The different components of personalization

Many people have started to confuse “responsive design” with “personalization.” It’s easy to do. It’s only natural to come to the conclusion that “responsive” refers to the way people “respond” to an experience. However, responsive design is nothing more than adjusting a website’s layout based on a user’s screen size.

Personalization, on the other hand, is a broader concept. Any single piece of data that can communicate context about the user, the user’s environment, what the user likes to do, etc. can be used to personalize an experience. Yelp, Google, Amazon, Netflix, Bluekai, and Doubleclick are all companies that use personalization tactics.

If your company is planning a project or a release that involves personalization, it’s critical to separate various types of tactics in order to make the best possible decision about which to implement and how far you want to take it. Here are a few of the most popular tactics:

Responsive design:

It’s becoming increasingly frustrating for users to view certain websites due to the screen size of the device he or she is using to access the internet. Smart phones are becoming the number one way people view the web. Responsive design personalizes a particular layout more than the content itself. It’s about adjusting the message to the device, not adjusting the message to the person.


When a user types something in to a Google search box, autocomplete “personalizes” what it thinks the user is looking for based on what the user has searched for in the past. When developers design search with autocomplete into their applications, it’s important to make certain decisions about how they want it to work. Some companies benefit from skewing results toward marketing objectives. Some skew results toward new content.


Geotargeting uses location based off of GPS, IP address, or ISP. You can gain a lot of insight just by knowing where your users are located.

Behavioral targeting:

Behavioral targeting uses your browsing history to “discover” your likes and dislikes. However, instead of using data from a single site, it uses data from all the websites you’ve visited. It’s why you might see an ad for Niemen Marcus while someone else sees an ad for Target. This type of personalization is slightly disturbing. These “internet-based advertising” companies claim they are helping consumers see “relevant” ads.

For example, let’s say you’re looking to book a hotel. You land on a hotel’s website and start browsing prices. Before you even arrive on the “prices” page, the hotel has already “scraped” your LinkedIn information, cross-referenced your job title with GlassDoor to find your salary, and sets the price of a room based on what they think you should pay. Maybe they discovered you have a dog. Now, not only are they overcharging you for your room, but you’re also forced to look at dog food ads.

Collaborative filtering:

Collaborative filtering is similar to behavioral targeting; it’s just a little less creepy. Collaborative filtering employs your browsing history as the data/context. Instead of using “popular,” collaborative filtering websites like Amazon use “what most people bought after viewing this item.” These systems have complicated algorithms, but if you can master them, you will reap the rewards.

It is critical for designers that use these personalized experiences to understand what is and isn’t possible. It’s important to understand our users and be respectful of what they are willing to accept. It takes a lot of effort to win back a user you’ve scared off.

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