Section 5.4. Personalization


5.4. Personalization

So far, we've focused on active, directed seeking, empowering users to find what they want when they want it. But findability isn't limited to pull. Findability is also concerned with how information and objects find us. What factors influence our exposure to new products, people, and ideas? AdWords algorithms, one-to-one marketing, intelligent agents, email alerts, collaborative filtering, contextual advertising: what tools can we use to turn the tables on findable objects? How do we bring the mountain to Mohammed?

We are talking, of course, about personalization, a strange hybrid of push and pull that dwells in the borderlands between marketing and technology. The promise of personalization is simple: by modeling the behavior, needs, and preferences of an individual, we can serve up customized, targeted content and services. The benefits to the user are clear. No more searching. Information comes to you. Web, email, instant messenger, mail, phone, fax: select the best channel, define your interests, and you're set. And the value proposition for marketing is even greater. Targeted advertising, customized messaging, differential pricing, and product personalization offer huge opportunities to cut costs, boost sales, and improve customer satisfaction and loyalty.

Unfortunately, it's not that easy. In fact, personalization is exceedingly difficult. Yes, there are notable exceptions. In cases where our needs are simple to describe (or derive) and relatively unchanging, personalization works well. The Weather Channel serves up forecasts based on our Zip Code. Yahoo! uses our profile to deliver custom sports scores and stock prices. Google Alerts lets us track the occurrence of keywords in news stories and web sites. Amazon remembers our name, address, and credit card information, and provides incredible access to our own account information and transaction history.

But beyond these shallow waters, there be dragons. In recent history, companies have poured vast amounts of time and money into technologies that promise to anticipate individual interest with respect to products or knowledge, and most of these efforts have failed for a variety of reasons, which include:


The ambiguity of language

An abundance of synonyms and antonyms in our language forces the same messy tradeoffs between precision and recall for personalization that we encounter in information retrieval.


The paradox of the active user

It takes time to complete a profile that specifies interest with any reasonable precision. Few users will have the patience to set these parameters in advance even if they would save time overall.


The ambiguity of behavior

Does everyone who purchases catnip have a cat? Of course not, but it's difficult to know why an individual buys an item and for whom it's intended. Gifts wreak havoc with recommendation engines.


The matter of time

It's not enough for a computer to know what you want. It must also know when you want it.


The evolution of need

The products we need and the knowledge we seek evolves over time. Today's headline quickly becomes yesterday's news. Future use is hard to predict due to the erratic, mercurial nature of relevance decay.


The concerns of privacy

There are limits to the amount of personal data we are willing to share in return for tailored services.

These are serious problems, and yet we should not allow the perils of personalization so defined to keep us from exploring the surrounding territories of push. For if we embrace a broader definition that encompasses social and political dimensions, personalization becomes much more interesting and important. In fact, the percentage of information we actively pull toward us is relatively small. Most of our knowledge is pushed at us by the highly personalized mix of influences that composes our surrounding environment:


People

Our family members, friends, teachers, bosses, and colleagues serve as filters of information and sources of inspiration.


Organizations

Corporate culture plays a powerful role in shaping an individual's interests and perspectives over time.


Geography

The countries, cities, and neighborhoods in which we live exert substantial influence over our politics, our knowledge, and our beliefs.


Media

From books to television to the Web, the technologies of communication that surround us change us, for better or worse.

Every day, we are exposed to stories, news, images, songs, billboards, presentations, speeches, jokes, warnings, analysis, opinion, and advice. As these messages and experiences flow through our doors of perception, they leave us with fragments of memory and insight. As the Greek philosopher Heraclitus once noted, "No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river, and he's not the same man."