Reading Leena Rao’s recent article on Techcrunch about the personalization revolution, you get the sense that the tech world is waiting for a bus that isn’t coming. Rao quotes well-known industry experts and luminaries describing what needs to happen for e-commerce to finally realize the promise of personalized shopping, a future where online retailers predict what you’ll want to buy before you know yourself.
Ironically, Rao and her pundits are missing the zooming race car that’s speeding by them as they wait for the personalization bus to arrive. That racecar is Pinterest and the new breed of startups marking the beginning of what I call the “Curated Web.”
The promise of personalized eCommerce began over 10 years ago with technology pioneered at Amazon. It was then that the mental dye was cast for what eCommerce personalization would look like, an algorithmic solution for matching customer to products. Web watchers came to expect that someday all online retailers would have such algorithms on their sites and the dream of personalized commerce would finally be realized.
For over a decade, startups took their best shot at making this apparition a reality. Companies like Hunch tackled the data collection piece of the equation, asking users endless survey questions to determine their tastes and preferences. Google’s Boutiques.com tried to crack the challenges of structuring the data associated with personalized shopping recommendations. Ultimately, these attempts failed.
In September, Google shut down Boutiques.com and the founders of Hunch sold their company to eBay, an outcome far short of their IPO hopes. Previous attempts at personalized eCommerce were unsuccessful because those involved failed to realize they were missing one key element, the interface. Curated Web companies are defined by their ability to use new interfaces to collect and structure data better than previous algorithmic solutions.
Users Want It All
While the tech world waits patiently, expecting the solution to personalized eCommerce to look like Amazon ported to other online retailers, “Curated Web” companies like Pinterest are changing the game by changing the interface. Pinterest will be the first company to nail eCommerce personalization because they understand the importance of having an interface, which matches what the user is there to do, discover stuff they like from across the web. Pinterest has cracked personalization right under everyone’s nose by doing the two things Rao says have yet-to-be invented, data collection and data structuring.
Collecting Data, One Pin At The Time
Pinterest is becoming the web’s personalized mail-order catalog. Each user is presented with a one-of-a-kind visual interface based on their tastes. They are presented with any product, from any retailer, anywhere in the world. The items they see are curated through people and topics they’ve identified as interesting and what is shown to them improves the more they interact with it. Every time they pin, re-pin, like, or comment on an object, the relevancy of the products displayed on their magic catalog improves. This is what personalization looks like, effortless, simple, social and fun. It’s the interface, stupid.
“Big deal?” you say. “Facebook can do this!” No, they can’t. Social media is for selectively sharing information about you and Facebook is built for presenting yourself in the way you want to be seen by others. Facebook is, by design, about creating a network of relationships and sharing with them selectively. This brings up all kinds of privacy concerns, which reduce the flow of content creation and sharing to limited circles (Yes, I said “circles.” Don’t even try it, Google).
Pinterest has no such restrictions. Pins are inherently open and there is no expectation that anything shared is private. It’s a community built on individuals acting in their own self-interest to capture and collect things that interest them. Facebook and Google+ are just not the right interfaces for capturing and collecting products, and attempting to discover new products amid the newsfeed clutter is hopeless.
Making Sense Of The Data
To some, the rise of the Facebook “like graph” foretold a personalized future, where retailers could utilize data collected from what users “like” to serve targeted recommendations. Here, Rao is spot on about why Facebook fails to provide useful data on users’ tastes; it lacks structure.
What does it mean if I “like” something on Facebook? Not much. “Liking” a brand or even a specific product, doesn’t provide useful information. If I “like” Babies’R’Us, does that mean I like the brand, a specific outlet, a product I found there, or am I just hoping to get a coupon? From a personalization perspective, it’s pretty low-value stuff. There is no structure to correlate my actual likes with my Facebook “likes”. However, Pinterest solves the data structure problem brilliantly. You’d think they’d need some fancy photo recognition technology to tag a handbag by color, make, and model, but I doubt they have any such technology. Pinterest doesn’t even try to solve the data structure problem because they don’t have to.
Again, it’s the interface stupid. By presenting users with a dynamic catalog, and tasking users with the job of deciding whose tastes they’d like to follow, structuring image data becomes irrelevant. Pinterest simply has to make sure the magic catalog appears, tailored to each user’s stated preferences. It’s doesn’t matter if Pinterest knows a thing about what’s in each image on a pin board; what matters is that it’s curated by the user and the user likes what they see. If they like the products, they’ll buy them, and Pinterest laughs all the way to the bank.
So while the rest of the web is waiting for the personalization bus to arrive, Pinterest, and perhaps a few other fast-moving Curated Web companies, will be far ahead. It’s clear, given Pinterest’s astounding growth that personalized eCommerce is here to stay, even if it looks nothing like what you imagined.
Note: I have no affiliation or investment in any company mentioned in this post.
Top Consumer Psychology Articles
- The One Fitness App That Hooked Me For Good
- Here’s How Fortnite ‘Hooked’ Millions
- How Apps Can Shape Your Future Self
- How Netflix’s Customer Obsession Created a Customer Obsession
- Want to Design User Behavior? Pass the ‘Regret Test’ First
- How to Trigger Product Usage that Sticks
- How to Get People to Help Each Other, Online and Off
- Here’s How Amazon’s Alexa Hooks You
- How to Use Psychology to Make Persuasive Video
- How to Use Personality Science to Drive Online Conversions
- The Unbelievable Future of Habit-Forming Technology
- The Secret Marketing Power of Evolutionary Psychology
- Don’t Ask People What They Want, Watch What They Do
- How Cognitive Biases Can Help (and Hurt) Your Business
- What Most People Don’t Know About Behavioral Design
- How to Start a Career in Behavioral Design
- Your World is Full of Placebo Buttons (and That’s a Good Thing)
- How to Build Technology that Feels Like a Friend
- 3 Pillars of the Most Successful Tech Products
- Here’s How to Ethically Manipulate Other People
- How Two Companies Hooked Customers On Products They Rarely Use
- How to Hook Users in 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Die Dashboards, Die! Why Conversations Will Reinvent Software
- The Secret to Sending Emails and Notifications That Work
- How to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- Hooked for Good: How Habit-Forming Products Improve Lives
- Good Products Start With Good Questions
- Human + A.I. = Your Digital Future
- Why ‘Assistant-As-App’ Might Be the Next Big Tech Trend
- People Don’t Want Something Truly New, They Want the Familiar Done Differently.
- 4 Ways to Win Your Competitor’s Customer Habits (Slides)
- Here’s Why You’ll Hate the Apple Watch (and the Important Business Lesson You Need to Know)
- The Secret Psychology of Snapchat
- The Psychology of Notifications: How to Send Triggers that Work
- How Technology Tricks You Into Tipping More
- The Limits of Loyalty: When Habits Change, You’re Toast
- 4 Ways to Use Psychology to Win Your Competition’s Customers
- The Real Reason “Stupid” Startups Raise So Much Money
- The Psychology Behind Why We Can’t Stop Messaging
- The Psychology of a Billion-Dollar Enterprise App: Why is Slack so Habit-Forming?
- Framing Reward is as Important as Reward Itself
- A Free Course on User Behavior
- It’s Not All Fun And Games: The Pros and Cons of Gamification at Work
- Getting Traction: How to Hook New Users
- Designing for Behavior Change Book Review
- The Sneaky Trick Behind the Explosive Growth of the Kardashian Game
- How Successful Companies Design for Users’ Multi-Device Lives
- The Link Between Habits and User Satisfaction
- What Triggers The Best Word of Mouth Marketing?
- What Tech Companies Can Learn from Rehab
- The Secrets of Addictive Online Auctions
- Teach or Hook? What’s the Real Goal of Online Education?
- Using Mind Control to Raise Startup Cash
- How To Build Habits In A Multi-Device World
- How To Cope with Your Insane Jealousy Of The WhatsApp Deal
- Why Do Fads Fade? The Inevitable Death Of Flappy Bird
- You’d Be Surprised By What Really Motivates Users
- Nostalgia: A Product Designer’s Secret Weapon
- How You Can Help Users Change Habits
- Is “Lean Startup” Right for Your Idea?
- Hunting for Habits: Keying in on smart design to make a product irresistible
- Are Companies Too Obsessed With Growth? How to Measure Habits
- Refresh: The App a Secret Agent Would Love
- Angel or Devil: Who’s Really Investing In Your Start-Up?
- In 10 Years, We Won’t Use Personal Technology
- 4 Simple Things I Did to Control My Bad Tech Habits
- “Yes, And”: The Two Words that Created a #1 App
- From Laid to Paid: How Tinder Set Fire to Online Dating
- What if In-App Purchases Came to Real Life?
- Hooking Users One Snapchat at a Time
- How To Save Your Startup From The “Spotlight Effect”
- Bible App: Getting 100 Million Downloads is More Psychology Than Miracles
- How to Boost Desire Using the Psychology of Scarcity
- Marketplaces & The Curse of the Network Effect
- Today’s Behaviors, Tomorrow’s Startups
- Venture Capital and The Superstitious Investor
- The Future is Driven by Interface Changes
- Why Business is Addicted to Habits
- Viral Loops Or Viral ‘Oops’?
- Making a Marketplace
- What Killed Turntable.fm?
- What You Don’t Know About Human Intuition Can Hurt You
- Designing to Reward our Tribal Sides
- New Video – “Hooked: Building Habit-Forming Products”
- How Technology is Like Bug Sex
- Ways To Get People To Do Things They Don’t Want To Do
- The Network Effect Isn’t Good Enough
- Mass Persuasion, One User At A Time
- How Investment Drives Engagement (Slides)
- Getting Your Product Into the Habit Zone
- Where Have The Users Gone?
- Infinite Scroll: The Web’s Slot Machine
- Designing User Habits Video
- Psychology of Sports: How Sports Infect Your Brain
- This is Your Brain On Boarding: How to Turn Visitors Into Users
- User Investment: Make Your Users Do the Work
- Behavior by Design Video
- When Designing for Good Is Bad
- Stop Building Apps, Start Building User Behaviors
- The Next Secrets of the Internet
- User Growth and Engagement: A Hacker Metric
- Spotting the Next Facebook: Why Emotions are Big Business
- The Billion Dollar Mind Trick: An Intro to Triggers
- Why Everyone Hates I.T. People
- Hooking Users In 3 Steps: An Intro to Habit Testing
- Abolish The Reference Check
- Variable Rewards: Want To Hook Users? Drive Them Crazy
- How to Design Behavior (The Behavior Change Matrix)
- How To Design For “Normals”
- Hooks: An Intro on How to Manufacture Desire
- User Habits: Why Startups Must Be Behavior Experts
- What Is, and Is Not, Your Product’s Job
- Pinterest’s Obvious Secret
- Personalized eCommerce Is Already Here, You Just Don’t Recognize It
- Where is the Web Going?
- The Developer Divide: When Great Companies Can’t Hire
- Being a Quitter Makes You a Good Entrepreneur
- Behavior by Design
- Why You Should Run Your Business Barefoot
- Are you a Startup Star, Wacko, or Wannabe?