In a fast-paced digital world, the parameters of personalised experiences influence our lives on a daily basis. For digitally mature organisations these components are often critical. We have come to expect personalised experiences when we’re shopping online, booking services or streaming content. As technology has enabled omnichannel experiences, having a consistent level of personalisation across all channels and delivering genuine customer value has become more important than ever.

An illustration of a piece of paper with the words One size does not fit all on it

First, what is personalisation?

Personalisation in a digital context is the process of taking customer information or understanding and delivering an experience or communication tailored to their preferences, needs characteristics or situation.

The difference between personalisation and customisation (which sometimes are used interchangeably but are in fact different) is an important consideration when exploring the topic. While personalisation and customisation both involve tailoring content and features to suit the different characteristics of people, there are some clear distinctions. Personalisation is done by the system being used while customisation is done by the person using the system.

An example of personalisation in the context of online retail shopping is product suggestions, which when executed well can feel unobtrusive and relevant, based on past purchases.

An example of customisation would be nominating your preferred store to view stock availability in a retail context.  

While the above examples are one type of personalisation, i.e. personalisation to enhance the website experience, personalisation efforts can be deployed in different ways. For example, marketing emails can incorporate personalisation so that offers and content shown are tailored to the recipient.  Alternatively, advertisements being shown on the internet could be specific to what someone has searched for or purchased recently. 

It is important to call out that personalisation should not be done for personalisation’s sake but should rather align with the overarching business objectives and serve a greater customer need. In other words, personalisation should be a deliberate effort for a particular purpose. 

When done well personalisation feels unobtrusive and intuitive, which belies how challenging it can be to actually achieve. However, at its heart, the role of personalisation in any organisation should be to offer the users something helpful (we’ll come back to this point later). 

Hierarchy of needs

It is important to detour slightly and refer to Aarron Walter’s hierarchy of user needs:

At a very basic level, every digital product should function and meet the basic needs of the customer. The next step up is that the digital product should function in a reliable way and provide a consistent experience. Once that is established, the digital product should be usable by the customer to carry out their tasks. Lastly, the digital product should provide the customers with a delightful experience. 

Personalisation can enhance a customer’s experience however it will not be effective if the digital product fails to be functional, reliable and usable.  Therefore, before embarking on a journey of personalisation, it is important to adopt a human-centric lens to understand how the existing digital experience serves your customers. 

If you need to take a step back and explore some of your customer needs and challenges with your digital product, start by asking yourself why you’re conducting research. It is also helpful to ask yourself which business or digital product problems need to be solved. We’ve put together a starting list in our article ‘When choosing research tools, choose your ‘why’’.

Human-centred design and personalisation

So how can human-centred design help when it comes to personalisation?

An illustration of Aarron Walter's Hierarchy of user needs

There are, of course, many benefits of integrating human-centred design into your organisation whether it is a ‘personalisation project’ or not. Our article ‘3 benefits of Human-Centred Design’ explores these in more detail. 

An integral part of implementing personalisation successfully is defining the ‘right’ problem to solve through personalisation. Using human-centred design thinking to understand users, challenge assumptions and generate meaningful and actionable problem statements will go a long way to help focus the team on applying the personalisation lens to the ‘right’ problem. Having a well-defined problem statement will also kick-start the subsequent ideation process in the right direction so that teams are able to bring clarity and focus to the project.

As an example, understanding the different needs of your customer as they interact with your digital product is crucial in order to deliver relevant content and services at the right time in the right manner. Doing this helps your customer complete their tasks more efficiently, alert them to time-sensitive information, or help them discover new content for a more enriching experience. 

Speaking to customers in one-on-one interview sessions can yield a wealth of insights into customers’ expectations of the type of personalised experience a digital product should deliver. It can help identify the different journeys customers are on while they navigate your product, and consider their needs at different stages.  These insights can be leveraged to better understand how and when tailored information and content can be shown to your customers. 

Design tools like customer journey maps can bring clarity to the challenge and help visualise the opportunity areas for personalisation across a customer’s digital journey. Doing this helps ensure that teams are focusing on the right problems to solve.

Once solutions are generated, it is important to validate them through human-centred design research. If the team has created a prototype of the solution, then concept testing or usability test could be conducted with target users to test out hypotheses and identify issues that may have been missed during other stages. Ultimately this will create confidence that the final product will help achieve the project goals. 

To avoid becoming overwhelmed, consider keeping personalisation efforts simple to start and asking what would be the most useful for the end-user. This makes sure that personalisation efforts are directly solving a user-problem and not creating new ones. Of course, what will or will not be useful will largely depend on the context. It will also depend on the tasks the customers are accomplishing with your digital product and where they are on that journey. 

Technology and implementation

It is important to realise that personalisation is not solely a ‘design’ problem. Implementing personalisation also involves understanding your customers’ behaviours, demographics and the context of their actions. This can be done through technology and data. After all, personalisation is not possible if we don’t have the means to understand the end-user on an ongoing basis. 

Exploring and understanding the problem space through a human-centric lens and making sure the technology and data is utilised to create a tailored, humanised experience that is useful can go a long way to creating a good personalised digital experience. 

Thinking about your own experiences, how has personalisation been useful for you or felt obtrusive? If you are thinking about personalisation for your business, what are some of the challenges you are currently facing? Tell us about what has worked for you in the comments below. Or learn more about how we can help you understand your customers through research. 

About the author

About the author

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Author photo
Author photo

Amanda Chen

Senior Designer and Researcher

Amanda is an analytical thinker who strategically combines human-centered design with business requirements to create thoughtful and feasible experiences for the end-user. She utilises more than five years of stakeholder engagement, collaboration and project management skills and enjoys working collaboratively to build a common understanding and to communicate fact-based research findings.

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