Personalisation in Design

Blog / Mahdi Babaei / December 16, 2020

In the last two blog posts of this series, I covered some of the background psychology that drives people’s connection to objects in the physical world and the different pleasures experienced through wearable devices. While these principles are foundational to the design of devices that target enjoyment and fulfilment for their users,a person’s each person’s experiences are personal and subjective, so a joyful experience for a user might not be as resonant for another who holds their own personal preferences that drive pleasure and enjoyment. Using learning algorithms and automation techniques, designers are now able to provide flexibility to enable a more personalised user experience. In this post, I discuss personalisation as an approach to include automation in design, related psychology and how it can be done at three levels of pleasurable design.

What is Personalisation?

Let’s study personalisation through a common feature that can be found on almost any smartphone these days. You’ve probably noticed that word suggestions (while using the keyboard) might be different after a few months of using a phone. Certain words might be suggested based on the frequency of use. Slangs or words with personalised spelling can be suggested. Did you ask your mobile operating system to customise words dictionary? or it happened through an automated learning process? This is a sample of automated personalisation.

Personalisation has its roots in the psychology of freedom and human’s constant attempts to seek a greater level of comfort and uniqueness. From the cognitive science point of view, personalisation can be seen as subjective (with explicit users’ participation) and objective (automated learning of users’ behaviours and intentions). It defines personalisation as the system’s explicit assumption of users’ preferences, accomplishing their tasks, or attaining their goals. Computer science often enables personalisation through machine-learning algorithms that can be integrated into any embedded system to learn about a user’s unique behavioural patterns and environments to support them with individualised information.

Personalisation can be confused with adaptation or customisation. Like any other multidisciplinary area, these are parallel terms describing concepts from different perspectives that may be found confusing. From the User-Centred Design (UCD) point of view, customisation is an expression of users’ interest in choosing the desired type(s) of outcomes from a computer system1. Meanwhile, personalisation aims to use learning and prediction algorithms and other artificial intelligence (AI) techniques to identify what makes the results desirable to users and how, when and where they prefer to see them2. Thus, changes in a system or its results can be done by a user or customer-initiated (customisation) or systematic (personalisation). Neilsen believes that customisation costs more and is inefficient as it requires the user to make all the necessary changes3. Adaptation, on the other hand, is more application-oriented and focused on interdependent properties of a system that can be changed based on users’ explicit mental model and their needs4. Cognitive science today would not believe humans as rational beings and is more focused on the emotional aspect which is more natural5.

Personalisation and Pleasurable Emotional Design for Wearables

Personalisation includes users’ perceptions in design changes with their direct/indirect inputs. It can be used to make the design more pleasurable at physiological, psychological and sociological levels. Sleeman6 suggested answering three questions to include personalisation in design:

  1. What is being personalised?
  2. Who is the target group of personalisation?
  3. To what extent is automation being applied?

By answering the first question we can outline personalised content, functionality, and user interface. The second question allows us to determine if personalisation is defined for individual or different categories of users. Finally, answering the last question identifies whether automation is implicit or explicit.

As discussed in the first post of this series, wearable computers have huge potential for personalisation as they can be aware of human emotions in different contexts. They are designed aiming to be always on and connected, thus personalisation can carry deeper meanings for wearables’ users. Designing personalisation features on wearables can fulfil users’ needs for comfort. In other words, it can make wearables physically pleasant, psychologically pleasing, and act as an important tool for social activities. A comfortable band that can withstand the rigours of physical activity is a greater imperative for athletes than a businessman who may place greater emphasis on aesthetics. Unexpected notifications while sleeping are likely to be unpleasant, in contrast to receiving guidance notifications from a navigation app while jogging. Impromptu activity challenges presented by wearables can be undesirable to some users, whilst others can find them motivational.

Importantly, personalisation is application of the user’s identity to the design. Thus, changes in a design through implicit or explicit user inputs and feedback can make it absolutely unique. This can fulfil another human known as uniqueness which has its roots in human beings’ need to express themselves and show that they are different from others. Uniqueness elicits a feeling of empowerment by having valuable identity expressed through differently designed products, enabling the privilege of special-edition products that are designed specifically for them. Converse has gained notoriety for their successful implementation of a platform that allows customers to order shoes with their own custom design, as opposed to having a limited set of customisation options. This allows the customer to apply their identity through design; through simple customisation, the result is a product that is uniquely theirs. Now, imagine a pair of shoes where the colour changes based on your emotional status, or through environmental factors like the weather forecast. The shoes can learn and understand your jogging time every evening and change to light green for better visibility in the dark. The shoes embody personalisation by learning the patterns and habits that are unique to you.


Adjusting design elements to better match a user’s personality helps drive the pleasure and connection users feel to their objects in their life that reflect their uniqueness and individual expression. In a world where mass-production is the norm, allowing users to both direct the application of their identity to a product and having the product adapt to the uniqueness of their context allows a sense of control that is comforting, empowering, and pleasing for users. In this post, I have discussed the physiological, psychological, and sociological pleasures that can be fulfilled through personalisation and how uniqueness can be realised through careful consideration of these pleasures. I highlighted some theoretical wearable computer design to demonstrate examples of the application of personalisation and the next post goes into further depth on the topic of applying personalisation within design.


  1. Dabbs, Annette De Vito, Brad A Myers, Kenneth R Mc Curry, Jacqueline Dunbar-jacob, Robert P Hawkins, Alex Begey, Amanda Dew, et al. 2012. “User-Centered Design and Interactive Health Technologies for Patients.” Changes 3 (4): 229–48.
  2. Fan, Haiyan, and Marshall Scott Poole. 2006. “What Is Personalization? Perspectives on the Design and Implementation of Personalization in Information Systems.” Journal of Organizational Computing and Electronic Commerce 16 (3–4): 179–202.
  3. Schade, Amy. 2016. “Customization vs. Personalization in the User Experience.” Retrieved March 12.
  4. Schneider-Hufschmidt, Matthias, Uwe Malinowski, and Thomas Kuhme, eds. 1993. Adaptive User Interfaces: Principles and Practice. New York, NY, USA: Elsevier Science Inc.
  5. Norman, Donald A. 2004. Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things. Basic Civitas Books.
  6. Sleeman, D. 1985. “UMFE: A User Modelling Front-End Subsystem.” International Journal of Man-Machine Studies 23 (1): 71–88.