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Using user's dandruff
2010-08-16: Murderers probably use anti-dandruff shampoo because if you're thinking of murdering someone, you care about what you leave behind. One speck of dandruff left on the scene can get you convicted.
Similarly (kind-of) as we wander around the Internet we leave behind information that others can use, against or for us depending on their inclination.

Use the data your customers don't even know they leave

As a white-hat web developer, I'm interested in that data because it means I can improve the user experience for all visitors. What's really beautiful about it is that I'm not bothering the customer. There are no questionnaires for them, nothing to click, no popups, no "where did you hear about us" questions when they enquire. I'm just sweeping up after they've visited, and analysing what I've found.
Actually, that's not quite right. I'm not really sitting and looking at everyone's data, I'm building automated systems that do the job for me.

Use data for a purpose

The other thing that's woven into this idea is that it's guided by psychology. I'm not doing it for nothing, I'm doing it in order to make more money and I'm doing that by providing a better service, or better information, than my competitors.

A simple example

Take a look at the 'rooms' page for this Scarborough B&B. First, of course, we have up-to-date pictures of every room.
Second, I've organised it so people know which are sea-facing and which are rear-facing, and which are up lots of stairs.
Each picture is clickable to see a much bigger photograph so people can have a really good root around.
Now, notice where it says "Our Most Popular Room!" or "Our second most popular room"? That's based on 'live' data. Basically, having established that the number of clicks on a room tallies with bookings, every time someone clicks on a photograph to see the larger version, I'm storing that fact in a database. Every time someone loads this page, I'm querying that database to ask .. which photograph got the most clicks, the second most, and the third most. Then I'm reporting that on the page, 'live'. So this will change as customers' behaviour changes.

What's in it for the user?

Why? On the one hand I'm trying to be helpful. There are quite a few rooms there, which is quite a lot of deciding for the user. It's useful information to know which others think are the better rooms.
Users might also think that the most popular rooms will get booked up earlier. So I'm using two principles of influence here to try to improve bookings and conversion: social proof (others like those rooms too, so I'm safe to book), and scarcity (those rooms are popular, I should book now).
Of course I'm measuring the results of that change and I'll report back later if it makes a significant difference.

User data as a word cloud

In another, perhaps more sophisticated example, I installed a word cloud navigation system on Metcalfe Insurance Brokers' website that shows the most popular types of insurance users want when they arrive.
But there's more. If you click on one, and come back to the home page, you'll find the option you clicked on is larger. That word cloud is now customised for you and is different to others'. That data sticks around for a little more than a year, so that if you make your decision about where to buy your insurance over, say, a week, whenever you come back to the page it's easier for you to find the pages you visited last.
And next year when you come back to renew, the site will remember the pages you want .. it's customised to your needs. This is what I mean when I talk about customisation.

Watch for changes here too

On this blog, I've completed the task of indexing every word. What's next is a word cloud for each blog that takes a mix of the most popular words in my entire blog with the words from this particular blog entry, so you might see 'customisation' as a bigger word in the cloud next to this blog. Since you're interested perhaps in seeing what else I've written on that subject, you might click that word in the word cloud, and see another blog entry. If you click again, I will have remembered the two blogs you've already read on the subject, and I'll send you to another.
What all this does is provide a more engaging, personalised, interesting, embracing, trustworthy and useful browsing experience for the user who may well be more inclined to spend their money with you instead of your competitors. Amen to that.

By John Allsopp
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