April 2, 2001

Meaningful personalization

Summary: Websites, software, and consumer products should be customizable, but that customization must be more than mere "coolness". Personalization should make users more effective by helping them reach their goals.

One of the universally-recognized properties of any good interface—even the best, most invisble interface—is that it keeps the user in control of anything that might be important to him. Product designers and engineers must always strike a delicate balance between controllable and uncontrollable things. Consider consumer vehicles, which are largely identical with respect to interaction design: users are given a great deal of control, including the ability to turn the car on and off, steer it in any direction, and apply the gas or the brake. Users are not allowed to disengage antilock braking systems, though, nor are they allowed to turn off brake lights. Even though users aren't allowed to control everything, especially things that might put them in peril, they feel in control of the vehicle.

Users can also choose the colour of the vehicle, the interior upholstery, and which radio stations they want to listen to. The vehicle can be personalized, according to what the user wants. None of these personalizations affect proper operation of the vehicle, but they can make a big difference to the driver, which makes the personalization meaningful: many users choose a particular colour that seems to "hide dirt" so that they don't feel a need to clean the car as often, many users choose leather over fabric upholstery so that coffee spills can be more easily cleaned, and many users listen to a particular radio station so that they can hear traffic reports and get home more quickly.

So, even though users can't control everything, they should still feel in control, especially of personal preferences. The style of a vehicle can't be changed on a whim, nor can steering device (i.e. replacing the steering wheel with a joystick), and for good reason: neither change would be meaningful.

The challenge facing web designers, software designers, and product designers is multifaceted, consisting of three fundemental questions that must be answered:

Why allow personalization?

The short answer is: so that customers won't abandon your product in favour of a competitor's. Allow users to personalize a product if the user experience will be greatly enhanced; if the personalization will make users more effective.

There are plenty of examples of websites (including this one), software products, and consumer products that can't really be personalized, and there's nothing wrong with that: users would probably spend a lot of time customizing things that really wouldn't affect them at all, but could be confusing and lead to steeper learning curves (recall software with scores of very technical "options"). However, there are also examples of websites (including the "My" version of popular search engines and directories), software products (like word processing software and digital art applications), and consumer products (like vehicles and cell phones) that offer lots of personalization. Such products give the user a certain extra amount of control, but it's not always meaningful.

What should be personalized?

There is no short answer to this question, because there are an infinite number of possibilities. However, a few examples will demonstrate a wide variety of possibilities.

Mobile phones & customizable ring tones

Most mobile phones now allow users to choose custom ring tones. Not just ear candy, this personalization is very meaningful. You may have been victim of the "is it my phone" emergency, a situation in which a single mobile phone somewhere in a room rings, and everyone in the room pulls out their phone to see if they are the lucky person being called. That situation is happening less frequently now than it did even a year or two ago, because users can now choose a custom ring. Users can positively identify whether or not they're being called by a custom ring.

This concept of easy identification is very important: imagine if all cars were red, if all shoes were identical in every way except size, or if all products had identical controls for totally different purposes.

Word processing software & different fonts, type sizes, and styles

Users can choose different fonts, type sizes, and styles in most document-creation software, which is a meaningful personaliztion because some users are more comfortable reading large text, and different fonts and styles can be used for emphasis or to convey a certain mood or feel.

Web stock portfolio services & customizable content

Web stock portfolio services almost always allow users to build a custom portfolio page, consisting of stocks that he probably owns or wishes to track for some other reason. That is an example of meaningful personalization, because the service may help users reach their goals, whereas an option to personalize colour of the same website likely wouldn't be beneficial, but might reduce readability or consistency.

Designers: allow users to personalize things that will be meaningful to their goals. Learn about and consider, in a holistic way, the user experience, and let users customize elements that make them more effective:

How should personalization be accomplished?

Anything that can be personalized should have a goal-oriented mechanism expressed in terms that the user can understand. Consider the following feature of Audion, Panic's popular Macintosh music software:

IMAGE: a slider control from Panic's popular Audion music software, which allows users to subjectively choose a song-preference rating on a sliding scale from "Hate it" to "Love it".

This goal-oriented feature recognizes something very important about users who listen to music: they have personal taste, and may want to listen to music that they prefer more often than music they don't prefer. Users can rate each song on a subjective scale that asks users how they feel, not on a numerical scale that doesn't involve emotion. Since emotion is a distinctly human concept closely associated with music, the personalization is more than just practical, and it's very user-centred.

Audion doesn't totally follow through with its clever personalization technique, however. Users can actively choose songs that have higher ratings (ratings are displayed in a list of songs as an easy to understand graphic), but the software can't be instructed to play the highly rated songs more often than the poorly rated songs. A weighted playlist would complete the personalization of the software, helping users reach their implicit goal of listening to music they like alot more often than music they don't like as much.

As in Audion, where ratings are set individually for each song at any time, personalization should occur in context. In other words, rather than a single formulated interface for personalizing a website, software, or consumer product, users should be given the opportunity to personalize when it matters to them. For instance, users can choose a radio station on a radio at any time; they don't have to pre-select a finite number of radio stations.

If a website, software application, or consumer product is expected to achieve specific results (as discovered through user research or modelling), make sure that the software can easily be personalized to achieve those results. For example, older painting software for computers offered a selection of several paintbrush sizes. Users could paint with any size brush to create a picture, but no custom-sized brushes could be created. Developers quickly discovered that users wanted to be able to create custom brushes that were sized in a way that they found appropriate for the image they were creating, and so, all successful painting software now allows users to personalize brush sizes.


Users need to be given a certain amount of personal freedom and control in order to feel secure with a website, software, or consumer product. If something is too restrictive, users may be frustrated and find reaching their goals nearly impossible, even if there are workarounds. Designers should recognize that users have unique tastes and needs that are related to their broader personal goals, and offer personalization that is simple and context-sensitive.

Adam Baker is a user experience designer who's worked at Google, Apple, BlackBerry, and Marketcircle, and mentored startups in Vancouver.