to a true standard — a non-personalized newsletter looks nowadays as an epic fail.

So what’s the difference?

The user mental state for newsletters can be described as “in the middle of something”. If it is an e-mail, the user will be distracted from whatever he was doing by an outlook notification. So when he begins interaction with the newsletter, his attitude is the classifying one. He doesn’t care that much about the contents yet. He wants first to classify. Is this stuff important or not? From the person I like, I hate or I don’t know? Short or long? Does the sender wants something from me, or gives something to me? Depending on the classification, the interaction can end in the very first second with deleting the newsletter and optional adding the sender to the junk mail rule.

Even if it is a paper mail, the similar attitude will apply, because people typically fetch their post on the way home or out of home, so they would want to sort the mails quickly before actual coming home or sitting in the car. In these circumstances, a personalized greeting could help avoiding the unfavorable category of SPAM, because it indicates that the sender at least knows something about the recepient, so that the mail would probably not be completely unrelated.

Later on, during the reading the newsletter, the personalized greeting may even lead the user to believe the e-mail has actually been written by a human, unless the trick effect is destroyed by other wording (like wrong gender in spite of unambiguosly identifiable name).

The user mental model for visiting web sites is different. Here, the interaction is initiated by the user, and he is a returning visitor (otherwise how would we know his name?), so that, most probably he already knows of the value of the web site and classifying the site will not be his highest priority. Often, users visit web sites to get some service, information or products. So their attitude is very similar to one when entering a shop, cinema etc: the most interesting thing people normally focused to are the products, service or information themselves, not the web site providing them. A greeting, especially personalized only with user name without any further advantages for the user, is only distracting customers from their main focus. It might be as counter-productive as “can I help you?” of a seller immediately after customer is entering into the shop, forcing her to move her eyes away from that beautiful shoes in the window that motivated her to enter in the first place. Never stop customers staring at your goods — just be right there when they finally reach for their purse…

If you look at Amazon’s personalized greeting, you’ll see that their layout focuses you into the search bar and the recommended products in the main content area – the products you actually interested in. Me personally, I haven’t even know about existance of the personalized greeting on Amazon before writing this article. It is well hidden in the outer top space. I believe, if they would put it in the middle of the screen, and have you to access products by additional clicking on some link or navigation, their sales would measurably drop.

The moral of this unexpectedly long article is that indirect personalization services require at least the same, or even higher level of user interaction design efforts than direct personalization services. Take that into account and resist placing a personalized greeting to the home page, with the only reason that it is easier to develop than a shopping cart.

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