Increasing User Engagement Through Personalized Web and Mobile Experiences

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Phones that recognize your face. Apps that learn your preferences. Search results customized to opinions you never (knowingly) shared. The technology exists, and personalization has moved from an unexpected delight to a common requirement in the UX world. Now we need to ensure personalization is done well, so we can create user experiences that engage our audiences.

Why Personalize?

Personalized experiences can make the complex simple. Consider working with your bank: your fees, interest rate, and other things may depend on what account you have, or even when you set up the account and what the bank was offering at that time. Rather than remembering those details, you rely on being able to log in and get personalized information relating to your accounts, and more importantly the rules and regulations relevant to your situation.

I see the same scenario play out across the American healthcare system – a system with far fewer systems that allow people to easily log in and find their information. Each health insurance company offers dozens or even hundreds of plans, which result in different health costs depending on the person’s plan, the provider they see, the hospital where they receive care, and many other factors. In order to find out how much a procedure will cost or what level of care they are even allowed to receive, an individual needs to have memorized the name and details of their plan – which is not a reasonable expectation. If a website, portal, or other program can instead remember a person’s plan name, and then show them personalized information based on that plan, the experience moves from frustrating and confusing to simple and helpful.

Of course, personalization is not always the right choice. When we need to ask a lot of questions in order to personalize an experience, but aren’t able to offer significant value through personalization, our efforts hurt rather than help.

We Can Personalize the Experience – Should We?

Unfortunately, whether or not personalization is right for your audience and your situation is not a simple yes-or-no answer. There are many levels of personalization, broadly falling into three categories:

  1. Level One: We know you are our audience
    The lowest level of personalization equates, quite simply, to good design. Conduct user research to understand the audience’s goals, and speak to those goals on your site or app. Write in a brand appropriate voice and tone that conveys understanding and connection to the audience. Design a user flow that aligns with their needs.

  2. Level Two: We are saving information about you
    Whether you use cookies or a post-login profile, the next level of personalization is based on saving information about the user. This might mean remembering that they’ve visited the site before; or displaying different content based on whether they self-identified as an individual vs business shopper; or recommending articles to read based on the fact that they previously visited a certain page on your site. All of these are examples of personalization that can simplify the user experience, or complicate it – all depending on what your audience actually wants. For example, do they expect to see a custom-chosen article each visit, or is it more important that they can find an article in the same place each time they visit?

  3. We are learning information about you
    Given the newest technological opportunities with AI, there is a 3rd option. This has the danger of being the most invasive, and it is certainly the most complex – but it can also reap the largest rewards. By setting up business rules and algorithms, an application can actually learn from the audience and make new decisions or provide new offerings based on what they learn.

All of these are options, but there’s no one “right” method to follow.

How Can I Build a Personalized Experience?

The key to building a personalized experience is to stop asking “should we personalize this” or “how much should we personalize this.” Instead, ask: “what does my audience want to accomplish?” or alternatively, “why is my audience using my app or site?”

Begin by creating a user flow – possibly even in collaboration with your end-users. Flesh out the paths they’re likely to take, and at each step along the way ask a few questions:

  • How will they do this?
  • What information can I provide for them here?
  • What form should that information take?
  • How can I make it easier for them?

Opportunities for personalization will become clear – typically when you answer “How can I make it easier for them” and “what form should that information take?”

Sometimes the answer to “How can I make it easier” will be “by telling my audience I already have this information saved, because they gave it to me earlier.” Sometimes the answer to “what form” will be “by suggesting a few options that they might want to see.” Other times the answer will be “by letting them tell me.”

Start Personalizing, Start Engaging

True personalization is about providing an experience that speaks to your audience. Thus, the trick to creating engaging experiences is focusing on what your audience needs, as opposed to what you want to create for them. People are engaged when they are able to make choices that feel meaningful. By meeting them at a level of technical personalization that works for their needs, you are truly personalizing their experience.

Contributed by
Marli Mesibov
Job Title
VP, Content Strategy