Modern companies know that consumers love it when you make their experiences effortless. But nowadays, convenience is a basic expectation of doing business. To stand out, you also want to give consumers autonomy: the ability to choose how they interact with your brand, taking ownership of the experience they desire.
An example of this can be found in the way companies handle returns. Most retailers will provide some form of return merchandise authorization (RMA), making it easier for people to send back products they’re unhappy with.
But if you only process refunds, you’re not acknowledging that individual consumers might want different outcomes from the return process. Using an RMA app, a business can allow different types of return entitlements and product-level specifications. It gives the consumer a measure of autonomy.
The value of autonomy is mostly familiar to those in the customer service industry. But thanks to the advent of algorithms, companies are potentially undermining the autonomy of their consumers in unforeseen ways, and it’s something we need to address sooner than later.
Autonomy and AI
Today’s consumers are all about personalization. Millennials and succeeding cohorts are digital natives, accustomed to having information at their fingertips and the ability to make quick decisions.
They expect to choose how they experience your brand. At any moment, they might find it expedient to chat or email your team. Or they may want to express their concerns to a real person who can empathize with their situation. Perhaps they want to explore your offerings through social media, a product spec sheet, or an interactive website.
But autonomy doesn’t mean giving consumers unlimited choices. Rather, utility theory stipulates that businesses should invest in helping consumers find and choose the options that best fulfill their needs. Doing so maximizes their capacity as economic actors while allowing them to derive more value from the products or services.
With the rise of big data across industries, algorithms have become an essential tool towards this end. By tracking and processing unprecedented amounts of consumer data, you can use algorithms to lower search costs, give recommendations and suggestions, and restrict options to make decisions easier.
Thus, with the help of AI, businesses can resolve one paradox of autonomy: that overwhelming information makes it difficult not only to choose but to feel satisfied with one’s decisions.
However, in the process of facilitating consumers’ decision-making, algorithms often undermine their actual autonomy. This raises the second paradox of autonomy in relation to AI.
Whenever you interact with a system that can collect data on your behavior, such as Google search, you become susceptible to its covert influences. The immediate result of your action (a search query) increases your perceived autonomy by yielding relevant results. But further down the road, your data from this query will be used by algorithms to determine which options are presented to you in the future.
This isn’t always a problem when the consumer in question actually wants more of the same thing. But what if the data collected was the result of a one-time interest in something? What if the consumer wishes to explore new options or actively seeks to change past behavior, such as shifting away from purchases of alcohol or cigarettes?
Designing better AI
If we’re not careful, the algorithms our businesses employ can risk creating self-reinforcing loops that always drive consumers toward convergent preferences. This reduces their exposure to offerings that might be new and different but no less interesting than what they’re already familiar with.
The solution isn’t to abandon using AI. Algorithms are a powerful tool and will only become increasingly integrated into the future of business, where more decisions are data-driven.
Instead, we need to design AI that won’t erode our consumers’ actual or perceived autonomy.
Sometimes, algorithms can offer too much convenience, to the point of taking individuality out of the experience altogether. Select a few areas where consumers can exert more effort in exchange for a sense of personalization. The result will be similar to the ‘Ikea effect’ in which the effort of assembly increases perceived value and attachment to the purchased product.
While AI recommendations based on past interests remain useful in many situations, the messaging can be more palatable. If suggestions are framed as an invitation to explore further content, rather than blatant predictions generated by machines tracking behavior, the experience feels more autonomous.
Finally, with growing concerns over privacy and data use, companies need to be wary of acting aggressively on data points collected. Users need to be assured that only relevant behaviors, such as completed purchases, are being tracked and used to influence AI decisions, as opposed to browsing history.
It may be tough to get the balance right, but no company can afford to be viewed as intrusive in the AI era. Even if algorithmic tracking is done in the name of convenience, in the end, you have to yield greater autonomy to your consumers.
Meta title: It’s Time To Start Giving Consumers Greater Autonomy
meta desc: In the algorithm-driven world, companies wield more power than ever to track and influence consumer decisions in the name of greater convenience. But doing so risks alienating them if we erode their sense of autonomy.
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