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  • Writer's pictureSlashData Team

Customisation vs Personalisation: Setting the record straight

In the mobile industry, we often talk about customisation and personalisation interchangeably to describe how a service or a handset is adapted to the needs of users. I would argue that these two terms refer to very distinct concepts; in fact customisation is the exact opposite of personalisation. Let me explain why.


Customisation (as in handset customisation) is the act of modifying a ‘vanilla’ handset by the operator to suit the goals of the operator (or in general the service provider). Handset customisation typically involves adding a hard key that leads to the operator WAP portal, changing menus and icons, and branding the handset user interface to promote the operator brand. In that same context, we can talk about service customisation, as in branding the operator’s WAP portal to use the operator’s trademark red, orange, blue or magenta colours as a tool to appeal to the operator’s key demographic

In general, we can safely define customisation as the act of modifying the mobile handset or service to suit operator goals. Examples are Orange’s home-screen customisation, and Vodafone’s Live customised WAP portal. The defining characteristic of customisation is that the same content, look & feel, settings, etc of the customisation handset or service are the same for all users. Whether you are Mary, John, Samantha or Bill, you ‘re bound to like seeing your handset painted in the same trademark red, orange, blue or magenta that matches the operator contract that you ‘ve chosen. Right.


Personalisation is the exact opposite of customisation. It is the act of modifying the handset or service by the user, to suit the user’s own needs. Think of changing the wallpaper and ringtones to appeal to the user’s taste. Or swapping the handset fascia to a bright pink or a solemn black. Or even having the user choose what shortcuts and icons to see displayed on the operator WAP portal, instead of using the operator’s one-size-fits-all content and branding.

Customisation and personalisation are two extremes along the same spectrum of possibilities. Interestingly, there are two more points along that spectrum, which offer a compromise between customisation and personalisation, as shown below.

Customisation vs Personalisation

Targeted customisation Operators are making significant efforts to target niche user segments such as the young or the elderly. Targeted customisation is when the operator or service provider modifies the handset or service to suit the (perceived) needs of a specific customer segment.

Robbie Williams handset

A good example here is the Vodafone Simply range of handsets. Vodafone designed the Simply handsets for a consumer segment the operator calls ‘adult personal users’. This segment is the largest in Vodafone’s market segmentation, made up of 35-54 year olds, married with children, mostly female, with a low comfort or interest in technology.

Another example is the Sony Ericsson Robbie Williams special edition W800i walkman phone launched exclusively by T-Mobile in October 2005 to appeal to fans of the pop artist.

Targeted personalisation Mobile service providers have explored yet another approach of a mass-market service that can be personalised to individual users and usage patterns. Targeted personalisation is when the service provider is able to profile each user and tailor the service to the individual characteristics of that user.

An example is the Financial Times offline portal developed by Leiki, where the ‘My’ page offers content tailored to each user. The service works by automatically classifying the contents of the FT articles read by the user and also allowing the user to determine which articles they liked or disliked reading. Another example is Vodafone’s Radio DJ, which offers a wide range of streamed radio channels, with a system which enables users to adjust the pre-programmed radio channels to their own personal tastes by simply pressing a button to indicate “like” or “dislike” while listening to a song. The radio channel automatically analyses song beat, harmonies, genre and mood to automatically feature songs with desirable characteristics.

Personalisation, the end-goal of customisation Mobile operator customisation strategies in 2002-3 evolved around branding the handsets and services with the trademark orange, red, blue or magenta colours, assuming that the one-brand-fits-all approach would win customers, increase ARPU and reduce churn. As the operator strategies have been maturing in 2005-6, operators are realising that a low-key brand approach, coupled with strong elements consumer brands (read Google, Yahoo, Robbie Williams and Ferrari) are more successful at attracting consumers.

I would argue, that moving forward, the end-goal of operator customisation should be targeted personalisation, and pure personalisation – i.e. in the search for increasingly sophisticated market segmentation plans, there is no better segmentation than self-segmentation, that is when the user can be free to choose the service and device look & feel that best suits them.

Both Vodafone and Orange claim to focus on user personalisation, while the implementation of their strategies suggests otherwise. The branded hard key on Live! phones takes you to the central operator portal, and the ‘Your Page’ entry on the home-screen of Orange Signature devices is the very last entry of the menu structure.

If operators want to maintain a clear, desirable and sustainable advantage over competitors, they need to offer not only brand, but choice at each and every point.


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