Personalization is great, as long as it doesn’t undermine control

June 26, 2012 by George Eberstadt

There was an interesting  piece in the New York Times over the weekend about the experience Urban Outfitters has had with personalization.  In brief: they tried altering the merchandise displayed on the site based on the gender of the visitor – it seemed like an obvious win to show women more women’s clothes and men more men’s clothes.  But it backfired.  Dmitri Siegel, then at Urban Outfitters and now at Patagonia, noted that shoppers “took offense at being subjected to gender-based marketing.”

And yet some aspects of personalization – in particular, recommendations – seem to perform well, and even better when aided by automation.  Last week I was speaking with an IR50 retailer who said that in a recent test their automated personalization engine outperformed their human personalizers by 3X!  (Recommendations proposed by the automated engine received 3X as many clicks as recommendations manually composed by the merchandising team…)

This contrast – between personalization that works and personalization that doesn’t – reminded me of the windshield wipers on our car.  OK, OK, bear with me here.  Up until the car we own now, the intermittent wiper always worked the obvious way: you turn it up, the delay between wipes gets shorter.  But on our current car, it’s different; the wiper setting determines the amount of rain that a sensor needs to detect before triggering a wipe.  That is, you are not setting the wipe frequency directly, you are setting it relative to the amount of rain that’s falling.  The idea is this: if you like a dry windshield, turn up the knob, and the system will keep your windshield dry for you by increasing the frequency of wipes as the rain gets heavier.  And if you prefer to minimize the distraction caused by wiping, turn down the knob, and the wiper will only trigger when it senses a very wet windshield.  In fact, you never even need to turn off the intermittent wiper, because on a sunny day it never triggers, even on the highest setting.

Like personalization, I suspect that reactions to this feature vary, and some folks probably like it.  But I’m not one of them.  I prefer to have direct control over the frequency of my wiper.  While the sensor is pretty good, it’s not perfect, and when I want a different frequency than what the sensor has chosen for me, it’s hard to get it right.  Further, changing the speed manually is not hard, so the intelligence built in to the system isn’t really saving me from some difficult burden.

You can see where this is going.  In an effort to “personalize”, the wiper system forces me to give up some control.  But the cost to me of the loss of control is greater than the value to me of the personalization.

I suspect that my experience with the wipers is similar to the experience of shoppers at Urban Outfitters.  By personalizing based on gender, the site removed a degree of control from the shopper.  After all, women shop for men’s clothes and (ahem) men shop for women’s.  So there’s a cost to the shopper when the personalization is off.  On the other hand, there’s very little burden for the shopper in controlling the system manually – ie clicking the tab that says Women’s when shopping for women’s clothes.

This doesn’t mean personalization is always a mistake.  There are some times when direct control is too hard and having a system help is very valuable.  One example: in modern fighter jets, direct control of the airfoils through wires and hydraulics – the way pilots used to control planes – is no longer possible.  So instead, the pilot tells a computer what she wants the plane to do, and the computer tells the control surfaces how to move to accomplish that.  Similarly, on an ecommerce site with many SKUs, smart, personalized recommendations can help me discover items that I would miss with less-smart recommendations.

The trick in getting the user experience right is to figure out when allowing direct user control is preferable and when automated personalization is the better choice.