Why brands should focus on variation in the quest for personalisation

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David Atkinson, head of design for commercial products at The Foundry, explains the importance of variation in the quest for mass personalisation.

In the past few years you couldn’t turn your head with hearing about big data. Experts said it would reshape the world of, well, everything. And they were right. Sort of. As we enter the waning months of 2015, as an industry, design must think about ‘big data plus’. In its Technology Vision 2015 Report, Accenture says: “Business intelligence. Data analytics. Big data. Companies are no longer suffering from a lack of data – they’re suffering from a lack of the right data. Business leaders need the right big data to effectively define the strategic direction of the enterprise.”

I would take it a step further. The value of data is only as good as your ability to synthesise it. Even the right big data, without the mechanism to analyse and respond, can be useless. This analysis and response plays a critical role for companies to deliver on strategies for mass personalisation. And taking it one step further, within these strategies, the successful designers will be the ones who identify where elements of creativity can be automated.

Frank Piller, professor of management at RWTH Aachen University and co-founder and a co-director of the MIT Smart Customization Group, says that one element of mass personalisation is what he calls Robust Process Design:

“A mass customiser needs to ensure that an increased variability in customers’ requirements will not significantly impair the firm’s operations and supply chain. This can be achieved through robust process design – the capability to reuse or recombine existing organisational and value-chain resources – to deliver customised solutions with near mass-production efficiency and reliability.”

Some designers may perceive this as a threat. Yet others will see how technology actually enables the creative process. Within mass personalisation, companies need not offer infinite choices, but the right, targeted choices. To reach this optimum level of personalisation and efficient production, designers need the ability to produce, test and review variations of a product in near real-time. What are the colours and styles that resonate? What elements excite and delight the end user? How is it all shifting? How can greater insight translate into less waste?

To put it simply, do our designs – whether it’s a shoe, user interface or out of box experience – resonate with the user? For me, as a designer, this is where the excitement lies. Finally realising the promise of the so-called ‘digital age’. And if you can streamline the process by which I change a colour, a look or a packaging design on the fly, even better. Now you’ve enabled me to experiment, explore and play. And ultimately, you’ve let me create a product or experience that more closely connects with my intended audience.

Today’s consumer not only wants this, but demands it. Our most engaged users have come of age in an era of diversity and choice. Hot on their heels are Generation Z, dictating trends rather than following them, and curating content rather than mass consuming. They want authenticity and engagement with a brand. They epitomise mass personalisation.

Against this backdrop, the brands that succeed will be the brands that embrace automation to enable variation. No only does this enable companies to bring the right level of choice to the right customer at the right time, it frees the creatives and designers to explore more, rather than less. It does so efficiently and effectively. It’s an across the board win, for the business, for the designer and, most importantly, for your customer.

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