The complexity of personalization
Personalization is an incredibly powerful user experience. Big brands like Spotify, Google, and Amazon use it every day to keep us glued to their products. But it can be difficult to implement effectively.
A few years ago, we were engaged with a well-known London-based football club about a new stadium that was about to open. Over the course of six months, we spent time with every stakeholder at the club. Many people from many departments told us what they wanted to do and who they wanted to cater to. They had lots of helpful user personas that we could use, but every department had different personas and different needs for the types of users that they specifically cared about.
Marketing wanted to make sure their promotions and products were shown to the right people. The transport team wanted to make sure it was easy to get to and from the stadium on match days. The content team wanted to make sure all the news scores and other important information were always up to date and also region specific. The tech team wanted to make sure we use their single sign-on to identify their users across all their different channels. The ticketing team wanted to make sure that tickets inside the app were easy to get to on match day, but on non-match days were safely tucked away. And the website team wanted to be able to update their website and the app with one single process.
How could we cater to all of these different stakeholders and all of these different users at the same time?
Keep things flexible
Research and data can indicate a behavior or a need, but data alone isn't enough. Lots of data can sometimes just be lots of noise. Human-centered design requires an understanding of the people you're trying to reach so that you can design from their perspective so you need to keep an open mind. Don't be super specific in your interviews. Influence comes from a huge range of directions and if you don’t keep your mind open you're never going to go to unexpected places. Context is everything when trying to understand stakeholders and users.
For our football client, we interviewed as many stakeholders in each of their departments as possible. We asked them generalized questions about what experience they wanted to provide and who those experiences would best serve. Having the standard set of questions helped us unpack, categorize and compare the answers. When we started looking at possible solutions, there were many ways we could go. And doing a lot of interviews the answers really helped to put ourselves in the stakeholder's shoes and recognize the differences between them all. Having so many different points of view really helped us look at ideas from different angles and organize brainstorming sessions with stakeholders where we could exchange ideas and try new things.
Designing for the future is hard, especially when you're also designing for the present. And unfortunately, stakeholders can't always tell you what they're going to want tomorrow. However, if you keep at it, you can pick up valuable clues as to where you can evolve things. This will let you design something with a solid idea of how it can evolve over time.
The main thing was that we had to keep everyone involved. The best way to break down barriers between teams is not to have any. Everyone on the product team brought their own unique experience and expertise to the group.
Engineering could help assess technical viability and complexity. Product managers could make sure everything was captured, categorized, and checked against existing features. Customer success could give us valuable insight into the nuances of the client relationship and the important context of their requests. Project managers could keep us focused and on track. And designers could synthesize all of these inputs and advocate for the end user.
Don't let biases or personal preferences keep you from reaching the ultimate solution; be prepared to kill your darlings. Having strong opinions is great and preferable but don't hold on to them too tight.
Be willing to change your mind when presented with helpful information that's counter to your own belief. This will serve you well in product design and in life. In the earlier stages of our project, it was a lot easier to stay detached to iterate. As time goes on, though, this becomes harder because you can fall in love with your own ideas.
Our first proposal for a solution to our client was rejected. And after some soul-searching, we realized we had put a lot of effort into putting something forward that would be really good for us and our platform but wasn't going to meet the needs of our clients and our users. It was humbling and honestly slightly embarrassing to be given this news by stakeholders that we were working so closely with.
We tried selling the client our own self-serving ideas. And now we needed to let go of that and serve the users. We had to swallow our pride and put the users above everything else.
From stakeholder to customer
With so many stakeholders involved, we had to be really nimble, moving quickly, adapting to requests, and validating ideas with key stakeholders at every step of the way so we wouldn't get derailed. Project management helped schedule twice weekly catch-ups. And once we got into a rhythm, it was easy to iterate, present, and sense-check our ideas with everyone involved. The frequency of these catch-ups also provided good motivation to quickly iterate ahead of the next call and not get too attached to your ideas.
The stakeholders were asking us for lots of different things, and we realized we couldn't please all of them individually. Instead of catering just to the stakeholders, we focused on the users and found that if we built a flexible system with some sort of governance, we'd be able to achieve our goals and enable the stakeholders to achieve theirs.
Our users engage with our products during a few key touch points or doing some sort of real-life activity, and we want to be able to respond to them better. We needed to use our product to make sure that we catered to their needs and personalization was really going to enable that.
Because we kept an open mind, we were able to see that the only way to success was to be really flexible, to build a system that could adapt to different contexts and serve different audiences within those contexts. We made every corner of our app dynamic so it could be updated by anyone at any time. We also introduced this idea of context that would govern all of the dynamic content and show the right thing to the right person at the right time. And this system was built in a way that we could add to it over time.
The end result
The product we delivered to our stakeholders wasn't exactly what they were asking us for but what we delivered was a solution that would enable many other future solutions, something that was above and beyond expectations, and something that would be a unique selling point for our products.
Don't try to do too much at once. Short focus bursts help you iterate quickly and understand the value of your ideas. And while all of this is going on, keep everyone involved. Use the strength of each discipline involved in product decisions to your advantage. And keep communication open, honest, and constructive.