Ben Sauer and I went for a coffee and catch up the other day, and got to talking about personalisation. Our caffeine fuelled chat spawned a train of thoughts about how and where personalisation works for people - in the analogue past, the screen-based present, and, well, what kind of future?

Rowena Price
Rowena Price
3rd July 2017

But what is personalisation? Here, what we’re really talking about is ‘anticipatory design’. The term has been gaining traction in recent years, and with the ever increasing decision fatigue people seem to face in everyday life, it’s more pertinent than ever. Because decision-making can be stressful. And stress can be bad for us, and bad for business. Just ask Forbes.

Choices, choices

Image copyright Andreas Gursky 2001: '99 Cent II, Diptych' www.andreasgursky.com

A common problem that anticipatory design can help with is choice fatigue - knowing what a customer wants before they do, and alleviating the pain of having to choose. It’s the anticipation of a want or need, and the subsequent action to fulfil it. It’s design that can enable a person to forego decision-making. It’s kind of spooky, if you ask me. But it’s here. Although I would say that it’s always been here - on some level, humans have always behaved this way. Think of a mother anticipating her child’s next feed. It’s a fundamental thing. And in 21st century life, amidst the technological revolution, it’s manifesting in ever curious and complicated ways. It is the past, the present and the future of how we humans interact with each other - and with machines.

Side note - our newest design team member, Jerlyn, gave a presentation to the team the other day, and in it, she used the picture above (by photographer Andreas Gursky) to illustrate consumer choice fatigue, which I’ve now borrowed. Overwhelming, right?

The past - an anecdote from the present

Back to the coffee and chat, when Ben shared a story of what we both thought was a great example of old school anticipatory design - in terms of a physical ‘thing’ and a tangible experience. It’s worth noting here, that whilst anticipatory design does sometimes help with decision fatigue, it can also add some other value that’s not about removing choice, as illustrated in Ben’s story. 

Here it is, taken from his original post over at Slapdashery:

My favourite delighter: a polaroid camera and some cardboard

There are some moments when you only get one chance in a lifetime to get something right for a customer. This is about one of those moments.

If you’re not familiar with the Kano model, go ahead and read about it.

TLDR: a ‘delighter’ is a thing you do for a customer that’s not too hard, not terribly necessary, but deeply satisfying. Sometimes all it takes is a polaroid camera and some cardboard. And customers will love you for it.

When my daughter (our first child) was around one, my wife took her to Clarks to buy her first shoes. The shop assistant knew exactly what to do: out comes the polaroid camera, the greeting card, and the special box. We still have it. This was a few years before smartphones became ubiquitous.

Photo by Ben Sauer

Anticipating a user need is a very difficult thing to get right without constant awareness and presence. Clarks get it right. Before we all carried decent cameras, they knew that parents would benefit from celebrating and saving this one-off moment in our lives; my heart still flutters when I remember seeing her in shoes for the first time.

UX and Service Designers love to zoom out to the experience map; we even consider the holistic view a winning approach over a narrow view of the product. That’s a useful method, but consider what it must take to create moments like these: you need to zoom out to a life journey itself, design a solution, and then ensure that legions of people have the presence of mind to catch very rare moments in the customer’s life journey. Kudos, Clarks.

If we compare this to a digital context, what we know about user’s context is horribly narrow. Even if you did know the context, it’s very hard for it not to seem creepy or wrong; in person this is a whole different story. Knowing a lot about a customer in a digital context opens up that creepy feeling for people that they’re transparent to the whole world; not just to a single shop assistant.

Perhaps someday we’ll get this right in the digital world; there aren’t many good examples of this kind of anticipatory design out there. Typically personalisation means Amazon beating me over the head with the same ad over and over again for something I already bought elsewhere.

But when we do get it right; consider the impact on brand perception: I may not shop at Clarks every time for shoes, but I’ll always love them for this moment.

My favourite delighter: a polaroid camera and some cardboard was originally posted on Ben Sauer’s site Slapdashery.

Zoom back out

So how is the present looking? And what about the future? There’ll be more to follow on this - keep your eyes peeled for parts two and three, coming soon.

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