Is Online Personalisation Creating Filter Bubbles?

Recently I’ve seen an increase in people talking about online personalisation. Eric Reiss gave a talk at UX Camp Europe about how he sees the future of design being focussed more on personalising experiences for individual users. I’ve also just read an Econsultancy report about The Realities of Online Personalisation. I certainly see an increase in personalisation and with 94% of surveyed companies agreeing that personalisation ‘is critical to current and future success’ it would appear that the future of personaliation is bright. Is personalisation always a good thing though?


Econsultancy report

The Econsultancy survey tends to suggest that it’s still early days for personalisation with only 15% of survey respondents saying that they’re definitely getting good ROI from personalisation and a further 41% saying that personalisation hasn’t yielded dividends. Also, 72% of companies said that they understood the importance of personalisation, but don’t know how to do it. As things stand people can see the benefits of personalisation but are struggling to make it work for them.

There are many different ways to personalise the user experience of a website, app or device. A user’s experience can be altered based on the traffic source they used to arrive on a website, the keywords that they used in their search or the country that they are currently in. There are also contextual factors that could be considered. One of these contextual aspects could be the time of day. For example someone typing the letter “b” into their map application on their phone at 9am might be offered the autocomplete as a ‘bank’ whereas the same search at 9pm may give them the first option as a ‘bar’. With devices like Google Glass set to become a reality the potential for deep personalisation is huge.

This brings a lot of opportunities for businesses to minimise the cognitive dissonance in their advertising and ensure that they’re appearing in front of their customers at the best possible time. However, companies who focus all their time and effort on giving the most personalised experience possibly risk trapping their customers in bubbles.

Back in 2011 Eli Pariser gave a Ted talk on “Filter Bubbles” where he spoke about the dangers of too much personalisation. In his talk he quoted Eric Schmidt who said that “It will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not, in some sense, been tailored for them.” This is a problem for society in general but also something that shouldn’t be ignored by companies who are selling online.

When Google+ was first launched I wrote a blog post wondering “what I’d miss out on if social networks like Twitter and Facebook became more filtered?” This was a reaction to Google+ Circles, something that, in hindsight, I needn’t have worried about! This is set to become a bigger issue though as more and more sites and apps rely heavily on personalisation.

While a personalised experience means showing the most appropriate products to users, companies need to be aware of the fact that by when showing users products that they are likely to buy they risk hiding products that customers may be interested in but aren’t shown due to their them not fitting with a customer’s profile.

Amazon results

There’s also the age old problem of ensuring that data is 100% accurate. A lot of people give false details online to maintain their privacy. Basing your personalistion on data that users have entered themselves will not always mean you’re offering a truly personalised service. Even if users are giving real data about themselves, purchases they make as presents for other people may skew their data, making profiling them difficult.

I don’t think there’s an easy answer to these problems. While personlisation is often a useful and effective way of improving the users experience and increasing your conversion rates it is important to consider that over-reliance on personalisation may backfire.

While I believe that personalisation has a huge part to play in the future of the web, it’s up to designers to use it carefully and responsibly to ensure that their users don’t get trapped in bubbles.

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