Posted on November 21, 2012 by Steve Mu

Back in 2000, I worked at a Proctor & Gamble spin-off company named Reflect. We had this crazy idea, that we can create one-off, truly individually customized beauty product. We had our own manufacturing facility in┬áCincinnati, OH. We had a web-based consultation process for recommending different formulas, customizing fragrances, and textures. By 2005, we were even testing retail locations where we can perform the same type of customization in store, right in front of the customer’s eyes.

“Personalization” was the buzzword in the industry, the internet, with its ability to collect massive amounts of data, track every single user’s every move, brought forth the promise of a truly individualized web experience. Newsfeeds tailored to our interest, clothes made to our measurements, context relevant shopping experience were all parts of that promise.

So twelve years later, where are we now?

Customized clothing hasn’t exactly taken off with a storm, very few online retailers offer it, and for the most part we can’t even find the right fit with just normal clothes. News aggregators like Flipboard, Circa, and Feedly are all trying to find the right balance between personalization, information, and presentation; but there doesn’t seem to be a definitive winner.

As for contextual shopping experience? Amazon might have been the worst thing to ever happen to it.

Not that I dislike shopping from Amazon, I have Amazon Prime, and I order almost at least one thing from Amazon every month. However, once upon a time, Amazon’s shopping experience was more about “me”. The Amazon homepage now has a caricature of me: I’m being peppered by Kindle ads everyday: No, I’m not buying one today and I won’t be buying one a month from now, so please just stop it. I’m being pestered by a list of plastic containers because I was looking for “one” container; no, I’m really, really not looking for 200 different variations of the same item.

My favorite part is the sometimes completely irrelevant cross sells. I searched for a headphone, and apparently I can get that headphone plus another headphone of a different brand or of a lesser quality at the same time if I clicked on this bright yellow button! What is the use case for that? Am I going to be wearing two of these headphones at the same time? Am I a secret member of X-Men with four ears? This cross sell recommendation would’ve been more relevant if they tried to sell me a JVC tape deck from the 1980’s.

Amazon’s dominance in online retail, meant that a long time ago they’ve stopped caring about customizing their website around your experience, they’re simply optimizing on the best way to get you to buy stuff. If that meant pestering you with 200 variations of the same item on the homepage, so be it.

When Reflect closed down in 2005, I thought someone would take what we’ve done and run with it, but it seems we’re more than a little bit stuck in time.