A Cautionary Tale: The Brief Look Into the Future of Personalisation

Oct 24, 2019 12:00:00 AM | EU A Cautionary Tale: The Brief Look Into the Future of Personalisation

It’s a rainy Thursday morning and I’ve just got into my driverless cab. I’d usually miss it, but because the cab now knows the average time I take to get ready, there is no actual way I could miss one. It knows where I need to go, what time I need to be there and also the preferred route I want, all through a 0.2 second scan of my thumb’s fingerprint. During my ride, I listen to the playlist made for me specially for this Thursday. It was made instantly as I typed in the first two words that came to my mind this morning. It can be any literally any word, isn’t that fun? It knows what music I want to listen to, the length of the songs I like, the mix of genres I prefer, and it also predicts the exact moments I would get bored of the song and automatically removes it from the playlist - only to replace it with an absolute banger of a song I was thinking about giving a listen to. 
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As I step out of the cab and I approach the airport, my phone provides the perfect stop to park as it takes into account the speed I walk with and the shops and vendors I’d stop by before checking in. With a scan of my face by the first gates at the airport, the airport systems now know exactly who I am, where I’ll be going, how long I’ll be there, where I’ll be staying, where I come from, and even as much as my allergies/food preferences, sent to the airliner I’m about to board with.

As I await boarding, I check out this brand new app everyone I know is talking about. It calculates and predicts what our next “bad” habit will be, and provides steps on how to avoid it by looking into our behavioural patterns (the things we buy, how much sleep we get, the way we walk and even our breathing patterns on a daily basis). Nothing too extraordinary, really. Looks like I’ll be developing a habit of tapping my feet too much in about three weeks, but the app has just calculated the measures I need to take to stop it from developing. Now, depending on how you see this, as of the words of George Orwell, “this is a cautionary tale.” Or is it? To what extent can we continue to weigh up personalisation with us having to give up our personal data?   

The 3 Ps:
People, Personalisation, Possibilities 

Personalisation is on an all time high. People demand personalised content and personalised processes in different forms. Businesses strive to give them this ability. At the same, in the maze of all the personalisation that has been offered, we often lose track of how personalisation is made possible. What is often overlooked are the type of things that are needed to develop this interaction that somehow connects with us, differentiating us amongst other people. 


Back in 2017, an experiment was run by two communications professors. A fake social media platform was built and people were asked to read the terms and conditions before they register to it. Secretly, they will only looking at whether registered users have ready the terms. Turns out, only 25% of users looked at the terms and conditions, and a staggering 98% of the respondents had signed consent without noticing a little addition to a paragraph in the terms: it stated that they would need to surrender their first-born child to the organization as a payment for the platform’s service. 

Would it have changed the outcome if it instead stated “all your personal data, every bit of it”? or probably something less totalitarian and perhaps along the lines of “we would be monitoring the average time you take to walk from your house to the nearest supermarket”? Probably not. As long as the services meet with expectations, consumers are willing to give up personal data in exchange for personalisation. 

A survey by Deloitte also looked into how people felt about the relationship between their personal data and personalisation as a service, revealing that:

- 62% of respondents believed they have the right to ask a company to delete their data 

- 65% of respondents revealed that they would only be interested in editing what has been collected. 

- Out of the 62% who stated they should have the right to delete their data upon request, only 31% would actually request for the erasure of their data if it meant losing personalised features and recommendations as a result.

So, to continue our previous story, what would all this mean for me, a citizen of the future, driving around in driverless cabs, checking out my upcoming bad habits? In order for me to fully receive the full step-by-step guide on breaking the potential habit, I’d have to make sure that every bit of data collected, is actually collected. I’m in full control here. Seriously. I tried switching the location tracking feature on the app to “off” and it instantly informed me that it wouldn’t be able to fully calculate what is needed to determine my next habit. Besides, it wouldn't allow me to share my progress to my friends - which defeats one of the purposes of using the app in the first place.


The Keys of Tailor-made Experiences

One of the key elements to tailor-made experiences is an individual's willingness to handover their data. A lot of it, too. Businesses take into account the fine line between personalisation and an invasion of privacy. Putting an emphasis on avoiding the “Hi John, we see that you’ve opened our last three emails around 4 in the morning, having trouble sleeping? Check out our latest offers on our top Chamomile tea guaranteed to make you sleep better!” scenario, and turning it into something that comes off entirely less disturbing, while still fulfilling and addressing personal needs.

The other key element for customization is a sort of unique business empathy. With all the data collected, it has become vital that businesses understand people. Taking that ability to relate with the needs and behavioural preferences of existing or new customers is the next step of making personalisation work. Machine learning has put that into effect. It has taken the step of processing collected data and uses it to further comply to the needs of the user (and also to gather more data).  

Let’s get back to our story with this in mind. I’ve just landed, it’s 15:30, it’s time for coffee. My phone knows that, it shows me where the nearest shop of my favourite cafe franchise (starts with an S, quite famous for their Pumpkin Spice Lattes) is at in this airport. It not only shows me the exact location, but it also shows me the top orders I would take by looking through my previous choices in a little pop up window as I reach the place. Upon arriving, I just need to scan my phone’s screen on a little rectangular scanner by the entrance and take a seat. The barista instantly knows what my order will be, what size I want, and of course she also writes my name on it - without a typo. Sure, I could have gone and ordered it in a line, but who has the time for that nowadays.

After an automatic payment for my order, my phone beeps and asks me about my experience. It asks me how I enjoyed the coffee from this Thursday and if I’d like to continue to have that particular order added or adjusted to the list of my common orders. It does this with everything I purchase: from clothes through lightbulbs to pens and papers. It remembers what I answer, continuously adapting to my preferences until it hits perfection and I go “ah, exactly what I like”. Striking that connection with customers is the point where data and empathy come together within the overall experience.

The ability to utilize both active and passive data to improve the customer experience is important for all data driven companies. More than 85% of mobile marketers report a success with personalisation, as it improves engagement ratings, revenue and even conversions. In some cases, the fine line between active and passive data gets intertwined in the ever growing data gathering processes of some businesses.  

The Law on Personalisation 


As people allow businesses to gather personal data from them, the GDPR ensures that these organisations also provide the option for the data to be removed upon request of the individual. However, a business’ right to process the data of an individual might override their right to be forgotten. Some reasons include:

- The data used is to perform a task that is carried out in the public interest
- The data used is to exercise the right of freedom of expression and information (think of journalism)
- The data used represents important information that serves public interest, scientific research, historical research, or even statistical purposes. This additionally applies in case the data was to be erased, it would impair or even halt the progress towards achievement/goal of the processing. 

One of the most quoted sentences within the GDPR is “the processing of personal data for direct marketing purposes may be regarded as carried out for legitimate interest”. However, the legitimate interest should weigh heavier than the interests of the individuals. The processing of personal data should show that it is necessary to achieve that legitimate interest and balance it against the individual’s interests and rights. However, this is quite uncommon for most personalisation services. But has the GDPR dampened businesses’ strive for personalisation? On the contrary, with the introduction of GDPR, the quality of personalisation has increased. This is mainly due to people being more aware about their data usage in terms of purpose and method. Not only does this increase the overall transparency between company and customer, but it also gives a solid ground to further nurture the relationship. 

There are of course other lawful basis that can be relied on. For instance, performance of contract and consent. Transparency is crucial: in regards of consent studies have shown that over 75% of customers are more likely to share their personal information with brands and services they trust. As companies further their efforts to connect with customers and still stay in line within the rules of the GDPR, the race to keep up with privacy law obligations and at the same time, to “better” rival companies in services will be more difficult.

The European Data Protection Board (EDPB) acknowledges that personalisation of content may (but not always) apply as an intrinsic aspect of an online service. It will depend on the nature of the service that is provided, and the expected average data needed. Additionally, it should also be taken into account whether the service can be provided without personalisation. If the personalisation of content is not objectively necessary for the purpose of the service for which the contract is given (such as when personalised content is solely intended to increase user engagement with the service) data controllers may need to consider a new lawful basis to process such data. 

Could this be the new revolutionary law that changes how businesses connect with customers? As someone who regularly plays indoor football; would scrolling through a sports store website and not seeing advertisements on the latest football gear be the new norm? Would we instead have general advertisements about random sports gear being shown to us if we do not opt in to  get personalisation?

Where are we now? Where will we be later?

As the GDPR ensures a smoother surface for personalisation by prioritising the privacy of people’s personal data, the regulation is continuously changing. In the future, after landing with an all AI-driven plane, I want to start browsing online. I turn the airplane mode off, and my phone instantly greets me accordingly. For a brief moment, my phone is blank and I surf the internet with a feeling of anonymity as it refreshes. Once it connects, I see every relatable content like the evening news I always like to keep up with.

Here’s the weekly recap: So social media platforms are now allowed to sponsor energy drinks, the monthly Brexit postponement has been announced to fall on a Sunday instead of the regular Friday, and the EDPB has just announced that all the term and condition reading softwares need to have a term and condition that users must actually read. As I click through the news, I see all the little windows of advertisements that I somehow relate with around the article, waiting for me to click on any one of them. So I’m reading about the social media platform sponsored energy drinks, feeling tired? It wouldn’t be the first time social media has kept me awake anyways. So with personalisation in mind, will it all be down to we as users to determine the extent of it? Or will companies and services continue to bend and stretch the existing laws to make sure that the choice steers accordingly to their plans?