Personal, User Experience

When Algorithms are Jerks*

If you shop on Amazon, the site seems to know you pretty damn well. (Especially with more than a decade of browsing and buying history.) But sometimes they miss a beat.

Algorithm inputsAll spring and early summer, I devoted a lot (ahem) of online time to reading about pregnancy and babies and motherhood. (As one does.) I read tons of reviews as I researched baby products and philosophies. And Amazon remembers every step of it. 

Then came Rose’s stillbirth and a month in the hospital, during which my Amazon interaction was merely downloading a couple Kindle books.

(In hindsight, it’s good that I was so focused on moving and didn’t want to move more things than I had to, so I purchased nothing beyond a few books. I’m also grateful I didn’t sign up for any baby-centric mailing lists.)

This morning, after a few months in which I’ve browsed and bought a few non-baby items (vitamins, books, a meat thermometer), I logged on to reorder still more vitamins.

And it hit me.

Amazon’s highly tuned recommendation engine spat out diapers, parenting books, baby toys… Stuff that, had I continued on my trajectory, would currently be incredibly relevant. In a moment of panic, I closed my browser entirely. And tweeted about it.

Screen Shot 2017-11-15 at 7.52.40 AMThen I vaguely remembered once digging into the recommendation preferences to stop seeing items related to a gift I had bought. (Ironically, I think it was a gift for a friend’s new baby.) So I poked around Amazon a bit and found the relevant area – and realized how many items I had actually looked at. Books and rock and plays and maternity clothing and even ovulation and pregnancy tests. One by one, I clicked “remove from recommendations” on dozens of items.

I don’t fault Amazon’s algorithms – after all, you live by the data, you die by the data. But in a case like this, I do wish there was a single “Select all pregnancy items” or “Remove all infant items” option.

*Title hat tip to Kevin S.

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