We Were Missing the Personal Touch

We are using technology to go back to the roots of personalization. Can the poison be the antidote?

Shobeir Mazinani
Feb 7 · 4 min read

“Do you want the usual?”

Before the age of optimization and big companies gobbling up small local businesses, you would have enjoyed going to your favorite local coffee shop, bodega, bookstore, or bakery. You would have had a positive interaction in the form of a small meaningful interaction (i.e. How are the kids doing?). These positive interactions had a way of elevating our mood by helping us feel loved throughout the day and feel that we are indeed part of a community (and somewhat important enough that people care about us.)

Over time, the consolidation of smaller businesses morphed into big enterprises and constant obsessions with operational efficiency and excellence (Yey, the economy of scale!) This transition also brought us a plethora of benefits in terms of reducing the cost of goods, bringing abundance to nearly everywhere (Avocado’s all year round!), and creating virtually an unlimited number of choices for consumers.

Don’t get me wrong, these were all great changes. But little by little, those menial interactions that we had during our day-to-day transactions disappeared. This became a problem to the point where some of the big corporations started to create memos and guidelines on smiling at customers or being “over-friendly when selling a cup of coffee.” These band-aids never really fixed the underlying issue which was not being seen, heard, or cared for.

Here Comes the General!

The next wave was simply Amazon (BOOM! E-commerce!). Bringing anything you want to your fingertips. They are the epitome of abundance and an optimized supply chain (cheaper and faster!). We were all excited about this revolution (and still are), but it resulted in even fewer daily interactions that give you a sense of self-importance and belonging to a community.

The Tech industry, by sifting through your data (at the cost of your privacy), brought one key element of the “local-experience” back. This key element was personalization.

I think you will enjoy our new blueberry muffins with your “Double Cappuccino — half-caf, non-fat (almond) milk, with just enough foam to be aesthetically pleasing but not so much that it leaves a mustache”.

Every day, hundreds of algorithms go through your online and offline behavior to be able to deduce what is the next movie you’d like to watch, what is the pattern on your next Hawaiian shirt, or when is your next physical exam. And we are happy about this as proven by the dollars we put into the technology-enabled industries.

You don’t really care for music, do you?

I argue that obsession with personalization is not enough. There are still three missing elements.

  1. The personalization machine doesn’t take the need for positive interactions with a human being into consideration. We are slightly happier when we have a good interaction (I really like your outfit!).
  2. The personalization machine doesn’t prioritize the users’ personal growth. It almost always chooses today’s sales over a long-term return. Take algorithms that try to solve the multi-arm bandit problem. They will prioritize (over time) the option that maximizes the immediate response (open-rates of your email marketing campaign). To be clear, this is not about the algorithm as much as it is about the objectives that we, the data scientists and business owners, set for these machines.
  3. You don’t have a sense of community, so you become a cultist! I hypothesize that one of the reasons that we have seen an increase in the polarization of society is the lack of a true sense of community. While we have connected people more than ever, people are missing out on the benefits of being part of a community.

What should we do?

  1. Online to offline: We used the online capabilities to earn the digitization efficiencies and brought the offline (human-touch) aspects into play we all felt better. Airbnb is a great example. You interact with your hosts, save money on accommodation while helping the hosts pay their mortgage!
  2. Go for the fat tail! I have very fond memories of talking to my local bookstore owners. Particularly when they would recommend a book (or genre) that I would have never discovered on my own. Many times, their recommendation would open my eyes to a whole new world (Bulgakov’s book, The Master and Margarita is a great example). Recommending content solely based on what we currently like may create sales, but it definitely slows down the expansion of someone’s tastes and thoughts. Maybe we can make our algorithms more of an educator by helping select more options from the fat-tails of the distribution.
  3. Creating communities that are based on positive interactions and have an offline presence. One of the great examples was a Python group (Desert-Py) meetup. We met every month with presentations or just sitting together and hacking a problem. Maybe if there were more of these real communities, everyone would be less likely to be disenfranchised since we already feel like we belong to something.

Thoughts? Please write them in the comments.

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