I like to think of customization through the lens of clothing. Presumably there was originally no clothing, but each of our bodies was “custom built” if you will. Then we decided to make clothing. All of this was done by hand and almost certainly no two pieces were the same. This continued on until the industrial revolution, when it was found that more people can enjoy clothing and have more free time if we make it all pretty much the same.
Now we have come to the next big technological era. New technologies like 3D printing and artificial intelligence are rapidly lowering the costs of creating customized products. This is already happening with some niche products that are being 3D printed, but increased customization is an underlying trend that will leave a massive impact on design across all industries in the coming century.
I recently helped organize a Startup Grind event in Shanghai, where we hosted Mr. Thibault Villet, CEO of Mei.com. When asked what is the next breakthrough in online retail, his answer was “customized social marketing.” It certainly makes sense that customized marketing will work better than mass marketing, but the perks of customization don’t end there. Customization at it’s essence is an enhanced experience, something that designers everywhere hold as the holy grail. So why are we seeing customized physical products before we even have customized digital products?
Consider every app in your phone. It looks and works the exact same for you as everyone else. But do you use the app in the exact same way as the 17 year old girl in Texas, or the 35 year old man in South Africa? Probably not. Your usage habits are probably not even similar to your next door neighbor. So why is the app the exact same for everyone?
Granted, some apps aren’t the same. You don’t see the same posts on Facebook or Medium as everyone else because:
You have curated a list of people you follow/with whom you are friends (manual curation)
The app has noticed what you like and gives you more of that (algorithmic curation)
Even with this content curation, the way in which you and everyone else uses the app is still the same. Those features you never use on Facebook and Spotify are still there taking up space in your menus. The settings you change all the time are still four pages away in the Settings app. Why?
It takes a new way of thinking about UI to bring about these changes, but it’s nothing impossible. The data on user habits is already being collected. Machine learning algorithms already exist to help determine which features should be presented and where. Spotify has shown that with some planning, UI can be managed from the backend servers. All that’s left is for us to connect the dots, put in a little elbow grease, and start delivering better experiences to our users.
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