American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
He was talking about the individual but might as well have been speaking of large consumer-facing digital applications.
Everyone Uses the Same App in Different Ways
When we think about digital applications it's easy to think of the small apps that make news as a hot, young company to watch. But these are not the only applications that consumers interact with, and likely not the majority.
Every day, consumers interact with large-scale e-commerce, banking and similar applications. These complex applications address several different types of audiences at once, making it a challenge to maintain a consistent user experience for everyone.
More importantly, consistency may not be desirable.
Several reasons drive this push for consistency across the user experience. A typical goal would be to make it easier for the user to interact with different parts of the application. But do users really do that? Not often.
People use certain parts of an application — searching for a product for example, or checking on a delivery schedule, or paying bills — much more than others. Beyond that, certain functions will appeal to certain users while holding no interest for others.
Personalize the Entire Experience
A good example is buying products online.
Why should perusing the virtual software aisle be the same as the strolling down the soap aisle? Brick and mortar stores don’t operate that way. They have different configurations for different product types.
Walk into a Best Buy and see if the part of the store selling refrigerators is anything like the part of the store selling home entertainment systems. They aren’t. Yet the online versions look the same for both.
Adapting this model — personalizing the experience to the products and customers — doesn’t yield the most consistent experience. It does, however, create the most useful experience for the customer.
Technology allows us to go beyond the limits of physical world personalization to base it on a type of user. We now have the ability to create storefronts for small groups or even individuals.
Shouldn’t the entire experience be customized to the user? Wouldn’t it be great to create an experience that is exactly how each person wants it? Why can’t my experience be different — down to the labels, navigation, and methodologies — than yours?
An Idea Whose Time Hasn't Arrived
The short answer: because it’s hard.
The technology to create completely customized experiences is in it’s infancy. At this stage in the development of software technology, it is possible to deliver customized content — and many applications are embracing that. A fully customized experience, on the other hand, is out of reach for most companies at this point.
Even when it is technologically feasible, expect resistance. Designers will insist on the purity of their designs over the ugly chaos of individual customer preferences. Marketers will want to control the user experience which is inherently uncontrollable. Accountants will worry about the cost of implementing the AI technology that makes the new personal experience possible, while forgetting the loss of revenue to nimbler, forward-thinking competitors.
The change will happen in spite of the friction because users will demand it and someone will provide it. And consistency will no longer matter when my consistent and yours are different. Companies will embrace the quirkiness of their customers and stop worrying about making everything uniform.
And we will do away with foolish consistency.