Designing personalised products and services for people on the move

A ‘Smart Salon’ design event

On 11th July, I attended a ‘Smart Salon’ event in Shoreditch hosted by Smart Design, which discussed the question: are we there yet when it comes to personalising user experiences for people on the move?

Sketchnote of the panel discussion
Sketchnote of the panel discussion

The venue was the hip Hotel Ace

Characteristic of Smart Designs events (see another about design-capability I blogged about previously), the venue was chic: a design Hotel Ace on the 7th-floor, in a room with beautiful panoramic views of the July skyline of the City of London.

Ace Hotel Shoreditch plaque
Ace Hotel Shoreditch
Room 100 at the Ace Hotel
Ready to begin: Room 100 at the Ace Hotel, with an ofo bike in the window (ofo bikes are bikes for hire like Boris bikes, but don’t have docking stations)

The format of the event was a discussion panel

After a enjoying a posh bacon butty and some networking with other delegates, the in depth discussion began.

Breakfast at the Ace Hotel
Breakfast at the Ace Hotel

The meeting of around 60 people was chaired by the panel moderator, Nate Giraitis, Strategy Director at Smart Design.  The expert panel included “mobility disruptors, corporate innovators and urban futurists”:

  • Richard Balch, Director of Sustainable Mobility & Telematics, Ford
  • Gemma Ginty, Urban Futures Lead, Future Cities Catapult
  • Joseph Driver-Seal, Operations Director, ofo UK
  • Jonathan Vaux, Executive Director, Innovation & Partnerships, VISA
The exert panel:pic from Smart Design

The topic was personalisation of experiences for users on the move

smart salon
A smart salon event to ask…

Personalised experiences are the new normal. Services like Amazon and Spotify have revolutionised people’s expectations for consuming goods and media that are specifically curated for individual tastes and preferences.

Other industries such as retail, media, hospitality, healthcare and (especially) transport are undergoing a similar transformation.  Companies like Citymapper, Ford, TfL and ofo UK, for example, are providing commuters with more choices than ever to get from A to B exactly when—and how—they want to. With the help of emerging technologies, AI and data-driven personalisation, the future of getting around is becoming more moving than ever before.  So what are the trends we expect to see in future?

To explore the mobility revolution, the discussion was split into four broad themes

discussion topics
The discussion was split into 4 areas

The city perspective – how will data harnessed to personalise user experiences?

How cities are organised depends on how old they are.  New cities like Dubai have lots of space, whereas older cities have dense high rise and lots of foot traffic.  Really old cities like London are super dense and sprawling.  But what does this mean for designers trying to create useful products and services for users in cities?

Gemma, former architect and now leader of Urban Futures, pointed to the need for a data-driven approach to design, saying: “Dense cities are more efficient, but there needs to be a balance with wellbeing and emotional needs.  The new ingredient to understand them is data

So data is important, but how can we understand the data we capture from digital services we create?  Jonathan, of VISA, suggested the way to understand it is demographics, but perhaps not the usual ones: “City dweller or not? This is a better demographic than age or other criteria when it comes to understanding how people interact with technology.  City dwellers are generally more comfortable with tech”

But the counterpoint suggests it’s not all about tech, “yes, we can email from phones wherever we are” (Richard),”but people will still want to spend time together”; after all (Jonathan:) “video conferencing arriving in the 90’s didn’t stop face-2-face meetings”.

The personal perspective & data privacy

When it comes to understanding user behaviour, data will have to be leveraged to get a fuller picture.  But unlike the databases and services I help to design at EMBL-EBI, for example, for the travel-related applications that city planners and service/product managers design, they need to identify who the individual user is (and in real time), in order to tailor the services they are seeing.  This requires personal identity information to be shared for it to work; as Joseph (of ofo UK) put it “you can’t personalise and give app benefits without it”.  So how can we mitigate for privacy concerns, “especially since new data protection regulations are coming in in May next year” (Gemma)?

Jonathan suggested “it’s all about reward versus risk.  There are circles of trust I am happy with.  I’d like to be able to manage my privacy through a [global] dashboard of credentials”.

Richard (of Ford) used an analogy of what he would like to see: “I always accept the cookies policy, because I want to use the website anyway – the data rights need to be at a sensible level”.

Nate described this concept as “passive personalisation”, where you are authenticated without you knowing it.  For example, Jonathan elaborated on the vision, proposing that “the best shopping experience should feel like shop lifting.  How do you pay uber?  You just get out of the car!”

Personalised or creepy?

Next, Richard touched an important issue for designing personalised services: “the machine learning needs to be right, because it can get creepy if it’s too personalised”.

Nate suggested maybe the perception of getting ‘creepy’ is dependant on your age or generation.  Jonathan, however, reckoned “it’s actually about comfort level.  Older users can become heavy users, but they need more encouragement and marketing to onboard”.  This resonated with Adrian Westaway’s keynote talk at a recent UX workshop I co-organised.  He suggested that older users needed more reassurance and clarity that they wouldn’t break stuff by trying new features on a mobile phone, but once they were initiated they would use and benefit from services equally as much as a user from any other demographic.

Future opportunities for integrated services

In future, Nate sees a place for a “Russian doll” of services when you are on the move.  “For example, you might consume music services whilst in a taxi, or maybe order stuff from Deliveroo via your car share service, or even order Marks & Spencer food during your British Airways flight.  But, if this becomes the case,” he asked, “who owns the user experience?  If things go wrong, which service provider will get the blame?”

Richard said we could think of it like this: “I might book my trip through, but if it’s bad I would blame the hotel.  It’s like the Amazon market place – it’s an aggregator, but you need to have trusted brands within it.”

Gemma added: “if it’s only one provider you get a monopoly; think ATMs, you can use any now, it’s not bank by bank”.

The vision of highly integrated services that are personalised seemed to be on the cards.  But how will this be achieved in practice?

Data standards and interoperability will be needed for seamless experiences

Joseph commented on ‘smart city’ examples of aggregated services, “where you can use a single interface to plan a complex journey”, but that there is the tension of “if you have a large user base, why would you go to an aggregator?”.  He also eluded to this being a tricky problem to solve when you have complex bureaucracy, like in London, where there are scores of individually-governed boroughs.  This is a contrast compared to developing countries, where everything is new and you can more easily roll out change.

To support aggregation and consistency of experience, Jonathan insisted that “interoperable standards will be needed – VISA knows a lot about this.  It also acts as a trust mark for users”.


Nate then prompted the panel to think about examples of collaborations, to explore how creative ideas will be generated to solve the complex challenges of designing future services for people on the move. He suggested that innovation may need to come about through partnerships.

Jonathan agreed, saying that “just yesterday we met with a previous market rival, but we need to collaborate to succeed.  In the past, there were novel ways of doing things, from device providers and banks, etc. but we wouldn’t work together so the [innovative] results were never realised.  We now know there is a better way”. Gemma suggested too that “autonomous vehicles will needs partnerships for its development”.

Richard: “At Ford, we are open to have more partnerships in future.  For instance, we are opening a new office at Olympic Park, which is close to East London [and its financial district], and is co-located with an incubator for start-up companies and researchers from the University of Loughborough.  We want to stimulate new ways of thinking.”

Designing around user behaviour, not changing it

“Mobile technology isn’t changing behaviour, so much as we have to make technology work around existing behaviours.  For example, we [VISA] looked into designing a pay application for Mums at petrol pumps, who didn’t want to leave their kids in the car and pay at a kiosk.” (Jonathan).

And Gemma questioned: “Are there ways that we can use exiting services, like the post man visiting houses, to help with social care for isolated elderly people?…Or even having runners to check in with older people on their jogging routes?”  The future services that will work seem to come from spotting existing opportunities and exploiting them to benefit end users where they are and for what they are already doing.

Closing quick fire round of questions

To finish the discussion, Nate posed a few questions to finish.  One of which was “who are you talking to on you commute in the future?”

  • Siri?
  • Alexa?
  • Google?
  • AI of your car?

3 panellists said Alexa and one Google.

And, “which brand do you trust the most with your digital identity?”

3 panellists said banks: Barclays, and VISA Bank (guess who that was!); and one said Apple.

To close there was a Q&A and some more networking – and that was it.

All in all a thought-provoking event, so thank you for hosting again Smart Design!


Check out the Twitter hashtag #smartsalon to see highlights

Smart Design – who hosted the free event

Previous Smart Salon Event: “Is your organisation design-capable?”

Ace Hotel London


Please note that the quotes in this article are roughly paraphrased and reflect the sentiments of the panel discussion, rather than the exact wording.  In the past Smart Design have released video clips of the discussion on Vimeo, so I recommend checking for these if you want exact wording.

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