William Hackos, Jr., PhD
Vice-President, Comtech Services, Inc.

In an article, “Personalization? No Thanks,” in the April 2001 issue of the Harvard Business Review, Paul Nunes and Ajit Kambil use survey results to show that Web users prefer to modify a Web page themselves to provide the data and format that they choose (customize) rather than accept a site that has been modified by the site administration for them, based on their past behavior at the site (personalize). An example of customizing is weather.com where you can customize the site to open with the weather forecast for your own location. When I open weather.com, I always get the Denver forecast first. An example of personalizing is found at Amazon.com. When you arrive at the site, you are presented with reviews and suggestions for new books based on books you have purchased in the past.

In the survey, the authors found that 30% to 50% of users would like to be able to customize a site, depending on its subject area, while only 5% to 7% of users preferred to have a site personalized for them. The authors suspect that the difference may be due to the current low quality of intelligence-based personalization used at many sites. They give an example of ordering a book from Amazon titled Anatomy of Buzz, a business book about word-of-mouth marketing. The next time they went to the site, Gray’s Anatomy was offered as a suggestion! At Comtech we have another example. We have just learned that a customer was unable to get to our conference site, http://www.singlesource2001. The site was blocked by his company’s filter because the title contained the word “singles.” (We are considering changing next year’s conference site to http://www.marriedsource2002 to make it less risqué.)

The authors feel that in the future, as personalizing is improved, it will become more accepted by the users. In the meantime, they recommend that personalizing be done very carefully if at all. A better solution might be to combine personalizing with customizing so that the user can have control over the amount and nature of the personalizing.

This brings us to a related question. Are the above definitions of customizing and personalizing correct? Should they be reversed? Is other terminology more appropriate? We have a debate going on now at Comtech. We would love to get your opinions. You can email Bill Hackos.