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How To Personalize Products Customers Actually Want

Just because you can customize anything, doesn't mean you should. Smart Design's Tucker Fort offers tips for meaningful personalization.

How To Personalize Products Customers Actually Want

[Photo: William Andrew/Getty Images]

In the future, all your clothes will be custom-made. So will your car. So, most likely, will the computer you work on, the sunglasses you wear, the cup of tea you drink in the morning, and the bed you crawl into at night. Personalization is the next decade’s inevitable trend in consumer goods and services, in part because new technology, from flexible robotic systems to 3D scanning and modeling, is making mass customization cheaper. Brands are realizing the opportunity to leverage a wealth of newly accessible consumer information and preferences. It’s never been easier for a company to learn what you’d like to fine-tune; acting on it effectively, however, is another story.

One thing we’ve learned, through observation and professional experience, is that personalization can be a double-edged sword: it’s so tempting to customize everything that options can spiral out of control, leaving you with products that are an expensive, complicated mess. Such was the case when Puma flirted with Mongolian BBQ, a now-defunct offering where consumers could personalize shoes by selecting from myriad colors, parts, and fabric textures, much like masterminding your own Mongolian barbecue meal. The platform was confusing, leaving people bewildered as to what they would finally receive, at the end of a tedious, pricey, and complicated user experience.

And yet other brands have found success. Take Nike and Vans, which were at the forefront of mass personalization with user-designed shoe offerings dating back to 1999. Both still had to refine and relaunch their services several times, to keep customers from creating products they’d eventually hate. But in its current incarnation, the NikeID ("individual design") platform manages to provide customers a sense of limitless possibility at a reasonable cost, guiding the outcome enough to ensure it is still recognizably Nike. So what do Nike and other brands get right that Puma got wrong?

Start small to win big
The key to striking this kind of balance is to start small and move quickly. Smart Design recently collaborated with Gatorade and the Gatorade Sports Science Institute (GSSI) to develop a customized hydration platform for athletes called Gx. In its early phases, though, Gx bore little resemblance to the cutting-edge system currently being rolled out to teams such as the Kansas City Chiefs and Boston Celtics. Instead, Smart and GSSI started with a variety of simpler, smaller feature sets, each taking a different approach to personalization, and tested them with potential users ranging from high school football teams to Brazil’s 2014 World Cup soccer team.

This kind of trial and error is crucial because personalization is inherently so complex. Even in a category like sports drinks, there are dozens of variables that could be modified. The mix of electrolytes and carbohydrates in the drink itself are infinitely tunable, as well as tech-enabled customization options like sensor-equipped bottles. Each variation impacts cost and time-to-market; prototyping and iterative piloting help clarify which trade-offs offer the best return.

Look for what scales well
When conducting pilots, it’s important to keep large-scale production in mind. A custom-printed name ring to identify an athlete’s bottle might scale up pretty well, while providing every athlete a sense of emotional ownership. Letting them customize the bottle’s shape, on the other hand, is so labor- and resource-intensive that it only makes sense in limited production. A good pilot program reveals these differences, and in many cases points out alternatives that achieve similar effects with fewer resources.

For digital offerings, the degree of scalability can vary even more dramatically. A recently launched banking service called Digit, for example, has leveraged improvements in machine learning to make saving money easier for tens of thousands of people. Once linked to an existing bank account, Digit begins transferring small amounts of money into savings, using an algorithm that constantly adjusts the rate to be barely noticeable. Because it’s automated and flexible, this service—essentially a simple form of financial advising—scales effectively, in a way that more high-touch financial services might not. Knowing the difference between an element that can be personalized once, and one that can be personalized thousands of times, is perhaps the single most important aspect of getting mass customization right.

Look for personalization potential in emerging technologies
For both Digit and Gatorade, an emerging technology helped bridge the gap between high-cost custom offerings and large-scale personalization. In Gatorade’s case, it was an existing product called Drinkfinity, which uses concentrated beverage pods and a reusable 24-ounce container in lieu of the traditional disposable drink bottle. Piloted a year earlier to Brazilian consumers by PepsiCo (Gatorade’s parent company), Drinkfinity established a new delivery mechanism and a new business model based on direct-to-consumer sales.

The technology revealed personalization opportunities. By bringing in customized formulations from sports nutritionists and recommendation algorithms from data scientists, Gatorade turned the Drinkfinity platform into the nucleus of what would eventually become Gx—a matrix of beverage formula options meant to address the needs of specific athletes, without being infinitely personalized.



Look at any recent development in mass customization, and you’ll likely find a young, borrowed technology enabling it. 3D printing, once an obscure technique used by engineers and modelmakers, is being pressed into service by the custom jewelry industry. Digital modeling from video games drives emerging personalized apparel services that let customers alter and "try on" clothes virtually before ordering. Even Google’s purchase of Nest Labs in 2014 was primarily a move to apply the sensing technology of their smart thermostat to more customized, predictive smart home services. In each case, the breakthrough comes not from inventing a technology, but from recognizing the customization potential in an existing one.

Personalization is a powerful tool, use it wisely
If there’s an takeaway from this journey, it’s that smart companies should move into personalization with great care and plenty of iteration. You can generate a lot of interest by giving customers their own unique pair of shoes or cup of tea, but when variability is your differentiator, that variability can also kill your business.

It’s best to treat personalization as a powerful tool to be used selectively. Take time to figure out what to personalize: Seek out those variables that give clear emotional and functional benefits, and keep the rest consistent. Then validate these choices by piloting with real end users, and testing and refining on your original vision. Personalization thrives when it adds value and relevance to the customer experience, and when it’s underpinned by a sound business model. Respect it, but most importantly, learn how to balance the excitement of the new with the realities of technology and scale.

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