OPINION8 March 2013

All about me


Giving consumers the tools to analyse their personal behaviour data will allow them to set personalised defaults to improve their lives, paving the way to a truly me-centric future, says Crawford Hollingworth.

Companies and governments often use defaults to structure choice – for instance, making pension plans opt-out rather than opt-in. But in a world of so many varied preferences and unending choices many behavioural scientists believe that more tailored and personalised defaults can help to make our lives better and simpler. Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge, recently argued that “personalised defaults are the wave of the future”.

Enter big data. The quintillions of bytes of behavioural data being generated by consumers allows for the creation of these personalised defaults – and governments and business look set on handing people the tools to make this a reality.

In the UK, the government is pursuing midata, a scheme to grant consumers access to personal transaction data in an electronic, portable and machine-readable format, while in the US the government’s Smart Disclosure Data Community has made over 400 data sets available to consumers and innovators through an online platform. And then there’s Tesco’s Clubcard Play initiative, through which Tesco plans to develop products and games to give loyalty-card holders access to their own data.

From mass to personalised defaults
Many defaults set by the private and public sector are one-size-fits-all – which is often not the best solution. Consumers can be irritated by generalised defaults and mass marketing as they may not match their preferences, causing them to opt-out altogether.

“Rather than customers belonging to a varied set of loyalty accounts for different companies and services, they will manage their own single loyalty programme – in which companies can be members”

Some companies already do try to personalise and match defaults to their customers, but people can be unnerved by the level of analysis required to achieve this – often feeling like their personal privacy is threatened. However, offering consumers greater access to their own behavioural data could allow them to feel more comfortable and empowered to set their own defaults for products and services.

The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce has produced two reports on the subject in which it stresses that behaviour change should ideally be reflexive and self-directed, rather than externally directed through nudges and imposed defaults. So empowering individuals with easily assimilated knowledge of their own behaviours is a big step towards this ideal.

So how might it work? Using midata as an example, energy companies could release data to their customers to help them make decisions about which tariffs to use. Similarly, bank consumers could be in a better position to manage their money if they had the tools to analyse their spending and saving behaviours across different accounts; to compare their spending and money management with others of a similar income, location or family size (bringing social norms into play); and to access price comparison sites so they can see which providers could save them money.

The ramifications of this personal empowerment could be huge. Sunstein’s Nudge co-author Richard Thaler believes that in the future consumers will be ever more in control, creating demands using personalised defaults and preference knowledge that can be met by any supplier. Doc Searles, author of The Intention Economy, believes that rather than customers belonging to a varied set of loyalty accounts for different companies and services, they will manage their own single loyalty programme – in which companies can be members.

There are already faint signs of this ‘come to me’ economy. Much Better Adventures, a UK holiday company, invites you to describe your holiday preferences and, based on your information, local and independent operators can approach you directly. This makes the experience much more tailored and better matched to your needs and allows you to express your preferences just once, rather than with numerous companies. The Open Data Institute has also developed a fascinating loan solution, MiLoan, which allows individuals to issue a request for proposal to potential lenders, inviting them to pitch to lend them money.

That sounds like a truly me-centric future.

Crawford Hollingworth is co-founder of The Behavioural Architects