If you’ve used Amazon, chances are you’ve noticed how much they personalize what you see on their site. From the advertisements to the suggested items, Amazon uses personalization to target you for certain purchases.

This type of personalization looks simple and intuitive, but it’s actually a complex process carried out by back-end developers. Here’s how it works: the application, software, or general system will identify certain aspects of a user’s browsing, preferences, and other demographics to determine what type of specialized content to display.

Beyond content, the experience and functions of the site may actually alter to better suit an individual’s needs.

Creepy or Streamlined?

It might freak you out at first to see that what you’ve browsed on a website is now advertised to you there (and sometimes, elsehwere) frequently, but there is another point of view on that subject. It’s more than just a marketing ploy for businesses -- it’s actually mean to increase your ease of use and provide a more comfortable and consistent user experience.

Here’s an example. Maybe you hate the color orange (some people really do), and you’re browsing a bookselling site that has orange headers and footers and orange text and orange icons. It’s so irksome that you almost quit browsing, but there’s a purchase that you must make on the site -- the book Why Orange is the World’s Worst Color Ever by Nobody Likes Orange (a pen name of a famous author, TBD).

After that purchase, you come back to the site to find another similar title, only to discover that the site is themed in blue now. Eureka! Personalized content wins the day, and you’re probably pretty excited that a once-atrocious website is now catered exactly to your preferences.

In the world of User Experience (UX), content personalization is quickly becoming the standard. UX professionals are being forced to adapt to the idea of drastically changing interfaces and content based on user preferences. This means that each user would see something special that only they are shown because of who they are, what they like, and so on.

The challenge from a user experience perspective is knowing when personalization does go overboard and makes the user feel uncomfortable. Users have consistently stated that too much personalization is unsettling -- reminiscent of that personal advertising scene in futuristic film Minority Report.

As with any other modern designs, the key with personalized content is simplicity and elegance.

Types of Content Personalization

There are really only two kinds of personalization when we talk about content: role-based and individualized. Both are designed to make your experience specific to your preferences, and both use personal data to do most of the work.

Another thing to keep in mind is that both types are automated -- the content is automatically curated. Don’t confuse this with automated content curation, a term that applies to the automation of searching and compiling relevant information for a specific audience and then sharing it through communication channels, typically social media (that’s another game altogether).

Content personalization is automatic in that it happens programmatically via decision making based on data gathered about each user that’s stored in databases.

Role Based

This type of personalization is done within enterprises more often than in the world at large. By defining users and labeling them with broad categorical roles, usually done at the user’s behest during an interview process or an opt-in session, specific content is displayed.

For example, if an employee at a bank buys bonds, they may be tagged with a “bond buyer” attribute that is checked by an application. That application then displays bond-relevant information and topics to them, where anyone who doesn’t buy bonds would be shown information about stocks or something else altogether.


With this type of personalization, computers gather data specific to an individual and analyze it. The key difference between this and role-based? It’s highly personalized, for starters -- rather than grouping Jenny the baseball player with every other baseball player, this type of process hones in on more granular information about Jenny. Here are a few facets that influence this type of content personalization:

  • Recent purchase history
  • Recent browsing history
  • Social media profile information, like marital status and religious affiliation
  • Social media content, like what a user writes in her status updates or Tweets

This information is then used to determine broader needs and interests. For example, a Facebook user who frequently laments his status of being single might see content in his newsfeed and sidebars involving dating services and local meetups.

One note about individualized content: one of the best ways to keep the “creep factor” at bay is to allow users to upvote or downvote their content. For example, Facebook allows users to unfollow or report posts that are irrelevant to them -- putting some power back in the hands of users (which rarely hurts the user experience).

Incorporating Personalized Content Into Your Apps and Sites

As you might have guessed by now, the algorithms that determine what content is displayed for different users -- whether within a mobile app, website, or another platform altogether -- are very complicated. They’re also very lucrative for businesses, being a major contributor to marketing insights, increased conversion rates, customer retention, and improved customer service.

When looking for a technology partner that’s up to the task, you’ll want to keep a few things in mind. First, pick a provider with more than just coding or web design skills. Find someone with a deep understanding of UX. For example, a UX designer should serve as a consultant, and you should feel comfortable communicating the needs of your business with them. Ask a UX designer about their process around incorporating personalized content. Ask about their usability testing process, and how they determine if an idea “works” or not.

Remember -- the best UX designers think outside of the box, and they’re willing to test multiple ideas to find the solution perfect for you. The ideal UX partner will help you strike a balance between the “cool” and “creep” factor, building a program that serves your users’ needs exactly and delivers real ROI for years to come.

Sarah Baker

Brian Russel Davis

Brian is a Full Stack Dev/Engineering professional with nearly 17 years of experience developing web media for global brands, and executing outside of the box thinking.