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My computer still doesn’t know me: habit vs. intelligence.


Authors: Monica Granfield
Posted: Fri, April 05, 2013 - 9:45:28

What I do as a habit is not necessarily what interests me the most. It's what I need, what I have to get done, maybe it's all I am aware of, and so it becomes my habit. Habit is what I do because I am used to doing it. Intelligence is what I learn and how I apply it, and it becomes what I know. When it comes to using computers, how can we best use technology to inform, entice, and predict a user’s wants and needs? How can we use technology to personalize the user experience, making it a more intelligent experience and not just an experience based on habit?

There has been a long, ongoing debate: In order to gain information about the user, should we ask the user up front what their interests are, their skill level, etc., or should we gather our own information on the user, and based on usage patterns determine their likes and interests? Will the user know what they are most interested in if we ask or do we just rely on habit to gain information? Which method will guide the user and make the most intelligent suggestions to the user? 

Today we encounter both methods of trying to understand our users. Windows has, for a while now, displayed the applications that you use most often in your start menu. For your convenience, the start menu also lists the most recently used files for most recently-used applications. This is all very helpful and convenient in supporting my day-to-day use of my computer and my work-based habits, which are fairly consistent and therefore fairly predictable. With Windows 8 and Metro this all changes. You now manually self configure all of your tiles on the start page, as you see fit for your own use. I think about the opportunities lost here. All the new Windows 8 apps and not a suggestion based on my interests or habits, as it does not seem like they are given any consideration. I'm left wondering why the intelligence of the start menu did not transfer over to the Windows 8 start page. I am also wondering why Windows 8 and Apple products have not gone beyond this, to expand my experience to be a more intelligent and useful experience. 

For online retailers, predicting what you might like, need, or otherwise not be able to live without is a constant exploration in habit versus intelligence. I like the idea of providing suggestions based off of purchases I've made. However, the intelligence here is more habit than intelligence, and my shopping patterns are not always what I am actually interested in. For example, maybe the suggestions should not be based off of every purchase. You may want to remind me at some point in time that I need to buy a new toilet bowl brush (intelligent), but please don't suggest various toilet bowl brush models for me as part of my intended online, front page, Friday-night pleasure browsing. I bought those because I needed them, but they are not going to drive a future impulse purchase. I also don't need to see every suggestion based on gifts I have purchased. Perhaps this, too, is a different category of recommendation that I flag for as I purchase the items. This way when I want to buy a gift I can access this information solely for gift purchasing. When in my account it seems that my shopping is based on my purchasing and not my interests. Maybe asking up front is a good and intelligent idea. 

When asking me up front, make it quick and obvious—only don't make me scroll through hundreds items to build my interests; ask me flat out and group my answers by categories that I can make granular or keep general. It's as simple as "I like: Outdoor activities > Skiing, Hiking, Running, Yoga > Iyengar, Hatha, or Cooking > Cajun.” Now you get the idea. And yes, how about a suggestion based off of these once in a while? Terrific! Broaden my horizons, but focus on ME, as I am the customer. And imagine some intelligence around the content. I purchased and liked some Christmas music. However, the continued recommendations for this come March, when I am still seeing snow, is not what I really need to see. How about based on the artist, a new or previous album that is not holiday related? This would be intelligent. 

NetFlix seems to have a bit more of a lead in this area. NetFlix not only has the ability to base recommendations on what you have watched, they also have a "Taste Profile," which asks what you want to watch based on things such as your mood, movie genres, and story lines. It's nicely categorized, and easy to fill out. It extracts exactly the information needed to make intelligent suggestions in a quick and easy way. It would be even more intelligent if there was the ability to separate my kids’ shows and interests from my own. The idea of asking what I like and then predicating other options off of what I like feels right. However, each user’s experience should be intelligent enough to be their own experience. This way I am not scrolling through endless cartoon suggestions, and my kids are not seeing suggestions based on my love of scary movies. So being intelligent is not just about habit or gathering information; it's also about gauging how you apply or disperse what you have learned.  

I recently learned that my favorite natural beauty product store is opening spas. Based on my love of the products alone I was ecstatic. Then the sales women began to tell me about the new approach to the in-spa experience that will be offered. Typically when you go to a spa you might get a choice of, say, which scent of oil you would like, or which color nail polish you would like to have applied. Maybe they will ask you if you want lemon- or orange-infused water. This is at the best salons, and these are your only choices. This new spa is not only individualizing the treatments, but the entire experience, based on what information you provided to them. The knowledge gathered is then used to customize your entire spa experience. Genius! At this new spa the up-front interview is all about you. “What is bothering you?” “How do you feel today?” Not “Which treatment would you like?” Instead, tell us what is going on, and based on this intelligence, possible treatments are presented and reviewed with the customer. Scents, music, and more are customized along side of the treatment. The information is used to appeal to every sense and to evoke emotion. Customers reactions include "I am saving my pennies for my next visit!" and "It was like theater meets a massage." 

If you have repeat visits to most spas, the approaches to treatments are habit based. "I see you have visited us before, would you like the stone massage again?" ("or would you like to choose from our other 6 predetermined massages?"). They are appealing to the masses, hitting the 80% case, and most likely you will be satisfied. But will you be left wanting to save your pennies to go back? 

This is the difference between intelligence and habit. One day I dream of sitting down at my intelligent computer and having it know me—really know me—and be intelligent. Maybe like a mood ring it captures my mood and changes the colors on the screen. If I go to play music, being intelligent, it bases its choice of music off of my mood, the type of work I am doing, and the time of day. It might have to ask me and give me a chance to redirect, or maybe over time it gets to know me so well that I trust its choices. 

For now I will continue to hope for online retailers that will differentiate their users, get to know their interests, and base their intelligence off of this, and for a computer that uses its technology and power to move its intelligence forward and to get to know me better. 

Monica Granfield is Principal User Experience Designer at Oracle Corporation.The views expressed on this website are her own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Oracle. 



Posted in: on Fri, April 05, 2013 - 9:45:28

Monica Granfield

Monica Granfield is a user experience strategist at Go Design LLC.
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