Foundations Matter: Better Personalized Experiences Through Content Modeling

December 14, 2017 | Chelsea Hunt, Mara Low & Joan Jasak

barista serving hot cocoaEnabling personalization should, in theory, serve users with content that perfectly satisfies their individual needs while boosting your conversions. In practice, this level of precision requires careful consideration of principles of structured content to avoid conflicting, confusing or redundant experiences and messaging. These types of errors act as unfriendly reminders to users that we are tracking their online behavior to influence artificial experiences. In other words, personalization is like most aspects of UX: it should be clear, seamless and useful such that it’s unnoticeable to the user and, instead, emphasizes the most valuable component of the experience—the content!

TBG recently shared these six basic principles for designing personalized experiences:

  1. The Need for Target Elements, or Places to Put New Target Elements
  2. Personalized Elements Must Be Dispensable
  3. Priority of Personalized Elements
  4. Some Swapped Elements Generate Greater Art Direction & Content Challenges
  5. (Probably) Avoid Personalizing Structural Site Elements
  6. Atomic Design Strongly Supports These Principles

This post builds on these concepts and describes a methodology for designing website experiences that achieve these six principles. Also, this blog post goes well with hot chocolate, if you have any handy! (Keep reading, and you’ll understand why.)

Your Web Experience Is Like a Cup of Hot Chocolate

CMS-driven website experiences rely on a complex system of reusable content items woven together with numerous business rules and programmatic relationships. Adding personalization into the mix increases the complexity of the system exponentially, since you now have multiple variations of each content item and additional rules around how these items interact with one another. (The system becomes even more complex when you start thinking about multi- or omni-channel personalization, but this blog post is focused on designing website experiences specifically.) 

Imagine that your CMS is a barista serving up your website experience as delightful cup of hot chocolate.

hot cocoa cups with personalization comparisonsTogether, all of the additional items on the hot cocoa make it the perfect tasty treat! 

Core Objects

Like our cup of hot cocoa, Core Objects are highly-specialized content types that represent a core offering. For a healthcare website, these might include care services and doctors, whereas a banking website might have products and financial services.

Support Objects

In the same way that whipped cream enhances your hot chocolate, Support Objects enrich a website experience by providing narrative around your brand story and guiding users’ decision-making processes (which occur primarily at the emotional subconscious level, so creating an emotional connection is important).

Support Objects can be content items that have their own distinct pages and experiences (such as blog posts and patient stories) or they can be in-page elements (such as a “hero” area) “portlet” items (such as a related patient story).

Personalization Variations

How do you like your hot chocolate? With a cinnamon stick and grated nutmeg or perhaps with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a dash of chili powder? Just like you might have different variations of accoutrements for your hot chocolate, you will need content variations to deliver personalized experiences on your website. Personalization Variations are alternate versions of UX elements that range from basic content variations to completely different UI (swappable sub-layouts, in Sitecore terms).

A Perfect Recipe for Personalization

Through content modeling we can design a complete recipe to drive both your default and personalized website experiences by relating Core and Support Objects (including Personalization Variations) and defining business and programmatic rules around how these objects interact with one another.

Core Objects generally have a highly specific relationship to one another, e.g. “X” treatment is offered as part of “Y” service (or hot chocolate is a caffeine-free product offering) and should (usually) be manually associated to one another. Whereas Support Objects generally have a more forgiving relationship with other objects, for example, you can use whipped cream on, well, anything!

When designing a website, we can leverage metadata and tree-list taxonomies to create relationships between two or more Support Objects, and also between a Support and a Core Object to drive dynamic display of related content portlets. Together, this forms your “pre-personalization” or default site experience.

Then, you layer on additional relationships to drive personalization. In Sitecore, this includes metadata relationships in the form of “tagging” content with goals, engagement values, personalization rules, and profile cards.

Designing the Perfect Cup

Each Support and Core Object is comprised of highly-specific UX modules or elements that make up the content types both from the front-end and back-end user experiences (aka how the content is managed in the CMS). The elements may be highly-specialized for a given content type, for example, hours on a location page, or they may be reusable elements or portlets that pull in Support Object content for display.

Designing in this highly intentional way helps to avoid the possibility of conflicting or redundant messagingon a page that includes more than one personalized element. Also, defining which modules are reusable and personalizable before you get to development saves you from potential headaches and rework down the line.

For each object, its associated modules must be prioritized in terms of importance to your users and business goals. And, of course, user and business goals vary by audience, hence the need to have target elements for personalization high in the website experience.

Whether dynamically driven or manually curated on a given page, each UX module should have a clearly defined high-level purpose. Two examples are as follows:

  • “Validation” UX Module

A singular UX element always shows thought leadership content that provides persuasive, supporting narrative with the tone and specific messaging targeted to different audiences.

  • Acquisition” UX Module

For this, you could swap the entire element out and display different UI and content to show asks and opportunities that sort of move users through a common user journey / engagement pattern.

With these ingredients, we can design personalized experiences that seamlessly surface the right content to satisfy your users' needs and to help you meet your business objectives. Just add a tad of content modeling, a dash of UX strategy, and a pinch of metadata! And sit back and enjoy your delicious mug of personalized hot chocolate!

About the Authors

Chelsea Hunt

I’m a Digital Strategist & UX Architect with TBG. When I’m not strategizing, I’m on a mission to visit all of the National Parks.

Mara Low

I am the Manager of Digital Strategy & Optimization with TBG. When I’m not crafting user experiences, you’ll  likely find me fire hula hooping, hiking, or creating up-cycled art.

Joan J.
Joan Jasak

I’m a Senior Digital Strategist & UX Architect at TBG. On my bucket list is to see a soccer game in each big European league.

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