Product Personalisation


I’m interested in how people personalise consumer products to meet their own needs functionally, and needs emotionally/aesthetically.
As a creative bunch, can you think of any products you own, or friends around you own that have been personalised in some way, and why? For example, this could range simply from the wallppaper on the screen of your mobile phone, to stickers on the bottom of a skateboard to trims on cars…

Any Thoughts??

This is going to come off more cantankerous than I want it to, and it isn’t specifically targeted at scruffypaulo, but I’m sort of surprised that people use this forum to survey the opinions of other designers about users. That isn’t design research. That’s what designers have always done, before there was awareness of development of other tools.

I’m not the Lord King of Methodology to say what does and what doesn’t count as research, I guess - and your mileage may vary, and maybe Paul’s example that I’m reacting to is legit - a quick “dump” of examples that have been observed by other users.

And really, I’m taking the wrong time to react here, but I guess design research is a vague term and people use it in different ways, and people use this forum in different ways, and after all, we’re talking about core77’s readership which is heavily heavily heavily designers, of course, so maybe this comment isn’t appropriate, let alone well-targeted?

And sure, forums are organic and dynamic and they become what people want them to be.

And I’m committing the annoying sin of complaining about what other people post, rather than actually contributing content that I think is valid (although I have done that as well).

Waddyall think?

One example for whatever it’s worth - did a study on laptop users about a year ago. The more design-y the laptop - ie, Mac stuff - the more the physical form had to be preserved absolutely. No customization at all. One Mac ower had learned illusrator or something and as a practice project took some cute character on girls’ clothing and traced it for her hard drive icon, which she renamed the character’s name. She was a little embarassed when asked about it, however.

On the other end, the old broken down toolbox laptop - used by a hacker-type who was basically supporting a system in NYC from a cafe in SF - was completely crapped up with bumper stickers and all sorts of stuff. The hardware meant nothing, in fact the software (or OS) meant nothing to him either - he saw that machine as literally a window into a variety of other systems.

And laptops are an interesting category because they deal with getting work-like tasks done but they are intensely personal in nature and the connection with them or what they enable is incredibly personal.

Not sure if this helps at all!

Jeesh…obviosuly struck a chord there. Ouch.

No I complete understand where you are coming from. Asking such questions round here is obviosuly NOT user-centred research. I completely understand that. The reason I asked the question in here was just possibly to see if there are other ways at which I might approach the subject other than those I have already read-up on and started to think about attacking as more User-focussed research. Designer’s may not like it, but they tend to think far differently and far more laterally than the rest of the world and don’t always think of the obvious first - which is why I asked! Plus a forum like this is a good place for a ‘dump’ of ideas as you put it - brainstorming but just via the wonders of the wonderweb!

Thanks for pointing it out though. I hope I haven’t come across as a complete arse for asking the question in the first place, I merely wanted to pick others brains and hopefully get some more out of the actuals real research I’m planning.

Cheers for the laptop one - that’s cool. Have similar other examples, and that was the kind of thing I was thinking. Is just hard then to relate it into realistic research.

Thanks Steve,

Paul - I posted my reply to your post, but it was really a reaction to many many postings (all that trend discussion etc.) that challenge my expectation for the forum. What you did or said or didn’t do or say was minor and I chose to react to your post.

I could have started a new thread, but I guess I wanted the context of my reaction to be transparent, and I tried to apologize for that but it’s not very convincing I guess to yell at someone while apologizing for yelling at them!

I think in general it can be helpful to provide context for questions - like you did in your last entry - “I’ve done X, I’m thinking about doing Y, can anyone suggest Q?”

But then you run the risk of that Internet phenomenon where people won’t answer your question but tell you what you should be doing instead. So having a tightly focused question can help prevent that, I guess. But then you get grumps like me “why are we talking about this here?”

There’s a cultural theme or trend running through here - when personalization seemed to emerge as a design-y topic about 6 years ago, it was the thin edge of the wedge. Oh, you’d have software skins or replaceable bezels. Now there’s something going on where every possible surface that can be decorated will be decorated, we have the technology. HP Ipods come with printable skins - software meets hardware. All the aftermarket auto stuff - including the cool but absolutely unecessary spinning rims.

I think Substance of Style - Virginia Postrel - is the definitive book on the incredible growth in choice and in amount of style and styling available to consumers. She documents it all and you can see new examples of what she describes around you all the time.

We are all consuming this stuff - in that we all are seeing it happen around us as a style or fashion, but how many of us are actually interested in doing that is something I don’t have a clue about. But it seems to be an explosion in possibility - what can you change, decorate, print on, add a layer to - and of course advertise on.

Scruffy asked for us “as a creative bunch” to consider personalization, and I think that’s valid.

Using Steve’s own example, designers/design-researchers are trained to consider those things that consumers themselves don’t (the girl who was embarrased by you noticing her custom icon, etc.)

Call it “heuristics” or whatever, but going to the pro’s is the next best thing to going to the people.

That said, IS there a place on the net to conduct free, generalized market research?

No Worries Steve - not offended…is the kind of thing that tends to happen on all discussion forums.

Yeah there’s several different directions this seems to come from - there’s the optional personalisation that is possible through manufacturing and as a direct result of the designers thinking somewhere, resulting in changeable covers, bezels etc, and then there’s the more personal approach where the user personalises the product totally themselves where any creative input is totally their own. It could be argued that this makes the product even more unique thus increasing any kind of relationship between user and product.

It’s interesting what you say about the printable HP skins - do you think this is a kind of convergence of the two, and industry’s answer to how design can fit into the user’s unspoken need to make product’s ‘theirs’??

Anyway, shall stop blethering and save this for the report writing!
Cheers for your thoughts Steve - as I hoped you have kind of kicked me in a slightly different direction, so some good has come from it!

First, thank you for stating what I have been thinking for awhile about this forum Steve. And I agree that people are simply going to make of this what they make of it.

Second, scruffypaolo I would suggest that you also might look simultaneously in the exact opposite direction - namely, at anonymous or “considered-neutral” products. For example, when finding an apartment, isn’t it preferable to start with an empty box, rather than something that contains little flourishes which reflect someone else’s idea of “design?”

Charles Eames once said that just about anything looks great in granite while just about everything looks crap in plasticine. From anecdotal experience, I once did a set of interviews for an automotive manufacturer and found surprisingly that my respondants’ “dream-cars” were not in fact pimped and tricked out current models, but rather old and classic cars in stock condition (Volvo P1800 etc).

What does this tell us? Perhaps that personalization is really on the periphery of what people actually desire and respect. Perhaps once an item can be personalized, it tends to loose its novelty, like vanity license plates, or desktop icons and wallpaper. Look at what they did to the spirograph in the name of “personalization” it is sad really,

My Whitesnake jean jacket :smiling_imp:

Just a thought but perhaps the desire to personalize products comes from a loss of input into the environment around us in modern times. These days there is a product or service for every need we have. If something breaks or we have a new desire the solution can simply be bought - before widespread consumerism people would have to actually learn to fix an item or create it themselves. In this way they would have a direct impact upon their environment and over time this space and the items within it would feel immensly ‘personalised’.

My own way of personlising a product is just to use it - let the everyday knocks, scratches and dints give it a history instead of wrapping it up in a woolen ‘sock’.

  • like everyone else I’m not sue this will help but it’s another angle to explore -

Cheers Cordy and Shucken.

I totally see what you’re both saying. I like what Schucken had to say about letting the everyday knocks, scratches and dings giving a product ‘history’ - a few more academic types have come to the same conclusions. Letting a product gain it’s own character merely through the everyday abuse inflicted upon it and not being to precious about it.

I see also Cordy what you mean by de-personalising. I think that is where some of my thinking and research is leading me: I’m seeing that there is a difference between the ‘personalisation’ designed-into a product by the manufacturers, and that ‘inflicted’ or creatively imposed upon a product by the user. Do you think the latter is undoubtably more personal than the former as the user has to think a little more creatively for themselves rather than choosing from a set of predefined options…?? I think from what you said too, is there not a huge difference between ‘classic’ designs which people own purely from lust compared with everyday objects?

What have they done to the Spirograph?!? Unbelieveable!!..not like the old days of chipped little sprockets and sellotape holding the pen in the hole…


Never outwardly considered that the difference between house and home is the personalization involved… I’ve been too mobile for it. But now that you mention it, and forgetting that the primary purpose of housing is shelter, it’s major selling point is that it is intended to be customized. Really, who hasn’t made a choice between two apartments based on how well (or badly) our possessions will fit inside.

I think a lot of what we call customization is merely the application of available styles…personalization in lieu of personal style.


A brittainy spears sticker on the hub of his mountain bike.

a deadhead sticker on a Cadillac

Even though it’s been asked by countless thesis projects, it’s still a good question to look into.

However, are you looking in the right place? People have been personalizing the objects and experiences around them for a long long time, from their clothing to the shape of their heads, to how they want to leave this earth.

That is where I’d start at- the basic needs of living. Rich content there for the asking.

I’d suggest avoiding at first looking at the chunks of plastic that we carry around and the things we tap words into. I’m afraid that you will spend a huge amount of time and not find much useful to use as a designer.

My 2 cents.