It’s hard to build a website that will please everyone. Some people respond best when they see basic facts on a clean page, others when they have a lot of charts and graphs at their fingertips. Now researchers at MIT’s Sloan School of Management hope to make websites better at selling products by making them adapt automatically to each visitor, presenting information in a way that complements that person’s style of thinking.
The researchers’ initial studies show that morphing a website to suit different types of visitors could increase the site’s sales by about 20 percent. While quite a few sites, such as Amazon.com, offer personalized features, many of those sites adapt by drawing information from user profiles, stored cookies, or long questionnaires. The Sloan system, however, adapts to unknown users within the first few clicks on the website by analyzing each user’s pattern of clicks.
John Hauser, a professor of marketing at the Sloan School and the lead author of a paper on the research that is slated to appear in Marketing Science, explains that a website running the system would detect a user’s cognitive style. It would watch for traits, such as whether or not the user is detail oriented, and morph to complement that style. The changes would be subtle. “Suddenly, you’re finding the website is easy to navigate, more comfortable, and it gives you the information you need,” Hauser says. The user, he says, shouldn’t even realize that the website is personalized.
The researchers built a prototype website for British Telecom, set up to sell broadband plans. The website is designed so that the first few clicks that visitors make are likely to reveal aspects of cognitive style. For example, the initial page that a user sees lets her choose, among other things, to compare plans using a chart or to interact with a broadband advisor. “You can see that someone who’s very analytic is probably more likely to go to ‘compare plans’ than to the direct advisor,” says Hauser. Within about 10 clicks, the system makes a guess at the user’s cognitive style and morphs to fit. “If we determine that you like lots of graphs, you’re going to start seeing lots of graphs,” he says. “If we determine that you like to get advice from peers, you’re going to see lots of advice from peers.”
In addition to guessing at each user’s cognitive style by analyzing that person’s pattern of clicks, the system would track data over time to see which versions of the website work most effectively for which cognitive styles.
Peter Brusilovsky, director of the personalized adaptive Web systems lab at the school of information sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, says that, while there’s been much work on using cognitive styles to adapt Web pages to users, in most cases it’s been for education, not for e-commerce. This Sloan School’s approach, he feels, is an interesting one. Although personalization is valuable whether it’s done automatically or by the user, Brusilovsky says that “what is possible to do automatically is just impossible to do through the user, since users typically have little time to invest, and may not really be sophisticated [about how to adapt a page the way they want].” He particularly sees potential for these techniques for mobile Web pages, which, due to limited bandwidth and awkward interfaces, are hard for users to personalize.
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