Five things you need to know about digital personalisation

The P-word is a hot topic, particularly in the field of UX design. Done well, personalisation can be the backbone of a user experience, as Netflix and Facebook have shown. It can help drive sales, build brand loyalty and help users learn, discover and complete tasks more easily.

But making these aspirations a reality can be complicated, political and require a whole lot of head-scratching. It is a constantly evolving space, nuanced and complex with technological advances constantly moving the goalposts. In this post, I’ll be sharing five key lessons I’ve learned through supporting clients make their service bespoke, friendly and personal.

Image credit: Unsplash

1. What is digital personalisation?

After everyone has decided that personalisation is something they want to do, there is often that moment where you need to define what it actually is, together. “Every page is bespoke to that user”, “We know what they want before they do”, “There’s a place they go on the site where they can sort out all of their problems”. Such example quotes show that everyone has an idea of what they think personalisation is, want personalisation to be and how it might work; it can be a difficult thing to nail down, which leads me to my second but perhaps most important point…

2. Where is the value in digital personalisation?

Other than ‘everyone is doing it’ and ‘users expect it’, there needs to be a very clear reason for personalising all or some of your website. It is a hugely complex framework to implement with an exponential number of variables and options. So, first we must take a step back and think about why your user is on your website in the first place. Are they there to learn, read, shop, complete a task or have fun? Which elements of any of these journeys are bespoke to that user and what is generic? There are many competing expectations and measures governing websites, their structure and content: marketing messages, brand tone, promotions, sales targets, user needs to name a few. Adding in personalisation creates another dimension which can force reprioritisation of these objectives, so a very clear definition of user need, value and measures is essential to help make these decisions

For example, say that the marketing team of Organisation X has been working on a campaign which is marked as a national priority. This campaign will end up being front and centre of the website visuals, ensuring all users see it on arrival and – hopefully - take the messaging on board. Such a deliverable can be both planned and controlled and ensures that all their consumers will have a relatively consistent experience. Add personalisation to the mix and you need to accept that the rules written about what to show User Y at different points in their journey might ‘trump’ the marketing message with a minor message which happens to be more suitable for User Y. So where is the value to that user and the organisation? Which message is more important? Does the user’s relationship with that organisation improve if they see the major campaign or a minor but more personal one? All these considerations needs to be unpicked and evaluated before any personalisation is implemented.

3. How personal is personal?

To help unpick the complexity, it can help to make a decision early on in the planning process about just how personal the experience will be. The assumption is often that to do personalisation, everything must, and will, specifically respond to that user and their behaviour in real time. But how do you decide who that user is and which attributes define them to be that? You need to know who they are, so that you can tailor their experience, but how and when do you get to know them? This question once again relies on knowing where the value lies, how you are going to build up data, what you can expect of your users and what they expect of you.

You can be very explicit about getting to know them by taking them through a sign up process where details such as their name, location and other ‘hard facts’ can be defined up front. You could even ask them to declare their preferences or interests here. What kind of content do they actively want to see? For example we can look at BBC’s Customise your homepage.

To refer to the ever changing influence of technology, there is also the more complex process and addition of machine learning to take on board. This learning is achieved through a complex set of rules and algorithms that record a user’s behaviour as they interact with the site. The pages they look at, the topics they show an interest in, the products they buy, the films they watch, the locations they log in gradually build up an evolving profile of that user that can be used to deliver a superior experience. The ideal example of this is Spotify’s Discover Weekly (a bespoke playlist created every week based on your listening history). Read more about Spotify's UX design in our latest white paper, Journeys with Unicorns: Excellence in User Experience

And then there are the features that seem personalised but are not specific to that person but still data driven. These might be features such as “Other people who bought this also bought this” where the data embedded in that content drives the site to serve up related content based on whichever factors are specified (popularity, ratings, category etc).

In truth, ‘Personalisation’ may be any of these or a combination of them all.

4. Walled gardens and the illusion of freedom

The question to frame this fourth point is: ‘Where do your users access personalised content?’ This is often a fundamental decision that can be fairly divisive. ‘Logged in’ experiences are generally expected to be personalised, and users might expect the action of logging in to take them ‘somewhere’ to do ‘something’. This might mean logging in to an account area, managing addresses, bills and other administrative tasks. They might have a wish lists or favourites, curated pin boards, videos saved for later, etc. These features need a location on your site, possibly a new one, which relies on a new Information Architecture and Navigation. Alternatively, or indeed additionally, users can go about the ‘normal’ site either logged in or not and the site may respond to their behaviours, location, and actions to gradually become more and more personalised, potentially without the user even knowing it. The range of solutions is wide and both comes down to what users might be doing, the nature of your site/business and what feels appropriate for your organisation or brand. The other massively important consideration is what is possible technically and for what budget!

5. Include tech teams early

Tech teams, especially those who understand systems architecture will be essential to define the capabilities of the current architecture to base any ideas of personalisation on. This will provide a better picture of the amount of effort it will take to implement and maintain any personalisation operation. A site built with personalisation considered as a key factor from the start will have a very different framework to one that has not. So retrofitting these features into an existing framework might be expensive and take a significant amount of effort to achieve. To help balance priorities, knowing how much the tech will cost, allows a much better picture of value. So my advice is to keep these teams informed, or better, have them included in all major decision making at the start, consulting and listening to them throughout. Anything is possible, but will come at wildly varying prices both in time, money and effort, and these are the people most likely to know.

So there you have it. Five key lessons with some of the big questions I use with clients, lots of options and a bit of brain mangling. We are always excited by the opportunities opened up by advances in technology, and as systems become more and more powerful, the possibilities can be both inspiring and overwhelming. Problems like this though, are fun to solve, so there is a careful balancing act between what you can do, what you should do and what you’re going to do. For us, knowing the value to the user is a principle you can always come back to and be guided by.

Further reading


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