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Real personalization, where are you?


Hello {user_name} is not a personalization. Yet lots of companies do only that and believe they have a personalized product. But where is the real personalization?

3 waves of personalization

There were times when it was perfectly fine to be greeted as "hello user#598945895" by a website. All pages looked the same for all visitors. Then someone must have pointed out that maybe few personal touches here and there can increase conversion. And so the personalization started. It was nice to be greeted by name, have your previous session saved or have a filled-in account information stored.

Then came an idea of personal websites. Why would a site look similar to everybody if every person might have an own UI?
The most memorable examples of this approach that I still remember were iGoogle and BBC's homepage.


On paper the idea was neat. Let anyone edit and re-position elements so everyone might have exactly the look they wanted. On practice - very few people were bothered to do so. The value of such personalization was not matched by the effort users needed to take.

The second wave of personalization came together with similarity algorithms. The idea was to analyze the likeness of products or people. If a user likes product x and this product similar to product y - the same user should like product y.
This concept later has been redefined as if a user x likes product y and z and user n is like user x then user n might also like products y and z.

The second use of a service was always more personalized than the first one. A website was gathering your behavior data, analyzing it and improving your next experience. Nothing wrong with this approach. Yet it had few disadvantages. Early models couldn't calculate behavior data in real time. The effects for a user were coming with a delay. You need a lot of behavioral data to draw reliable conclusions. And all your data should be structured. This personalization affected only content and that was probably the most important disadvantage. It couldn't personalize UI or a workflow.

Another personalization trend still actively growing. This is a feed of updates. Now almost every product has a feed of updates. A feed is indeed an elegant idea. The UI is natural and addictive. It works nicely both on desktop and mobile. Still for a feed to be useful it needs to be highly relevant for a user. This is not a trivial challenge.


Where is the personalization we all been promised?

Personalization used to give a huge promise. Software should adapt to your personality, your specific ways of using it and to your context as well. In reality what we received are "Hello {user_name}", endless feeds and "if you like this, you might like...". What happened to personalization?

It's not a technical problem. Nowadays we have an unlimited computation power to track user behavior and adapt on the fly. So maybe it's a product problem?
How valuable personalization for our users? Most product designers ask themselves this question.

Google Chrome Recent Tabs

Some time ago I noticed that Google Chrome for Android got updated. It's not often you notice those updates. Lately, apps update automatically and if it's not a major redesign you barely notice changes made. But this time I've noticed. Just because my second the most used feature in Google Chrome for Android is "Recent tabs." On a home screen of the app there used to be an icon to access your recently closed tabs and tabs open on other devices. I use this feature very often. But after the latest update, the "Recent tabs" icon was gone. After a bit of searching, I realized the "Recent tabs" feature been moved in the general menu. Now it takes me twice as more taps to get to "Recent tabs" than before the update.

Being product manager myself, I can imagine this change been done based on insights in average usage. But this is exactly my point regarding the personalization. Why should I adapt to average usage rather than an app adapting to my personal usage preference?


Personalization could be your competitive advantage

To realize the potential personalization has to offer, remember about Nir Eyal's "Hook model". Specifically the fourth, "Investment" stage of the model. According to Nir, the product should become more valuable for users after they invested something in the product. Users might invest their money, data or usage. If we follow this theory, every usage of an app should make the next usage more valuable. Adapting to a particular user behavior might be one of the ways to bring more value to a user. Valuable products are harder to replace. People talk about valuable products and buy (use) them more.

Instead of summary

Thinking about personalization for your product think beyond what everybody else is doing. Think if your product could adapt to an individual user behavior and if doing so would bring more value to your users. People who use your product give you the most scarce resource they have - their attention. Make sure you return the most value possible.

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