Personal personalisation

Published Dec 20, 2022, 6:00 AM
Written by Marcus Nyeholt

We’re advocates for creating smart, ethical websites that inform and assist, rather than persuading or even tricking people, and that don’t store or sell visitor data. We even wrote an open source module in Silverstripe that lets you personalise your site for visitors, so they can remain anonymous and store some personalisation data on their own device, to make your site more useful during their future visits.

Personalisation shouldn't be creepy

At Symbiote we see personalisation as a way to make websites useful to people – and for them to control what they see and where their personal data is stored. We call this personalisation for people or personal personalisation.

You’re probably familiar with the creepy kinds of personalisation where all your clicks and searches, posts and site visits are tracked and sometimes sold. That’s what leads to all those ads you see popping up for things you’ve searched for or unwanted emails. Creepy personalisation is there to manipulate you, sell to you or profit from your data.

If you’re not convinced that personal personalisation that respects your data is important, the lessons learned from Cambridge Analytica and what can happen when personalised information is bundled with other users' data and used to manipulate large population groups. 

Why we create websites with personal personalisation

Everyone in the Symbiote team has the same drive: to make technology that improves people’s lives. So, it follows that we make websites where visitors are informed and assisted rather than persuaded or manipulated. 

We see personalisation as a way to improve a site visitor's life – reducing the number of clicks, keystrokes or steps they need to go through to get information, buy something, make a decision or have the experience they came to a site for.

What does an ethically-developed personalised website look like?

An ethically-developed personalised website can give site visitors control over their online identity – allowing both anonymous and logged-in browsing options, which both adapt to a person’s clicks, searches or preferences to offer them relevant information or options. Visitors can be offered information they need (and might not know they need), or led through tricky decision-making processes, for example when applying for something or choosing a product or service.

For example, a council website could be developed to provide secure personalisation so users can remain anonymous while agreeing to save some information onto their own device to improve their future visits. The site might be set up to respond to a previous search for dog parks by suggesting other dog-related information on subsequent visits. 

Residents willing to create logins could customise their view of their council site to create their own dashboard, choosing to see the info they wanted on a single page, without searching for it – for example, upcoming rubbish collection dates, their rates notices and payment options and opening hours for the community pool. 

How do we keep personalisation information safe?

In the open source Silverstripe personalisation module we created, each user’s personal data is privately stored on their own device and its use is restricted to sites where they create profiles - relevant actions that a site owner has deemed important are recorded on the user's device, and used with later interactions. This site owner never sees an individual user's set of behaviours, nor has access to aggregate it alongside other users. 


How can organisations still collect data while providing personal personalisation?

Organisations can create websites and apps that are helpful to their users, while still collecting useful analytical data without putting their users (and therefore, themselves) at any risk. Site owners can see the outcome of personalisation in action, and whether a chosen personalisation pathway is being utilised, but this remains anonymous and not linked to other individual behaviours. They can still put lots of anonymous data together – aggregate it – and see patterns in the ways different people are using the site, what they’re looking for, when they’re looking, how they use services, without being able to connect individuals across different journeys. 

The Silverstripe personalisation module we built enables a site owner to use their Customer Management System (CMS) to define the types of user interactions that build a profile – time spent on a page, clicks on particular elements, provided locations, site that they came from (eg Google search or link), searches, clicking on a particular kind of page etc. 

They can then make decisions about the kinds of information a person doing these actions might be interested in.

"It’s possible to gather data and improve sites without needing to collect and store people’s private data." - Marcus Nyeholt.

We’re advocates for website owners to use smart sites that inform and assist, rather than persuading or even tricking people, and that don’t store or sell visitor data.