A Decade in Review: Trends and Insights

I started writing for ClickZ.com exactly 10 years ago. I’ve lost count, but I believe this column is my 285th or so. A lot has changed over the last 10 years, and I thought it would be a good idea to take a look back at what the major trends have been, and look toward the future.

I started writing the Personalization column. From the beginning, I wanted to drive home the point that any customer-centric design, and any real study in usability had to include personalization, even at a basic level. To me, personalization wasn’t about technology, but instead a way to take a user-centric approach to design. Even a static site could be “personalized” if its user experience was based on the types of people who would be using the site.

To me, a multi-channel user experience was at the top of a personalized brand experience: the ability to interact with a brand over any channel I wanted, not just one prescribed channel. This simple idea took on a lot of power over the last 10 years and moved well beyond where it started. Multi-channel marketing and user experience (at least in most people’s views), in most diagrams you saw back then, was still an idea centered around a specific hub. For retail, it was either the physical store or the website. For banks, it was the branch. All the other channels then supported that “main” channel. But multi-channel user experience was not going to be constrained like that, and the last third of the decade has shown us an evolved model: one in which there ceases to be a clear hub from which multi-channel spokes emanate.

No one can argue that the pieces finally came together in the correct way via the smartphone and tablets. While the seeds were planted long before these devices, it took the iPhone (and later iPad) to bring all these ideas together into viable consumer devices. But even before these devices, a lot of headway was being made to de-centralize channels just on the computer. In 2007 we saw the decentralization of e-commerce start with a way to sell your own MP3 files via a service that allowed you to place a “buy” button (and entire checkout process) with a widget on any site (especially a social network). Much later, companies like Pinterest would take their entire user experience and overlay it on top of other sites completely. These ideas showed that even within one channel (the web), both user experience and commerce could be moved off a company’s website and placed where users were instead. Facebook proved this point in a different way when movie studios started launching pages for their new movies on the platform, because that’s where people were (instead of launching the pages within their own domains). Subtly, this was the same idea.

While the evolution of these spokes of the user-centric, multi-channel, and personalized lifestyle all began to crop up in ways people like me had envisioned, the convergence of all the ideas certainly brought us to a place that was larger than the sum of its parts. Personalization was always going to be important. But placing a personal device in the palm of a user’s hand, and then providing a personalized user experience on it went far beyond creating a better “if you like this product, you’ll like that product” feature on a website. The idea that personalizing the user experience wasn’t just about fancy technology, but about the medium itself, finally hit home later in the decade.

The decade of evolution was not without its naysayers. I remember writing a column in 2009 about how smartphone apps could have a whole other life if used in-store, and receiving a lot of critical comments about the idea. In 2011, Apple would create an in-store app for seeing more product detail and buying products that were in front of you. Price-checking apps also became abundant, as did the use of QR codes to augment physical channels and even turning mass marketing into a point of sale.

Something I didn’t see coming was the idea that the traditional multi-channel marketing diagram could evolve in a way that included no hub at all. While the hub was traditionally the website before, now that’s not always true. There are stores and services that exist entirely on smartphones and people who bank exclusively via personal devices or ATMs (leaving the website or branch out of the picture entirely). In a sense, multi-channel marketing has gotten much more decentralized than we thought it would a decade ago. Even social networking, a major trend I’ve not really discussed, became more decentralized when comments, “likes,” ads, and recommendations from “your friends” became everyday parts of other sites. The social network’s core functionality was no longer confined to the social network’s own website.

A trend I’ll save for a future column (simply because there is too much to talk about to do the topic justice) is thin vs. fat clients – most notably a browser-based user experience vs. an app-based user experience. Suffice it to say that we’re still finding our ground in that area.

Back in 2002 I held that personalization, user-centric design, and multi-channel user experience were the most important ideas to us creating customer loyalty. Ten years later, those major ideas are still as important, and have combined in ways I certainly didn’t see back then. The most interesting innovations right now are generally not happening on the web, or on the desktop. People aren’t building a “better shopping cart” anymore, and are instead building apps that read barcodes in stores and tell you what prices you can get online. This was the pipe-dream stuff we talked about a decade ago, but the basic building blocks of the next decade.

In the next decade, we’ll see this trend continue. We’ll also begin to see more erosion of the ideas of geography. Geography is an antiquated idea at this point. From receiving physical mail (and dealing with what to do if you’re traveling and can’t get an important bill or letter), regional pricing, to legal jurisdiction (such as where to try a court case involving 400 illegal pirates whose IP addresses are all over the country), geographic concerns stymie innovation in a digital world in which physical boundaries no longer matter. User behavior, criminal activity, and user knowledge have surpassed the constraints of geography, and businesses (and legal systems) are now playing catch-up.

I’d like to thank my original editors, Rebecca Lieb and Pamela Parker. At the end of 2001 they asked me if I was sure I had enough to talk about to warrant my own column that would start in 2002. Thanks to Eric Norlin, who had been writing the Personalization column up to that point, and asked me if I wanted to take it over. Thanks to the current editors of ClickZ for still feeling like I have something interesting to say after 10 years. Finally, thanks to everyone who has read my column over the last decade. I hope you’ll continue to read and interact with me as I begin my second decade of writing.

Until next time…

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