Personalization: Good for Health Interventions, Maybe Not for Mattresses

amybucherphd-comI believe in personalization.

Evidence has firmly established that more personalized behavior change programs are more effective. People perceive personalized information as more relevant, are more likely to remember it, and more likely to actually make changes as a result of it. That’s the entire premise that the startup I worked for, HealthMedia, was founded against, and the validity of the approach is why Johnson & Johnson acquired us and made that personalized behavior change capability part of their enterprise offerings.

Personalization in terms of pharmacogenomics promises amazing advances in treatment for all manner of diseases, with oncology being one I’m particularly excited about. As we learn more about targeting therapies to people’s specific genetic makeups and variants of disease, it will become easier to choose exactly the right treatments for the right people.

One thing I learned during my career with HealthMedia/J&J is that personalization means different things to different people. It used to be that something “personalized” has your name printed at the top, even if the content underneath is the same for everyone. One year, my husband and I got birthday cards from our insurance company on the same day. Each had our name at the top and described the preventative care we should get in the next year. Mine had an extra sentence at the end about Pap smears. Two variable personalization was once state of the art!

At HealthMedia, we took it a lot further, building much more unique plans from complex building blocks such that there were tens of thousands of possible variants on a coaching plan. The industry is moving closer toward this meaning of personalization, the truly individualized, and users are beginning to expect it.

Consider this from Harvard Business Review on employee perceptions of workplace wellness programs (emphasis mine):

Both participants and nonparticipants agreed that wellness programs need to incorporate a personalized, customized approach; in fact, almost 75% of the former said this an important part of a health, wellness, and fitness program. It could come from knowledgeable “live” experts — coaches and specialists — who are credible, easy to access, and provide one-on-one support for their specific needs.

This emphasis on personalization is also reflected in another one of our findings: 70% of employee participants reported that their company’s offering is an indicator that their employer cares about them. The real differentiator between successful and failed wellness programs may be whether they deliver on the emotional level as well as the physical.

People perceive a personalized health intervention as a sign of caring. Self-determination theory would predict that people will be more adherent to a personalized plan because it helps satisfy a sense of relatedness by establishing a relationship with them.

So yes, I am a huge fan of personalization.

However, I don’t think personalization is the answer to all problems. Given the term’s appeal and its recent popularity, it’s not surprising that other industries have started to co-opt it for their marketing. I couldn’t help but notice this ad campaign by Helix, a competitor to Casper (I’ve mentioned them before). Both companies sell affordable memory foam mattresses, with Helix’s twist being that the mattress can be customized to buyer preferences.


20160920_085511The Helix site allows you to enter a variety of preferences for up to two people who will be using the mattress and then recommends a product for you based on that. Here’s part of the survey (which I filled out for Lucy and Ricky):

Some of Lucy's sleep preferences
Some of Lucy’s sleep preferences

The resulting recommendation is a mattress with four factors set to Ricky and Lucy’s needs:  Feel, support, temperature regulation, and point elasticity. No doubt there’s some significant variation between the ends of those continua–a very soft and a very firm mattress are quite different and you can probably tell the difference between several of the in-between models too. But I question how many variants there really are. How personalized is this?

My point here is twofold:

As personalization gains in popularity, we are seeing some slippages of how people use the word, away from truly individualized back to something that looks more like the variable image printing of the person’s name on a letter. I don’t think that’s a good thing given the power of personalization to make health care and behavior change more effective if done right.

Second, despite being a huge proponent of personalization, I have to wonder if it’s always necessary. At some point, does the difference between a mattress that  I like (but is mass-manufactured) and a mattress tweaked for me make any noticeable difference in my sleep experience? As a veteran of hundreds of hotel stays, I’m going to guess no.