Know Me / Nudge Me Jenny Comiskey, Aradhana Goel, Simon King

Trading personal information for personalized services

Most people are still careful to protect their personal information, but more and more of us are choosing to store our most intimate details online: financial information, health records, personal preferences, and even our schedules and location. This is not because we are more trusting, but because sharing information unlocks access to personalized services that support us in meaningful ways.

Services such as Flickr, Facebook, and Mint have created platforms to collect personal information and, in turn, have built value around their customers’ willingness to provide it. Netflix asks for direct input in exchange for personal recommendations, but the Toyota Prius works in the background, unobtrusively capturing our driving behavior and playing it back to us. Building on the power of information, these services can transform unintended consequences into intentional change.

As people share more, their expectations are evolving from archiving services to personalized services that adapt to them, and even anticipatory services that nudge them in positive ways. This has resulted in services that capture people’s history, filter their information, and turn it into tailored recommendations, options, alerts, and connections.

The Evidence — Stories from around the globe

Surfacing the hidden

Leif is pushing 50 and some of his friends are already facing serious medical problems. So he decided it was time to start taking his own health needs more seriously. He looked into 23andMe.

Although it seemed like a credible service, he did have some reservations. What if he learned he carries a rogue gene? What if an insurance company uses this information against him in the future? But the benefits outweighed the risks, so he ordered a sampling kit. A month later, he was logging on to the 23andMe website and exploring his DNA sequence.

Leif discovered that he has an undiagnosed propensity toward glaucoma. The information from 23andme tells him what to pay attention to and nudges him toward preventive care.

How might we help people connect with the invisible, reflecting a new perspective? How might we allow our own history to introduce a new understanding of ourselves?

Informing decision-making

A year into her first real job, Claire had saved very little and knew she had to do something to keep her finances in check. Her best friend persuaded her to try Mint, an online financial tool that could help her track her spending patterns without the chore of budgeting.

What jumped out at her was the $800 she spent that month just eating out—a full $150 more than the average among young singles in the NYC area. She cut back, and a month later Mint confirmed that she had spent $200 less on food.

Seeing her spending patterns and knowing how she compares with her peers gave her a powerful nudge. This new window into her financial life has made her feel more mature and more responsible.

How can we reveal the big picture across behaviors in order to inspire proactive change?

Managing the everyday

Karan is a physician at the Northwestern Hospital in Chicago, and he has a demanding schedule. He used to depend on a little notepad for organizing his life, but with a new baby at home he is having trouble keeping up with all of his daily errands.

When searching for some iPhone apps, he came across Remember The Milk, which promised to help him manage his tasks and never forget anything. Karan is now addicted to this service and cannot imagine going back to his notepad. It’s almost as if he has a personal assistant. Remember The Milk helps Karan from feeling so overwhelmed all the time. And now he promotes the app to all his friends.

How might we make supportive services available in the right place, at the right time and through the right channel?


Safeway’s free online tool, FoodFlex, has really changed Karen’s buying behavior. Generally, she and her husband think of themselves as healthy eaters, but FoodFlex flagged her sodium intake as exceeding USDA recommended guidelines. Karen’s commitment to her Safeway Club Card has completely changed. It’s no longer just a way of spotting bargains. She uses it to keep track of her family’s food habits and hopes to slowly change her shopping pattern toward healthier choices.


Dave follows a set regimen every morning for his meds, but last month his doctor doubled his medication for an acid blocker. At first, he would often miss the second dose because it was not part of his usual schedule. Fortunately, he now uses Zuri, a device from ZumeLife, which reminds him every day at 5:30 to take his second pill. It also lets him log his food intake and pain symptoms. After so many years, Dave has learned that however good your doctor, you still have to take responsibility for yourself.

Facebook Connect

The whole point of Facebook is to allow people to share personal information with their friends. Now members can bring their data with them to any website that supports Facebook Connect, enabling third-party services to provide focused, relevant information. For example, Workstir is an online service for finding work leads. Mike, a carpenter in San Jose, California, logs into Workstir with his Facebook account and regularly finds three or four work requests in his area.



October 7, 2009

Out of the realm of technology, here is an example of how giving away a bit of information every day led to better customer service:

Go to any local business in your neighborhood often enough to establish a relationship with the shopkeeper and you will see how suddenly you will start getting better customer service: recommendations on similar products, free samplings, instructions,  etc..

This face-to-face interaction requires a similar type of personal investment than all the tech-centered examples presented here.

The question here is, how can you make people realize that the personal benefit (functional and social) of frequenting local businesses well exceeds the cost of making an effort to establish a relationship with them?

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Cesar Torres

October 8, 2009

I definitely agree with the “Take Action” points outlined above (especially for sensitive data like finances and genetic code), but I think the most important thing for increased consumer usage is creating what you refer to as “ambient services.” Recommendation engines will evolve, but are made that much better when you capture an overabundance of raw data and interaction to dispense sound advice.

Hardware and software that track and analyze data this way are fascinating. I became a huge fan of the iPod/Nike+ system once it successfully tracked my running habits at a higher level than I could perceive with my own analog system.

As more and more data gets pumped into web apps and social networks, engines and bots will become better at analyzing this information and providing feedback to users. The semantic web (as outlined by director of the W3C, Tim Berners-Lee) will be what allows for these “recommendations, options, alerts, and connections.”

Great issue!

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December 2, 2009

In a recent research note, I referred to data as the DNA of an insurance company. While I thought I was being clever, I actually missed the broader implications of the analogy. The point was that just as DNA helps define the molecule—which becomes the cell that forms the tissue that becomes an organ that leads to a body—so too does data help define the information that leads to the tasks that become activities that are part of processes that define business operations. From an operations standpoint, good data is a key building block for cost-efficient and organizationally effective insurance transactions.

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December 16, 2009

I may be one of the few folks left who believe that less is more when it comes to doling out personal info online.  I cannot believe the amount of confidential personal info that people hand over to free services, like FB.  It most certainly will come back to bite them in the (you know where)

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