John Hauser, a professor of marketing at the Sloan School and the lead author of a paper on the research that is slated to appear in Marketing Science, explains that a website running the system would detect a user’s cognitive style. It would watch for traits, such as whether or not the user is detail oriented, and morph to complement that style. The changes would be subtle. “Suddenly, you’re finding the website is easy to navigate, more comfortable, and it gives you the information you need,” Hauser says. The user, he says, shouldn’t even realize that the website is personalized.
The researchers built a prototype website for British Telecom, set up to sell broadband plans. The website is designed so that the first few clicks that visitors make are likely to reveal aspects of cognitive style. For example, the initial page that a user sees lets her choose, among other things, to compare plans using a chart or to interact with a broadband advisor. “You can see that someone who’s very analytic is probably more likely to go to ‘compare plans’ than to the direct advisor,” says Hauser. Within about 10 clicks, the system makes a guess at the user’s cognitive style and morphs to fit. “If we determine that you like lots of graphs, you’re going to start seeing lots of graphs,” he says. “If we determine that you like to get advice from peers, you’re going to see lots of advice from peers.”
In addition to guessing at each user’s cognitive style by analyzing that person’s pattern of clicks, the system would track data over time to see which versions of the website work most effectively for which cognitive styles.