A closer look at CustomMade.com

In an earlier post, CustomMade was introduced as a platform for the generation C, the generation of co-creation, to connect the artisans with customers looking for products made just for them.

As a DIY enthusiast, but not really an active contributor to the maker community, I decided to take a closer look at how the customization process works. I wanted to see how easily I could get started with creating my own product and how involved would I be with the creation of the product. Equipped with the theories covered in the course I closely examined the site through a sample purchase. The website only ships to the US currently, so I did not follow through the entire process, but focused on how a new customer could experience the site. I recently bought a phone that does not have a wide selection of cases made for it. So I set out to see if I could get one made that would fit a couple of cards from my wallet.

When arriving on the website I was given a clear overview of the two main options I have. I had the option to Shop the products on the homepage by either scrolling down or going directly to a category from the top menu bar. The page displays featured categories, followed by selected products labelled as existing designs. As a first time user these categories were quite generic; with his and hers categories in the form of pendants and cufflinks, as well as household goods such as desks and lighting. Over time I did not notice any change to these categories and it did not appear that they would be using any product recommendation agents to deliver these categories. It was much like any other regular online store selling these products, only that the pricing was only given as a starting point (eg. $130+ for a set of initial cufflinks).

The existing design products could be seen as starting points to the customization as outlined by Hildebrand et al. (2014), but the products displayed on a page do not reveal easily which of them are truly customizable. As it is often unclear how customizable a product is, it lengthens the search time rather than reducing it. Some of the products offer no customization or personalization options. Others offer only personalization using for instance engraving and some are simply products for sale with size options expected from any traditional online store.

There is a striking difference between this homepage and the one of Etsy, another handmade goods marketplace. Etsy relies on social media and collaborative filtering to bring recommendations to the forefront. They also highlight not only the creators of the products, but the people who have added the products into their Pinterest-like boards. On CustomMade it is unclear if the existing designs they promote are actual designs purchased and designed together with customers or simply handmade products. I found the product descriptions with details on how the design choices were made with specific customers and for what uses to be the most valuable insight into the customization process.

In the only phone related category, the iPhone case category, I couldn’t find a suitable case for my phone. Surprise, surprise as it’s not an iPhone. I went for the second option on the homepage, the start from scratch option where I can start a project by posting a job for a product. Creating a project involves filling in a form based on the product category selected. For the most popular categories, the user is displayed an attribute-based form, but with visual aids to assist with the selection and short descriptions. There is also the possibility to add photos or sketches to assist with visualizing the intended design. When I selected to create an iPhone case, I had to choose the Other category as it was not provided as an option. I could specify the size of the product I wanted, the budget and the materials and provide additional description. Suggestions were provided next to the fields to assist with defining the product, but they were not helpful in any way. Many of the provided categories also showed the same options. Not very relevant, as it is unlikely I would purchase a wallet that seats 8 people or has metal legs.

Attribute selection
Attribute selection for dining table
A wallet seating 8 people

At this point I turned to the product buying guides prepared by the platform to see if I could find some further help. On all pages it is also possible to be in direct chat contact with the platform’s customer support. The buyer guides were helpful in approaching the different needs customers may have when purchasing a custom product, but lacked any of the great examples I read in the product descriptions. I thought it would be helpful to see snippets of or quick links to these use cases when trying to describe a job, as the attributes can confuse a novice user like me.

There were no guides for creating a phone case, so I decided to end my search for the day. Overall, CustomMade impressed me with the variety of products that could be customized through their platform, but at the same time was disappointing in the experience and support in creating the initial customization request. The starting solutions provided did not alleviate this complexity as the level of customization varied across the products. I would love to see a filtering option for the customization level to see the products I can contribute to the least amount and ones where I can take a more active part in customizing the product. I’ll definitely be back to the site if they ever launch in Europe. Do you know any sites that offer the same service in Europe at the same scale?

Christian Hildebrand, Gerald Häubl, and Andreas Herrmann (2014) Product Customization via Starting Solutions. Journal of Marketing Research: December 2014, Vol. 51, No. 6, pp. 707-725.

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