The article on Technology Review seems so obvious, it's hard to imagine this idea hasn't been tested before. Then again, being obvious and being cost effective to implement are two entirely different things, aren't they?
According to TR, researchers at MIT's Sloan School of Management hope to make web sites better at selling products by making them adapt automatically to each visitor, presenting information in a way that complements that person's style of thinking. The idea is to match a site's experience to the cognitive style of the visitor. Says John Hauser, a professor of marketing at the Sloan School, "You can see that someone who's very analytic is probably more likely to go to 'compare plans' than to the direct advisor. If we determine that you like lots of graphs, you're going to start seeing lots of graphs. If we determine that you like to get advice from peers, you're going to see lots of advice from peers."
The Sloan system adapts to unknown users within the first few clicks on the web site by analyzing each user's pattern of clicks. In addition to guessing at each user's cognitive style, the system can track data over time to see which versions of the website work most effectively for which cognitive styles.
Of course, as anyone who has launched a large site knows, it can be a taxing and challenging effort simply to launch a one-dimensional site. Understanding all of the possible information needs for a variety users' cognitive styles and storing that data in a way it can be served differently to different visitors sounds, well, expensive. The article doesn't say much about costs or ROI--it just states that studies show ecommerce sales can increase 20%. I suppose if a brand's online sales are sufficiently large enough, a 20% increase may pay for this sort of system, but the more complex the site and the broader a site's product selection, the more costly it would be to implement.
It should also be noted that smart site owners and developers already have a way to match content to users without a complex system. With the use of research, personas, content development, information architecture, and design, a site can permit consumers--even without their explicit awareness--to choose a path that best suits their needs. In this way, careful research and design can create a site experience that may feel just as customized as the Sloan's cognitive, site-morphing system.
That said, I'm intrigued by the Sloan approach. Imagine the entire Web morphing to your own personal style of hunting and gathering information. If Sloan or anyone else can work out a system that makes maintaining and changing content easy and cost efficient in this sort of dynamic environment, it could present enormous benefits both to brands and to consumers.
Thanks to Sam Ewen of OnTheGroundLookingUp.com for sharing this article on the Experiential Forum.