“And herein lies the Personalization Paradox… In order to create nimble, reusable pieces of content that can be combined in different ways for different people and different devices, you must standardize everything about the content.” – The Personalization Paradox by Val Swisher & Regina Lynn Preciado (XML Press 2020)

Personalization is all about making information easy to locate. This is nothing new. Content creators have grappled with this issue for centuries.

According to the American Society for Indexing, one of the first instances of a large table of contents was created by Pliny the Elder (AD 23/24 – 79). Pliny the Elder was a Roman author who wrote a set of books called, “The Natural History in 37 Books.” It is an enormous tome that is organized into 10 volumes. The first book in the set is nothing more than a table of contents that Pliny created to help his readers locate information in the other 36 books.

Including a table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, or an index are all examples of navigation techniques long used in print publications. The first known English index was created in 1575 for a book titled, “The booke of the arte and maner how to plant and graffe all sortes of trees,” by Leonard Mascall. Many of us remember the card catalog – the little index cards stored alphabetically in multi-drawer wooden cabinets in the library. The card catalog had one function – it was a way for people to locate the book they needed. It was invented in the late 1700s.

Before technology, the manual work required to create a table of contents or an index was arduous. However, that work was critical in making information findable. For this reason, people manually created (and changed and modified) the means to help find information.

Findability has always been a key factor in successful content creation. After all, what good is information if the person who needs it cannot locate it?

The invention of technical publishing software was the key to automating the process of creating navigation like a table of contents and an index. Automating how we create navigation tools was a critical step in the history of findability and a great use of technology.

The first technical publishing software that I ever used was FrameMaker. In the late 1980s, FrameMaker made it very easy to automatically generate a table of contents, list of figures, list of tables, and index. It was in this timeframe that content creators also discovered cross-referencing information and using running head levels. These features helped us organize information and provided content consumers with guideposts for where to find the information they needed. And they still do today.

In the early 1990s, the internet became widely available to the public. Shortly after, content creators and user interface designers added website navigation and online help systems to the growing list of approaches that helped people find the information they needed as quickly and as painlessly as possible.

The one thing that all of these methods, from Pliny the Elder to website navigation, have in common is that they require the content consumer to search for the information themselves. The onus remains on the consumer to look up the information or hopefully click the correct button to find what they’re looking for. These are examples of “pulling” information, which is often slow and frustrating. How often do you search for something on the internet, only to be presented with approximately 100,000 “hits,” from which you must select the information you think you need?

Using 21st-century technology, we are starting to see a shift from making content consumers pull the information they need to pushing that information directly to them.

Personalized content is content that is pushed to the consumer with little or no action on their part. Done well, personalized content delivers:

  • The right information
  • To the right person
  • At the right time
  • On the right device
  • In the language of their choosing

There are two requirements for personalization to be successful:

  1. Accurate data about the right content an individual needs at the right moment in time
  2. Accurate content, delivered in the right format and the desired language

Over the past couple of decades, the focus has been on understanding what information a content consumer needs at any particular moment in time. Companies have spent millions of dollars solving this challenge. And they have succeeded. Now that we have Big Data, figuring out the right content someone needs at a particular moment in time is not nearly the chore it used to be.

The challenge we are left with is the second requirement – delivering the right content in the right format in the right language. This is the challenge of personalizing content.

Personalized content is a natural outgrowth of technological developments and shifts that have occurred over thousands of years. Searching for information isn’t new and neither is the quest to make information findable. What is new, however, is the need to push information to the consumer automatically. Done well, personalization is the epitome of findability.

Interested in learning more? Check out our new book The Personalization Paradox: Why Companies Fail (and How To Succeed) at Delivering Personalized Experiences at Scale

Book cover for The Personalization Paradox

Val Swisher
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