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Unintended Consequences: The Midas Touch

Daniel Bruce, Partner, Risk Consulting
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Just because you can doesn't mean you should

There is an increasing ability to track and monitor people’s activity using advancing technology in both social and work settings. The information gathered can be used to gain insights into customer interests and behaviour, with a view to enhancing their experiences. In all cases, there is clearly a need to ensure transparency about what data is used for and to guarantee consent is obtained. Even when operating within these boundaries, companies must ensure that using data in this way really is valuable to the customer, not just the business.

The point here is, just because you can, should you? It is important to consider the wider knock-on impacts, including ethical issues, when deciding what you will do with the customer insights that you glean from data.

Consider King Midas: the idea of turning everything he touched into gold seemed appealing but didn’t turn out so well.

Personalisation, and the targeting of advertising and content, is a growth area facilitated by ever improving technology and algorithms. This provides the ability to accurately assess a person's characteristics, preferences, background, socio-economic group and shopping choices, to name but a few.

This allows advertisers to deliver tailored content that is highly specific to each individual. At the simple end of the scale, a customer is offered some suggestions of items they might like based, on their browsing history.

This all seems helpful and exciting. However, if this activity is in effect narrowing customer choice, perhaps this idea is not as good as it first seemed?

As a society we should be active about promoting diversity. We are given many examples and reasons in all walks of life as to why diversity is beneficial. For example, we are encouraged to not hire people who are just like us or the rest of our team; the best teams are formed from a broader range of personality traits.

Equally, too much personalisation, without careful consideration, does not promote diversity of choice. We need to offer people a chance to see content and options that they, given their characteristics and preferences, wouldn’t necessarily search out and find for themselves. We are making it too easy for them, and channelling them into 'more of the same' and a field of view that is far from diverse.

In addition, by providing easy suggestions, perhaps we are stifling self-exploration and dampening inquisitiveness. At one extreme, this may result in a reduction in the general ability to “go off on a tangent” when presented with something unusual or fascinating.

Perhaps we should actively be using the information about customers, derived from the analytics, to deliver a combination of content. Some of which reflects the individual’s assessed characteristics and is likely to be of direct interest, but a significant portion of which is deliberately chosen to be quite different to what may be expected. This should both promote diversity of choice and be thought provoking, presenting a completely different aspect on a product, service or lifestyle choice.

Human beings have adapted and survived over millions of years by being inquisitive, striving to understand differences in ourselves compared to others; this trait should be encouraged. Extending the reach of the personalisation capabilities is one way in which we can help protect and develop this natural and vital tendency.

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Daniel Bruce
Daniel Bruce
Partner, Risk Consulting