The Trouble With Personalization

    March 20, 2006

Personalization has rarely been implemented well. Its failure is usually because of a lack of understanding of customer behavior.

“The good news for fans of usability worldwide is that an historical moment is upon us,” Jensen Harris of Microsoft writes in his blog. “We have officially flipped the switch to turn off Personalized Menus by default for all apps in all future builds of Office 12.”

Don’t know what personalized menus are? When you select, for example, File, in the toolbar of Microsoft Word, with personalized menus you will only see an initial list of the most recent features you have used.

Personalized menus were supposed to help us quickly find the most common features we used, and not have to see the stuff we used infrequently. I have never met anyone who ever talked kindly about them. Most found them hugely annoying and frustrating.

In theory, personalized menus are a very good idea. They seek to personalize your world based on what you do regularly and hide what you do rarely. The problem is that the thing you want to do rarely is always going to be hard to find because of the very fact you do it rarely. Having a personalized menu hide it makes it even more difficult to find.

(Did you know you can turn off personalized menus? Click Customize on the Tools menu, and check the box next to “Always show full menus.”)

I was chatting with a programmer about personalized menus once. He told me about how you used to be able to customize your entire menu. So, if you didn’t like File at the beginning of the menu list, you could move it to the end, or wherever.

He said that programmers loved that flexibility at the beginning, but that it soon became a bore. One of the problems was that nobody else could work on your computer without getting confused. After a while, people stopped customizing.

It’s not that personalization or customization are bad ideas. Used well, they are very powerful. However, what they demand is a deep understanding of customer behavior. Before you employ such techniques you need to do extensive research on how your customer thinks and behaves. Then, you need to constantly monitor behavior and refine your approach.

That makes personalization expensive to design for and manage. Therefore, you need a very compelling business case if you want to see a return on investment for all your personalization efforts.

I have listened to people excitedly talk about personalization as if it was some sort of technological marvel that will solve all publishing challenges. In this techno utopia, you don’t need editors to choose quality content. You simply put everything up and then everyone can choose exactly what they want.

The newspaper or magazine that you read is personalized. It has been personalized by professional editors who have many years training. They have sought to put together just the right set of news for you. They have worked hard to get the tone and style right.

Tools are wonderful things. But just because you give someone blogging software does not automatically turn them into a good communicator. Buying sophisticated technology can never replace the need for a deep understanding of your customer.

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