Starting this blog post with the question, “Remember when there were only three channels?” made sense until I remembered that for perhaps half of the potential reading audience the answer is ‘no.’ 2019 is a time where it seems whatever you want, it’s available somewhere and somehow.  

Today people have too many choices, it seems. Rolling Stone’s Chief TV Critic, Alan Sepinwall, recently waxed that a person could easily spend the time it takes to watch a full-length movie scrolling through Netflix looking for a movie to watch. Spotify has four million songs, 3.95 million of which I will never hear. Alternatively, people do not have enough time, it seems. Our interactions have become fractured with a variety of tools interrupting or usurping actual relationships and communications. Lastly, people are looking for experiences, not products. 

 In turn, businesses want more direct and longer relationships with their customers. Many have realized that the business models of old are no longer sufficient for success (we’re looking at you mass food) and something new is needed. As ever, businesses are seeking ways to generate new, competitive advantages to help generate long-term sustainability in the marketplace. 

Tucker Fort of Smart Design has identified a set of pillars or building blocks to ensuring personalization around which businesses should organize. His firm works to humanize products, services and experiences through deep research, insights and design strategies. He says that Smart Design’s fundamental goal remains the same: make experiences more intuitive, enjoyable and relevant.  

At a design thinking conference in Austin last year, Fort shared what his firm sees as the three building blocks of personalization. Those three are: 

  1. What you know about yourself (unique insights) 
  2. What can be tested (diagnose your needs) 
  3. What can be tracked (identify your unique patterns) 

In different words, Fort says it is about identifying those unique insights, diagnosing the person’s needs, and then identifying the unique patterns about the individual’s behavior. Those three building blocks provide the designer with insights and distinctions that open up a world of personalization and designing for experience. 

Every good designer should be concerned about falling into traps that limit or cloud the insight or clarity desired in the process. Mr. Fort warns designers of what he calls ‘the hall of mirrors,’ especially when using AI or other data-driven algorithms. He points out that algorithms ‘don’t build in ways to hear new things outside of what are set up as the stated preferences.” Such an approach only gives what the system is set up to produce.  

Said differently, such tools for personalization only gives forth things people say they want, not the offerings that come from insight and observation. Frank Cooper, Black Rock’s chief marketing officer says that AI gives you data, but only human beings provide insight. 

In looking about how to personalize for the future, Fort provides four guiding principles to help people in their work. First, remember to deliver functional and emotional benefits. Second, use the three building blocks he identifies. Third, and this one he refers to as a super power, is to ‘be careful.’ Hasty or ungrounded design thinking will lead to trouble. Lastly, inclusive design – something some see as antithetical to personalization – is still good design. Often, the personalized experience is fulfilled for many people in the same ways, one might say. 

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