Where are the personalised UIs?

Isn’t it crazy, in an age of abundant contextual data and AI breakthroughs, that we all use the same user interfaces?

I don’t mean personalised content — there is plenty of that going on in the form of ads, commerce, video recommendations — I mean that everyone using a given app on a given platform has the same UI to achieve things in that app, and that UI does not adapt to cater to your personal context.

For example, your iOS experience looks and feels exactly the same in terms of as mine if we’re both using the same version. The gestures are the same, the list of settings is the same, the camera app has the same options layout, the lock screen will (by default) be the same. What’s more, the UI doesn’t evolve to better serve our needs. If I use the flashlight every night for 3 nights in a row (camping, say), the fourth night it isn’t easier for me to get to the flashlight. The button hasn’t grown, a new button hasn’t appeared on my home screen temporarily (maybe replacing the citymapper app knowing I’m in the countryside so it’s not useful?)

Speaking of Citymapper, their outsized Get me Home button when you open the app late at night is an example of the UI personalisation I mean (albeit a very crude one)

Another crude example is Onboarding guides taking you through using an app or new feature for the first time.

Apart from that, there really isn’t much yet, apart from what only the AI giants can do.

“At any given point in time, there isn’t just one version of Facebook running, there are probably 10,000. Any engineer at the company can basically decide that they want to test something. There are some rules on sensitive things, but in general, an engineer can test something, and they can launch a version of Facebook not to the whole community, but maybe to 10,000 people or 50,000 people—whatever is necessary to get a good test of an experience” — Zuckerberg (source)

So the odds are your Facebook app doesn’t look and feel the same as mine. By letting an optimization algorithm decide which version to show to whom to maximise engagement, the Facebook UI grows increasingly personalised because it increases engagement (not because of a rule, e.g. the Stories button should disappear for me because I’ve never clicked it — there are no such discoverable rules produced by the algorithm)

I suspect ther apps which have enough traffic to do this with statistical rigour, and have the automated testing infrastructure in place (try asking a QA team to test 10,000 UI versions) also do this, such as Amazon.

At the OS level the leading example is Android, which is increasingly personalising what it shows you but it’s early days.

Other than having enough volume to validate that what you’re personalising is working, the main barriers I see to personalised UIs happening are:

  • Implemention effort: many more UI elements need to be designed and implemented to be able to offer a good UI for each user context imaginable (given the available data). This problem will go away as the effort to convert a UI to working code shrinks
  • Testing & Docs: manual testing going on is a non starter for these techniques, you need to be able to instrument all actions and test all scenarios automatically. Docs and customer support is also harder when you don’t know what the app looks like for the customer on the phone
  • Design integrity: particularly somewhere like Apple, you don’t imagine a design team putting UI choices in the hands of an algorithm, and mistakes will be made
  • Prioritisation: this work can understandably fall under “painting the other side of the fence”. This is an incremental improvement: people will not buy your app due to this, and will not get retained because the core service is great not because of personalisation

As AI seeps through society and software like electricity did (hat tip to Andrew Ng for the analogy) the UI personalisation techniques only Google and Facebook can afford today will become available to all product teams.

The advent of augmented reality will likely precipate this, as the UIs of our AR apps and OSes will need to be personalised to overlay usefully and safely on what we are seeing from the material world at each moment.

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