Personalization Pyramid: A Framework for Designing with User Data

As a UX professional in today’s data-driven landscape, it’s increasingly likely that you’ve been asked to design a personalized digital experience, whether it’s a public website, user portal, or native application. Yet while there continues to be no shortage of marketing hype around personalization platforms, we still have very few standardized approaches for implementing personalized UX.

That’s where we come in. After completing dozens of personalization projects over the past few years, we gave ourselves a goal: could you create a holistic personalization framework specifically for UX practitioners? The Personalization Pyramid is a designer-centric model for standing up human-centered personalization programs, spanning data, segmentation, content delivery, and overall goals. By using this approach, you will be able to understand the core components of a contemporary, UX-driven personalization program (or at the very least know enough to get started). 

Getting Started

For the sake of this article, we’ll assume you’re already familiar with the basics of digital personalization. A good overview can be found here: Website Personalization Planning. While UX projects in this area can take on many different forms, they often stem from similar starting points.      

Common scenarios for starting a personalization project:

  • Your organization or client purchased a content management system (CMS) or marketing automation platform (MAP) or related technology that supports personalization
  • The CMO, CDO, or CIO has identified personalization as a goal
  • Customer data is disjointed or ambiguous
  • You are running some isolated targeting campaigns or A/B testing
  • Stakeholders disagree on personalization approach
  • Mandate of customer privacy rules (e.g. GDPR) requires revisiting existing user targeting practices

Regardless of where you begin, a successful personalization program will require the same core building blocks. We’ve captured these as the “levels” on the pyramid. Whether you are a UX designer, researcher, or strategist, understanding the core components can help make your contribution successful.  

From top to bottom, the levels include:

  1. North Star: What larger strategic objective is driving the personalization program? 
  2. Goals: What are the specific, measurable outcomes of the program? 
  3. Touchpoints: Where will the personalized experience be served?
  4. Contexts and Campaigns: What personalization content will the user see?
  5. User Segments: What constitutes a unique, usable audience? 
  6. Actionable Data: What reliable and authoritative data is captured by our technical platform to drive personalization?  
  7. Raw Data: What wider set of data is conceivably available (already in our setting) allowing you to personalize?

We’ll go through each of these levels in turn. To help make this actionable, we created an accompanying deck of cards to illustrate specific examples from each level. We’ve found them helpful in personalization brainstorming sessions, and will include examples for you here.

Starting at the Top

The components of the pyramid are as follows:

North Star

A north star is what you are aiming for overall with your personalization program (big or small). The North Star defines the (one) overall mission of the personalization program. What do you wish to accomplish? North Stars cast a shadow. The bigger the star, the bigger the shadow. Example of North Starts might include: 

  1. Function: Personalize based on basic user inputs. Examples: “Raw” notifications, basic search results, system user settings and configuration options, general customization, basic optimizations
  2. Feature: Self-contained personalization componentry. Examples: “Cooked” notifications, advanced optimizations (geolocation), basic dynamic messaging, customized modules, automations, recommenders
  3. Experience: Personalized user experiences across multiple interactions and user flows. Examples: Email campaigns, landing pages, advanced messaging (i.e. C2C chat) or conversational interfaces, larger user flows and content-intensive optimizations (localization).
  4. Product: Highly differentiating personalized product experiences. Examples: Standalone, branded experiences with personalization at their core, like the “algotorial” playlists by Spotify such as Discover Weekly.

Goals

As in any good UX design, personalization can help accelerate designing with customer intentions. Goals are the tactical and measurable metrics that will prove the overall program is successful. A good place to start is with your current analytics and measurement program and metrics you can benchmark against. In some cases, new goals may be appropriate. The key thing to remember is that personalization itself is not a goal, rather it is a means to an end. Common goals include:

  • Conversion
  • Time on task
  • Net promoter score (NPS)
  • Customer satisfaction 

Touchpoints

Touchpoints are where the personalization happens. As a UX designer, this will be one of your largest areas of responsibility. The touchpoints available to you will depend on how your personalization and associated technology capabilities are instrumented, and should be rooted in improving a user’s experience at a particular point in the journey. Touchpoints can be multi-device (mobile, in-store, website) but also more granular (web banner, web pop-up etc.). Here are some examples:

Channel-level Touchpoints

  • Email: Role
  • Email: Time of open
  • In-store display (JSON endpoint)
  • Native app
  • Search

Wireframe-level Touchpoints

  • Web overlay
  • Web alert bar
  • Web banner
  • Web content block
  • Web menu

If you’re designing for web interfaces, for example, you will likely need to include personalized “zones” in your wireframes. The content for these can be presented programmatically in touchpoints based on our next step, contexts and campaigns.

Contexts and Campaigns

Once you’ve outlined some touchpoints, you can consider the actual personalized content a user will receive. Many personalization tools will refer to these as “campaigns” (so, for example, a campaign on a web banner for new visitors to the website). These will programmatically be shown at certain touchpoints to certain user segments, as defined by user data. At this stage, we find it helpful to consider two separate models: a context model and a content model. The context helps you consider the level of engagement of the user at the personalization moment, for example a user casually browsing information vs. doing a deep-dive. Think of it in terms of information retrieval behaviors. The content model can then help you determine what type of personalization to serve based on the context (for example, an “Enrich” campaign that shows related articles may be a suitable supplement to extant content).

Personalization Context Model:

  1. Browse
  2. Skim
  3. Nudge
  4. Feast

Personalization Content Model:

  1. Alert
  2. Make Easier
  3. Cross-Sell
  4. Enrich

We’ve written extensively about each of these models elsewhere, so if you’d like to read more you can check out Colin’s Personalization Content Model and Jeff’s Personalization Context Model

User Segments

User segments can be created prescriptively or adaptively, based on user research (e.g. via rules and logic tied to set user behaviors or via A/B testing). At a minimum you will likely need to consider how to treat the unknown or first-time visitor, the guest or returning visitor for whom you may have a stateful cookie (or equivalent post-cookie identifier), or the authenticated

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