Hyper-personalization — just because you can, should you?

Hollie Lubbock
Design Voices
Published in
5 min readJul 25, 2018


There’s renewed interest in how brands, services and marketers should be using personalization to give users what they want: a world that feels perfect for them. Unfortunately, sometimes that world isn’t good for them.

We’re constantly competing for data from consumers and for their attention, and personalization has proved a great way to get both. Personalization justifies the need for more data, and by using it, we can catch the attention of an audience to build stronger, deeper connections.

There are three key drivers to this shift:

  1. Customer expectations increasing to a “I want what I want, when I want it” (IWWIWWIWI) mindset
  2. Improvements in algorithmic decision-making allowing us to tailor experiences in real-time
  3. Growth in customer engagement, loyalty and advocacy enabled by personalization

Increasing expectations

With the rise of on-demand services from transportation to fashion, people’s view of what’s possible, as well as natural, has changed drastically. We’re in a pure convenience culture. For example, “near me” queries on Google have grown 900% between 2015–2017. People expect information, products and services now. Due to this shift, users no longer only compare your brand, service or product to others within the same category; they compare it to any and every experience they have. You now have three layers of competition: direct, experiential and perceptual.

Improving algorithms

Computing power and the use of big data has increased exponentially over the last few years, and improvements in AI-powered systems have made real-time personalized services possible. We’ve progressed from purely serving content or recommendations based on simple segmentation (e.g. gender or location of the customer) to having the opportunity to use machine learning to learn which recommendations work and to improve the algorithms. Systems using collaborative filtering look at what similar users like — think the “users who bought this also bought that” feature — all the way through to content analysis, which allows us to use external information, sentiment analysis and computer vision to understand more about users’ context.

Growing loyalty/advocacy

More than anything else, personalization is driving engagement and customer loyalty. More than 80% of content watched on Netflix comes via the company’s recommendations. While the average number of artists that each Spotify listener streams each week increased 37% in 2017 alone, this increase is largely credited to Spotify’s personalized and editorial playlists and discovery tools.

So far, so good, right? Why shouldn’t we dive right into personalization?

Privacy paradox

In her recent internet trends report, Mary Meeker spoke of a privacy paradox. On one hand, “79% of people in the US are willing to share personal data for ‘clear personal benefit.’” (Deloitte) However, most people are taking steps to protect their data when the benefits aren’t clear. Since data is the main enabler of personalization, we need to be clear about the uses and benefits of giving up that data.

Amplified self

By using these systems, we’re keeping users in their current state, and not allowing for shifts and changes in mentality, except along our predefined route, which — when driven by algorithms — is often to more extreme amplified content. We’re encouraging people to be the most intense version of their current selves with design patterns like this. A good example of this was highlighted by Zeynep Tufecki, who watched political videos on YouTube and was promoted through the continuous play algorithm to watch more and more extreme politicized content.

“So in 2016, I attended rallies of then-candidate Donald Trump to study as a scholar the movement supporting him. I study social movements, so I was studying it, too. And then I wanted to write something about one of his rallies, so I watched it a few times on YouTube. YouTube started recommending to me and autoplaying to me white supremacist videos in increasing order of extremism. If I watched one, it served up one even more extreme and autoplayed that one, too. If you watch Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders content, YouTube recommends and autoplays conspiracy left, and it goes downhill from there.”

The algorithm appeared to have learned that people would continue watching if they were fed more extreme views. As she put it: “You’re never hardcore enough for YouTube.”

Why break the bubble?

As you can see, these bubbles hold us in a pretty tight grip. In order to build more empathy for the world, we need to consume more balanced media and products, hear from people who aren’t just like us, and see things which don’t fit into our perfectly selected utopian view. For brands that capitalize on this new system, they must also provide a counter-narrative.

Filter bubbles tend to exist in the digital world more than the physical world. In real life, although we flock to people who are similar or familiar, we still bump into contradictory views or news. A simple solution could be looking at the physical world as a way to counteract this very digital single narrative trend.

So how can you give customers a hyper-personalized experience, while also providing a balanced view of the world?

  1. Behave like a curator, personal shopper or editor
    — Help people navigate the vast amounts of information, products and services there are in the world.
    — Always provide a non-tailored or balancing counter-narrative. Curators have a distinct view and guide people through information, but they also provide countering views.
  2. Transparency as a core design personalization principle
    — Empower people to know how, where and why their data was used in your personalisation framework. Avoid the creep factor.
  3. Humanize
    — Don’t rely too much on algorithms to provide the personalization. Always sense-check that the tailoring isn’t increasing intensity and amplifying a division.
  4. Unlock ideas in others rather than imposing your own
    — Use counter-targeting
    — Brands are increasingly taking a stand on issues of our time. Make sure you’re reaching not only those whose views align with yours to build loyalty but, more importantly, those whose don’t.
  5. Test fast and react quickly
    — Don’t be scared to try something out, but behave more like a scientist with your experiences. Don’t go wholesale down one path of personalization.

Personalization might be the key to unlocking customer loyalty, but remember: how you do it will define the social mechanics of our world going forward.