Personalization tools round-up

Customization is a $1 Trillion market

Personalization, in the context of ecommerce and mass customization, can be defined as providing consumers with a web-based toolkit to input custom text and images on to the surface of a product.  Most often personalization applies to printable commodity products like t-shirts, mugs, tote bags and stickers.  Anything that can be printed can be personalized.

How big is the personalization market? 

According to the CafePress SEC filing, “Based on 2009 U.S. Census Bureau data, we estimate the U.S. market for customizable retail goods is approximately $1.0 trillion.”

What is personalization?

A personalized mug

Personalization can also be classified as cosmetic customization, as per Joe Pine’s definition:  “Cosmetic customization, where a standard product is presented differently to different customers. The cosmetic approach is appropriate when customers use a product the same way and differ only in how they want it presented. Rather than being customized or customisable, the standard offering is packaged specially for each customer. For example, the product may be displayed differently; its attributes and benefits advertised in different ways, or the customer’s name may be placed on each item.”

As outlined in a previous post, personalization services are built with online design tools, which is a separate kind of toolset from Treehouse Logic’s unique hosted product configurator solution.  These design tools are essentially hosted editing tools – like a lite Photoshop in the cloud.  And, much like desktop editing tools, these design tools often include desktop-like navigation features like drag-and-drop.

Here’s a snapshot of a few sub-segments of the personalization market.

Print shops

Dozens of online printers offer personalization.   Examples include Custom Ink, Uber Prints, and Funky T Shack.   (Yes, seriously).   These consumer-facing printing companies offer design-it-yourself web tools that include text overlay and image upload.  Once an order is taken, printing and shipping are handled at the company’s manufacturing facility.

Personalization marketplaces

Additionally, print shops like Zazzle, CafePress, and Spreadshirt invite the community of quasi-designers to post their designs on their site and sell it to the public.  Like an eBay or Etsy marketplace, buyers and sellers converge in an ever growing network of virtual goods.  Designs are crowd-sourced by micro-entrepreneurs, and the network makes money by charging a commission on every sale.

This consumer/designer model differs from other crowd-sourced print companies like Threadless that require that designers submit more professionally designed image files (in Photoshop or Illustrator format) rather than using standards-based, consumer-facing browser based design tools.

Embedded design tools

Threadless drives customization innovation

Some software companies make their front-end design tools available to back-end printing businesses.  Spreadshirt offers an API that enables anyone to embed and skin their design tool, but printing itself must be processed via the Spreadshirt supply chain.  Inksoft offers printers a front-end design tool template that they can used to process print orders, but the template is not very flexible.

The worlds of customization and personalization toolkits are colliding and evolving quickly.   Although many of these t-shirt designers brought innovation to the market by publishing design tools on the Internet, the market is demanding more flexible toolkits that allow brands to build their own branded personalization experiences.  We’ll see a lot of disruption in the personalization space in the next few years, especially now that social commerce is taking a leading role in ecommerce innovation.

3 new design tools for mass customization

In Forrester’s recent research study, “Mass customization is finally the future of products,” author JP Gownder points to digital technologies as the catalyst that will drive consumer adoption of customized products.

“As they have done across consumer markets, digital technologies are the disruptors. Current and emerging digital technologies are turbo-charging mass customization, breathing new life into the product strategy.”

Specifically, Mr. Gownder points to interactive shopping tools as the main instigator.

“Tomorrow’s customer-facing technologies will be revolutionary. Technologies empowering customers to design their own products will become richer and more plentiful. For example, Microsoft’s Xbox Kinect shows the pathway towards the ultra-configurator: a device that can measure the contours of your body and allow you to use gestural inputs to design products.  (I draw pin-stripes on a suit I’m co-designing; I size the steering wheel of a car I’m customizing; etc.) The richer the configuration experience, the more appealing mass customized products will become – and these experiences will indeed be much richer.”


Following the theme of advancing consumer-facing technologies, here are 3 new interactive design tools that may represent a new generation of interactive shopping experiences.    Visual product configurators typically guide users through a modular customization process.  These free-hand design tools differ from configurators in that they literally invite the user to draw their own version of a product from scratch.


SketchChair is an open-source software tool that allows anyone to easily design and build their own digitally fabricated furniture.    The user designs their chair, tests it, then exports the design to an online community of designs.   The design can then be fabricated through Ponoko’s network of garage fabricators, and delivered to the customer.  Is this the future of IKEA-like furniture shopping?

D.Dress by Continuum – “computational coutre”


Another Kickstarter project is Continuum.  Users simply draw a little black dress on a virtual mannequin right in a web browser session.   After you are finished designing, you can cut away extra fabric.  The experience is like drafting a dress on a sketchpad, but with the ability to click “add to cart” and buy it.

From Fastcodesign, “Continuum is a promising example of how technology can personalize — and democratize– fashion. “With clothing, there has always been the problem of sizing,” Huang tells us. “It is not just measurements, but that women are taller or shorter, curvier or more boyish. In an ideal world, you would have your clothes made to fit you, instead of figuring out how you fit into clothes.” That, of course, has been the province of the rich more or less since, well, forever. But with 3-D printing, laser-cutting, and apps like Huang’s, things are starting to change. As Huang tells it: “Now it is becoming easier to integrate [customization] into a scalable production system.”

Design for download

From Droog’s site, Design for Download is “the first platform for downloadable design, which will feature curated and open content, easy-to-use parametric design tools and a network of local low- and high-tech manufacturers. The platform will not only include products, but also architecture, home accessories, fashion, food, wearables, inventions and more.”

Design for Download

“Taking design to the digital realm opens many possibilities. Not only does it have consequence on transport and storage efficiencies, it also calls for new design approaches, innovative digital design tools and online shopping experiences, and innovative business models for all actors along the distribution chain,” says co-founder and director of Droog, Renny Ramakers. “With the opening up of the design industry to consumers now empowered with easy-to access and low-cost design and production tools, the role of curation becomes ever more important.”

What’s after Mass Customization?

I’ve been following a great discussion on the design form.   On the topic of mass customization and user generated designs, Feynman commented

“We and several other academic partners are doing demonstrator products and research on bespoke products (what we think is what comes after mass-customisation since mass-customisation is basically a versioning strategy) in Scandinavia right now and, after having some contact with IKEA, know that this company (among other furniture producers and trade associations) is very much interested in this topic.

One reason is that Northern and Middle European consumers are growingly discontent with impersonal and unsustainable offerings, hence the rise of many web-based built-to-order furniture, lighting and kitchen businesses that operate locally, regionally or nationally, sometimes with an environmental bias.

Before WW2, most people of medium and lesser wealth went to their local carpenter, shoemaker, etc. to have products of fairly low complexity made for them. After WW2, this became a luxury (bespoke suit, shoes, shirts, haute-couture, etc. pp.).

New means of production and a more horizontal value chain will make bespoke products commercially viable in many industry sectors, and that’s why corporate actors as well as family-run businesses are seeing the potential and are requesting consultation.”

There are a couple of really good points here:

1)   What’s after mass customization?

Bespoke products are made to order, often by smaller vendors that are regionally based.

2)   Change in demand

People are tiring of mass produced, impersonal products that are unsustainable.

3)   Change in supply

More advanced production techniques and direct Internet shopping tools increase the availability and awareness of bespoke products.  Essentially, offering direct sales via the Internet reduces the middleman, flattening the value chain.

Design tools: To build or buy?

Philip McCusker, former co-founder of a custom tailored shirt and suit store called TailoredToSuit, said “I developed highly innovative mass customization tools that allow users to design photo-realistic tailored menswear in real-time.  The technology was similar to NikeID and it took me about 5 months all in all to create.  Unfortunately in the end we ran out of cash and I was unable to bring all my hard work to market.”


As mass customization firms plan their online strategies, they need to make a strategic choice to build their own online design tools or work with a vendor that specializes in product configurator functionality.

As mentioned in this article in InfoWorld, “It’s a question of Shakespearean proportions. Should you license a commercial application that will meet 75 percent of your needs, or would it be nobler to build your own application, one that will track as closely as possible to the task at hand?… Build-versus-buy decision points remain the same: cost, time to market, politics, architecture, skill sets, and strategic value.”

To build or not to build?

1. Cost

Cost depends on your budget, internal resources, development cycle, setup costs, and the ongoing costs of updating and maintaining the system.  Consider opportunity cost of your internal resources as well.   The true cost of development is the long-term cost of evolving and expanding your design tools with your business.  You don’t want to be stuck with a hand-built solution that was never intended to scale or evolve beyond its first iteration.

2. Time

Speed to market is critical.  Developing complex software from scratch takes a long time.   Outsourcing to specialists can significantly cut down on the time it takes to ship a fully online customizer.   Each additional month you spend on custom development is a month of lost revenue and a month that your competitors gain on you.

Build vs. Buy

3. Is there a solution to buy?

In less mature markets there are only two choices; Build it yourself or have a service agency build it from scratch.    If there is a suitable solution to buy, is it flexible enough to allow you to design your own branded experience, integrate into your ecommerce environment, and administer on your own without depending on a solution vendor or propriety technology?

4. In house expertise

Do you have the in house staff to build a solution that is not core to your business?  For example, if you are in the retail business, at what point does it make sense to invest in becoming a technology business?    Successful lean businesses are especially good at focusing on their strengths and leveraging specialized partners to add value.

5. Cloud computing

Be sure to consider emerging cloud computing technologies that easily integrate web plug-ins into any HTML page.  Cloud computing offers a lower barrier to entry, lower costs, and the ability to embed solutions that can be maintained and optimized by the hosted vendor.