What Does Personalization Mean in 2013?

I’ve been writing for ClickZ for a whopping 11 years. I started off writing a “Personalization” column back then, which eventually morphed into all facets of multi-channel user experience. It has been years since I went back to my roots and wrote specifically about personalization. As I was thinking about what this year will bring, I started asking myself, “What about personalization? Is it still relevant, and what does it even mean in 2013?”

Back in the day, personalization took on so many meanings it became meaningless. Kind of how the term “in the cloud” is getting abused these days. (Having said that, I am waiting for a child to ask where rain comes from so I can tell him that it’s stored in the cloud, like everything else these days.) Nowadays, the spotlight has shifted away from talking about personalization as a separate discipline, mainly because it’s an obvious part of an expected user experience.

That was my dream back when I was the director of personalization at Barnes & Noble, and something I’ve tried to instill in every company that has hired my company to consult with them on multi-channel user experience. Personalization can’t be a separate department; it needs to be ingrained in the way everyone thinks about user experience. However, someone does need to oversee this and make sure it is well-thought-out and consistently implemented.

But we didn’t have apps and personal mobile devices back then. Personalization was relegated mainly to having a site say “Welcome back, Jack” and having a “You might also like…” list of products on a product page.

Now, personalization is reaching beyond those simple times and finding more useful purposes, and connected devices are getting in on the action. Nest, the thermostat which bills itself as a “Learning Thermostat,” is one such device. One of its major selling points is that it learns your behavior and figures out how to save you money by regulating the temperature in your home automatically (such as turning things down when you go out).

Gaming systems allow you to personalize their games by creating your own likeness. And personalization is at the heart of weight-loss games (such as those available on the Wii or Kinect). Connected devices such as those in the Fitbit ecosystem monitor your health via scales and wearable devices that track your health and activity. The fitness programs then personalize workouts based on your goals and current state.

The interconnectedness of all these devices has allowed multi-channel personalization to flourish. In multi-channel personalization, your actions in one channel (such as what movies you like to stream on your TV) affect your experience on other channels. Smart companies are backing multi-channel personalization into their multi-channel user experience strategy, whether they call it “personalization” or not.

Thirteen years ago I told my bosses at Barnes & Noble that personalization wasn’t just about “If you like this book you will like that book.” I said that personalization was a user experience idea that made each user feel like the systems they use were created just for them and tailored in a way to make them feel special and like a VIP.

As we migrate from the PC-Internet age to the age of interconnected devices and connected ecosystems of devices, personalization begins an entirely new chapter. While I don’t know of anyone calling this level of tailored user experiences “personalization,” that’s exactly what we are seeing.

Personalization has finally crawled out from the “product recommendation systems” pigeonhole and into a much more mature idea encompassing multi-faceted user experiences that learn from each other and all serve a common purpose: making the user feel like a VIP and attending to her needs in a highly dynamic, intelligent, and customized manner.

Until next time…
Jack

Personalization image on home page via Shutterstock.

This column was originally published on Jan. 18, 2013.

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