Portable Profiles & Preferences on the Citizen-Centric Web

Loyalty Cards by Joe LoongLet me state the problem plainly: in order to provide better service, it helps to know more about your customer, so that you can more effectively anticipate and meet her needs.

But, pray tell, how do you learn about or solicit such information over the course of your first interaction? Moreover, how do you go about learning as much as you can, as quickly as you can, without making the request itself burdensome and off-putting?

Well, as obvious as it seems, the answer is to let her tell you.

The less obvious thing is how.

And that’s where user-centric (or citizen-centric) technologies offer the most promise.

It’s like this:

  • If you let someone use an account or ID that they already use regularly elsewhere, you will save them the hassle of having to create yet another account that works solely with your service;
  • following on that, an account that is reusable is more valuable, and its value can be further increased by attaching certain types of profile attributes to it that are commonly requested;
  • the more common it becomes to reuse an account, the more people will expect this convenience during new sign up experiences, ideally to the point of knowing how to ask for support for their preferred sign-in mechanism from the services that they use;
  • presuming that service providers’ desire for profile information and preferences will not decrease, it will become an added byproduct of user-centric authentication to be able to import such data from identity providers as it is available;
  • as customers realize the convenience of portable profile and preference data, savvy identity providers will make it easier to store and express a wider array of this data, and will subsequently work with relying parties to develop interoperable sign up flows and on ramps (see Google and Plaxo).

For this to work, the individual must be motivated to manage her profile information and preferences, which shouldn’t be hard as her data becomes increasingly reusable (sort once, reuse everywhere). Additionally, organizing, maintaining, and accruing this information becomes less onerous when it’s all in one place (or conveniently accessible through one central customer-picked source), as opposed to sharded across many accounts and unaffiliated services.

You can get similar functionality with form-filling software like 1Password except in the model I’m describing, the data travels with you — beyond the browser and off the desktop — to wherever you need it — because it is stored in the cloud.

As it becomes easier to store and share this information, I think more people will do this as a happenstance of using more social software — and will become acclimated to providing their friends and service providers with varying degrees of access to increasing amounts of personally describing data.

Companies that jump on this and make it easier for people to manage their profile and preference data will benefit — having access to more accurate, timely, and better-maintained information, leading to more personalized user experiences and accelerating the path to satisfaction.

Companies that do get this right will benefit from what is emerging as a new social contract. As a citizen of the web, if you let me manage my relationship with you, and make it easy for me to do so, giving me the choice of how and where I store my profile and preference data, I’ll be more likely, more willing, and more able to share it with you, in an ongoing fashion, increasingly as you use it to improve my experiences with you.

Author: Chris Messina

Head of West Coast Business Development at Republic. Ever-curious product designer and technologist. Hashtag inventor. Previously: Molly.com (YC W18), Uber, Google.

10 thoughts on “Portable Profiles & Preferences on the Citizen-Centric Web”

  1. I do hope you’re keeping an eye on the mine project[1], which is a bit like bespoke activity streams tailored to suit a single audience instead of one size fits all. You probably wouldn’t put your nutrition tracking info into your public stream, but maybe you trust your physician. Stir in a XRD service advertising your willingness to make custom streams and you’ll really be cooking with gas. That’s what, 80% of Canter’s social dashboard?

    1: http://themineproject.org/

  2. I am aware of the project and have had a conversation with the project’s principals; in general I’m sympathetic to their cause and support their efforts. Would definitely like to see more interaction between MINE and the DiSo Project. Thanks for the reminder.

  3. I think that as we go down the path that you are describing people will see more and more the positive effects of being able to re-join together our online self (as opposed to having our personal data scattered across many services). We’ll get more control and we’ll be able to better engage with our providers, and through the VRM interactions that will be enabled we’ll get better services (and the service providers will get happier users and customers, thus more willing to stay with them).

    I fear, though, that the shift will need to be started by the main identity hubs (Facebook, Google, Yahoo, …) as it won’t probably be reasonable to think of users flocking to use a brand new service as their main identity provider…

  4. Adding to the encouragement for companies to support portable – Over at Razorfish, Marc M. Sanford Ph.D., wrote a white paper titled ‘Social Media Measurement: Widgets and Applications‘

    Paper offers evidence that people are *four times* more likely to buy goods and services they see referenced by people they know ( i.e. their “contacts” )

    Would post the URL, but then I’ll get sent to the Factory City spam folder, DM me if you want it!

  5. Joe, you are right, of course. But I would say, that wouldn’t I? 😛

    Incidentally, we do think eventually Mine! will be able to take any level of data sensitivity, precisely because it give you the ability to audit and cut off your data flows. And anywhere where data flows, aka activity streams, have more value than ‘data dumps’, one-off sharing of static data, users will be able to retain fundamental control over it. By control, I don’t mean ‘DRM on their data’, I mean ability to be granular with your data sharing according to relationships.

    Chris, I am going to be at the social foo camp next weekend, so we can catch up there. Looking forward. 🙂

  6. Thank you, Chris. I agree this is important. I have an OpenID, Gravatar and whatnot, but rarely bother to use them because each service and blog comment is different. Sure, would be easier if:

    organizing, maintaining, and accruing this information becomes less onerous when it’s all in one place (or conveniently accessible through one central customer-picked source), as opposed to shared across many accounts and unaffiliated services. </i >

    The central customer-picked source for my personal profile would not be in the cloud but in my choice of mobile personal storage media. Agree on a format or protocol and you have me as a repeat customer.

  7. "Your comment must be approved by the site admins before it will appear publicly."

    That should be disclosed before hitting "submit comment".

  8. Chris –

    If you’re familiar with the Mine!, you might want to check out the ProtectServe project cooked up by Eve Maler (@xmlgrrl). Here’s a link to some of her posts on it:


    There’s a lot of what you’re referencing in there. Give it a look, and I’m sure she’d value your comments.

    J. Trent Adams

  9. @J. Trent: Totally! In fact, I had lunch with her last week. Loads of overlap in our respective projects! Thanks!

  10. Reluctant to explain the “+apple” in my email address

    Bought my wife a book tonight. Had to explain to the checkout clerk “no, my last name isn’t ‘Borders’…”

    But instead of “+borders” I use “.borders” because a LOT of places don’t realize that “+” is a valid character in an e-mail address, and won’t let you register with it.

    It’s not automated, like with Gmail and “+apple”, but I have a web form where I enter in the alias and it sets up the forwarder… not too much work.

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