Let’s say there’s a coffee shop I frequent often. The people there know me since I’ve been going there for a long time, and they also know what I like: if it’s the morning, I want a straight dark roast coffee with just a smidgen of room for a little sugar. If it’s the afternoon, I want an iced mocha, easy ice, no whip. That’s what I want. It’s like clockwork.
And the people there get this. I get up to the counter and they say, “Yep! Hi Paul! The usual?” I say, “Yes!” and a few moments later I’ve paid and am waiting anxiously for my coffee.
It’s one of the things I find endearing about this coffee shop. They know me. They get what I like. They inferred this, correctly, from my frequent visits.
One day I visited the shop, the menu caught my eye. It had changed. Impressively, this coffee shop’s menu had my drink at the top of the menu. It was an iced mocha listed for its usual price, but it was listed first. It even had “Easy ice, no whipped cream” listed below it. Pretty nice. Underneath that was another drink, a dark chocolate mocha, for a little more. There were a couple more drinks I noticed, but ultimately I stuck with my original choice.
It was nice to see it though. At the counter, I was greeted a little differently. “Hi Paul! Did you notice the menu?”
“I did. How did you… do that?”
“Oh, we’ve got technology for that. We studied what our customers wanted and decided that it would be nice to let everyone have their own personal menu.”
“And, you know, we know you love your usual. We love it too. But there are a few other drinks you might like. For instance, you’ve never had an espresso here - a straight espresso.”
“But given you like coffee in the morning, you might like it. So we put it pretty high on the menu. We think you’ll go for it.”
“Well, what if I don’t?”
“No problem. We might still have it there for you on the menu, and it’s always available. But you don’t have to have it. We just wanted to give you options.”
“Nice. Thanks. I’ll have an iced mocha.”
“The usual. Got it.”
As I sipped my mocha I watched the menu change as each customer approached it. It was pretty nice.
Of course, this is a metaphor
Orbitz has been in the news cycle for the past few days for showing different results to Mac users than it does to PC users. This is based on their extensive data mining and behavioral research, conducted by people much smarter than I, and is still what is determined to be a best guess at what people will want to buy.
The coffee shop analogy, I hope, is comparable. At Orbitz, I’m a customer or potential customer. They have things I might want to buy - they’re a store, after all. They know something about me, and they’re saying, “Based on that, here’s what we think will be best for you.” Now, they could be totally wrong. But they’re giving it a go, and I admire that.
Note that Orbitz is not hiding any results. They’re simply changing the default sort order.
In addition the outrage surprises me as this, as a practice, is not new. All travel sites do this to some extent - only the criteria might have been less obvious in the past. And Amazon has been using various filtering and personalization features for years. Nothing new.
Think about this, though: we’re at a point where we can have truly customized stores with relevant “shelves” and product options. Isn’t that near the ideal from a user’s perspective? As long as Orbitz allows further filtering - and they do - I see nothing wrong with this practice.
Disclaimer: I am a former Orbitz employee and still have a few pals there.