Brand Experience in User Experience Design

By Steve Baty

Published: July 24, 2006

“A positive user experience has a direct correlation to positive brand perception.”

Much has been written in the past decade about the importance of usability and the user experience to customers’ perception of an organization’s brand. Jared Spool’s 1996 article “Branding and Usability” correctly identifies the importance of Web site usability to brand experience and provides evidence that a positive user experience has a direct correlation to positive brand perception. More recently, authors such as Dirk Knemeyer have expanded on this theme:

  • recognizing that both online and offline customer experiences contribute to brand image
  • highlighting the importance of consistency between the customer experience across all touch-points
  • working from the premise that an organization engages in a broad, complex set of interactions with its customers, of which the brand experience portrayed through its Web sites is only one
  • acknowledging the fact that brand is inherently something we can only influence, not control

Defining Brand Concepts

Here are Dirk Knemeyer’s definitions of brand and brand experience, as they resonate strongly with the philosophical framework of my work.

Brand represents the intellectual and emotional associations that people make with a company, product, or person. That is to say, brand is something that actually lies inside each of us.”

Brand experience is the strategic approach to compelling people to take productive action through the integrated, coordinated planning and execution of every possible interaction that they have with your company or products.”

Brand values—The desired set of experiences or associations an organization wants customers to make with its products, services, or identity.”

In addition, I’ll define brand values as the desired set of experiences or associations an organization wants customers to make with its products, services, or identity.

The Role of Brand Values in User-Centered Design

This article attempts to identify the appropriate role for brand values as one project objective within the broader framework of user-centered design.

If two organizations that provide similar services or products to similar markets both applied a typical user-centered design process, one might logically conclude that they would develop similar Web sites. User research during the early stages of both projects would uncover similar goals and objectives for the target audience—which is the same for both Web sites—and, in turn, would lead to similar results.

“By creating a user experience that is appropriate to our audience, business goals, and the competitive landscape, we can positively reinforce our customers’ brand experience.”

Frameworks such as Jesse James Garrett’s “Elements of User Experience” provide a rich structure for practitioners approaching a user experience project, but do little to identify or promote the role of brand during either the definition or design phases of a project. Similarly, process diagrams such as “Designing the User Experience” from the UPA—the “snakes and ladders” poster—focus on the importance of deliverables such as user profiles, task analyses, and usage scenarios portraying user interfaces in ways that do not jeopardize brand perception. Instead, we should consider how the visual design, the interaction design, the information architecture—in fact, the entire user experience—can positively contribute to brand image. By creating a user experience that is appropriate to our audience, business goals, and the competitive landscape, we can positively reinforce our customers’ brand experience.

Brand Values in Practice

From the work Web designers and other user experience professionals produce, it is clear that they are considering the brands of client organizations during the early conceptual stages of projects. Although their consideration of brand may be either explicit or implicit.

For example, Bang & Olufsen positions itself as a manufacturer of exclusive, premium audio-visual products. Their Web site, shown in Figure 1, reinforces this brand position through the consistent application of these values across all areas of the site’s design and construction:

  • its visual presentation of information
  • the writing style
  • the balance between imagery, text, and whitespace
  • clean and simple functional elements
  • error-free delivery

Figure 1—Bang & Olufsen Web site

Bang & Olufsen Web site

The Bose Corporation positions itself as providing “Better sound through research.” This tagline elicits pictures of lab-coat-wearing scientists and engineers diligently producing no-fuss, quality audio equipment, so high quality is critically important on their site. Fortunately, the consistently reliable, error-free operation of their Web site backs up this image, because errors on their site would be exceedingly damaging to the brand experience of site visitors.

While for Bang & Olufsen an error would be an unwelcome distraction and annoyance to visitors, errors on the Bose site—whether spelling, scripting, linking, or server errors—could undo the positive effects of years of brand marketing, successful product development, and high-quality service delivery in the minds of visitors experiencing the problems.

The same could be said for any company that promotes the quality, technical advancements, or safety features of their products. For example, Mitsubishi Australia spent much of 2005 promoting—across all media channels—a new focus on quality and safety in their Australian-built cars. The negative impacts of errors on their site during such a marketing campaign would be enormous.

“Errors can be damaging to a company’s brand perception in the minds of visitors. The particular brand values of an organization determine the degree to which this damage occurs.”

People expect Web sites to function correctly and without error. It is a baseline requirement for a modern Web site that its functionality should operate properly. Therefore, errors can be damaging to a company’s brand perception in the minds of visitors. The particular brand values of an organization determine the degree to which this damage occurs.

The same premise applies to many aspects of Web site design and development—a site’s interaction design, navigation, the use or absence of Flash animations, and the implementation of rich internet applications versus simple multi-page forms.

For example, Apple.com is the principal online presence for the company that tells us to “Think different”—and yet its Web site is, in many ways, quite conventional. Compare the navigation on the Apple Web site to the taskbar in MacOS X, shown in Figure 2.

Figure 2—Navigation on the Apple Web site

Navigation on the Apple Web site

Figure 3—MacOS X taskbar

MacOS X taskbar

The contrast between the two designs is quite marked. While the user interface for MacOS X continues to set the pace for innovations in operating system design, the interaction design on the Apple Web site sends a distinctly different message.

The range of Viera plasma televisions from Panasonic represents the flagship of the company’s technological advancement. The promotional Flash presentation on the Television index for the site announces: “Advanced. Stylish. Personal.” on a Web page that appears to be anything but, as Figure 3 shows.

Figure 4—Panasonic Web site

Panasonic Web site
“It is important to understand that customers’ perceptions of a brand should be both positive and consistent with other brand experiences to be truly effective.”

There is a similar issue with the Panasonic Australia Web site—for which I have some responsibility—because the company has changed its brand image over the past few years. At the time Panasonic was designing and building both their Australian and US sites, they had a much greater focus on reliability and price effectiveness, or value for money, which dictated the focus of our design and development. As a company changes its brand values over time, its online customer experience should also change. Otherwise, a company introduces a disconnect between the expectations of visitors and the actuality of the experience. It is important to understand that customers’ perceptions of a brand should be both positive and consistent with other brand experiences to be truly effective.

Creating Brand Perception

“The assumption that customers can meaningfully articulate their expectations vis à vis a corporate Web site’s interaction design is not a reasonable one in my opinion.”

Some would argue that good user research will determine the brand expectations of visitors during the earlier stages of site design, making disconnects between visitors’ expectations and actual experience avoidable. The assumption that customers can meaningfully articulate their expectations vis à vis a corporate Web site’s interaction design is not a reasonable one in my opinion. While learning about the characteristics of various audience segments can inform our choice of interactive elements, user interface design, tone, etcetera, we must balance all of these with the intended brand image and consider the total user experience.

There is a direct connection between customers’ perception of a company’s brand and the brand experience available through all customer-contact points—both online and offline. Defining, then consistently presenting a brand message increases the likelihood that a company can successfully deliver that message.

To ensure that customers perceive our brands as we wish them to, we must first be clear on what our companies’ brand values are. In many organizations, brand values aren’t explicitly stated anywhere. We need to define our real brand values based on our corporate cultures, organizational behavior, service policies, marketing collateral—in other words, the total user experience. Thus, defining brand values and the desired brand experience are important user experience objectives.

“By explicitly stating brand experience objectives for a Web site at the commencement of its design phase, we increase our chances of successfully conveying the desired brand perception to the site audience.”

By explicitly stating brand experience objectives for a Web site at the commencement of its design phase, we increase our chances of successfully conveying the desired brand perception to the site audience. We can then consciously aim to create that perception when defining the characteristics of a Web site or online service.

As user experience professionals, we have the opportunity to work more closely with brand and marketing specialists to clearly articulate the brand perception we want to elicit from our customers. Brand perception is, in part, an expectation on the part of a customer regarding future interactions with a company and its products and services. To achieve our desired brand perception, we must consistently represent and deliver the brand values we have led customers to expect.

References

Knemeyer, Dirk. “Brand Experience and the Web.” Digital Web, July 14, 2004. Retrieved July 24, 2006.

Spool, Jared. “Branding and Usability.” User Interface Engineering, January 1, 1996. Retrieved July 24, 2006.

14 Comments

Very nice, Steve. This is a thoughtful and informative illustration of the intersection between brand experience and UX. Well done!

Interesting, Steve.

I’ve often found that working with marketing groups can be quite a complex affair. Even today, I find most marketing teams do not take the Web as seriously as they should. Their thoughts about branding are focused on print and TV channels. They rarely make a serious effort to tailor a brand to the Web, to consider that the Web may have a different demographic to other channels, and definitely has a different dynamic—not to mention the purely physical differences. Even the idea that their audience is on the other end of an interactive medium seems like a big conceptual hurdle for some corporate marketeers.

Making the Web channel work for a brand is one thing, trying to get the brand to work for the Web channel is another.

Graham:

I have found this depends on the company. If the Web is a central strategic plank in the company’s business model, then the top down influence that comes from this acknowledgment makes it easier for you to talk to Marketing (at almost all levels) about the Web.

They may not “get it”, but they are eager to learn, because the CEO and all the Directors have asked them to, pronto!

Without that top-level buy-in, you’re always going to be struggling, particularly if you are a consultant working with a client team.

The other aspect is consistently demonstrating in concrete terms the power and business value of improving the user experience, and showing how this contributes to key marketing objectives like customer acquisition and retention.

Adaptive Path have some good stuff on this…

Regards DJ

Here is an excerpt from a recent piece on UXblog: “On Brand, Innovation and Customers.” Thought it might add to the discussion.

Though few would admit it, many of the folks working in the brand space struggle with the importance of the customer in the brand equation. They focus heavily on “branding” (dictating) and less on “brand” (delivering). They approach a brand as if it’s a two-step process: (1) Define the brand, and (2) repeat the brand definition.

Here’s how I define a corporate brand:

Brand = the sum of all perceptions resulting from every point of contact a person has with a company either directly or indirectly over time.

We can deliver the message that a company is innovative, or even rebellious, and customers will line up to see what’s up! Unfortunately the brand doesn’t stop there. The company must then deliver something of value to maintain it’s customers. Perhaps more importantly, the company must deliver in a way that’s harmonious with the projected brand message. If it fails to do so a brand will develop from the mixed messages.

Programmers and other techincal persons know about brand. I am from India, so I like to talk about India. In india now, the trade changes, and there are many companies who get success in creating brand by TV and other media instruments. But in India, none of the Web companies is able to create brand without the help of TV and other media. And for me, if your brand’s keyword is in the first page of search results, then you are 100% success in creating brand.

Hi Steve,

Nice article. Well, I am not sure if I am asking something useful or not, but let me.

My question is: Though, in broader terms, we see the branding—or call it e-branding—and user experience—or user interface design—as a joint venture, don’t you think these two subjects should differ?

I mean, branding is something related to marketing over all, and user interface design is only a tool to help visitors use a site easily.

Seeing them jointly is easy, but why shouldn’t we start seeing them as different from each other? Maybe that way we would be able to bring some more precise tips to enhance both branding best practices and UID best practices.

Thanls, Aryan

Aryan,

I think you need to look at user experience in broader terms than simply user interface design: they’re not the same. Reducing user experience to being equivalent to UI design you lose a lot of the complex interplay talked about in the article.

So, is brand separate from UI design? Yes, absolutely. Are the two interdependent? Yes, absolutely. Do the two require different skill sets? Yes, they do. And for this reason they need to be talked about in the same context or else we run the risk of having our interfaces designed by practitioners who’ve never learned nor cared about brand.

When we start to see user experience as something more than what happens within the interface, we also must draw inspiration from sources outside interface design disciplines.

Steve

This really depends on the company. However, very good post.

This is an excellent article on brand experience. It presents the idea clearly and correctly. Brand experience is one of the most important aspects of UX design. If your Web site or Web application does not reflect the company’s brand, the company might not survive. The difference between the Microsoft brand and Apple brand is the user experience! The difference between the Google brand and Yahoo! brand is the user experience!

This is a great quote by the author: “By creating a user experience that is appropriate to our audience, business goals, and the competitive landscape, we can positively reinforce our customers’ brand experience.”

I think that the way brand managers view and treat their brand really dictates the brand impressions consumers have in response. And there’s really a shift that needs to happen there. Execs need to see brands as human beings. See my article, Brands need to be more like PEOPLE.

This article is every bit as relevant now as when first published. Does this mean that the word isn’t getting disseminated or absorbed as it should? Or that interaction designers are still not considered key players in brand management matters in enough organizations? Don Norman says we need to tear a page out of the marketing playbook.

@uxdesign Thanks for the comment. And I’m glad you find the article relevant.

I see a much greater acceptance today of the connection between brand and interaction design than I did when I first wrote this article. And we’re seeing much greater emphasis on design that looks beyond the interactions that take place within the confines of the digital environment and encompasses those interactions customers have with product displays, call center staff, repairs and service staff, and social networks.

In practice, that recognition is still making its way into the implementation of well-designed products and services that embrace these ideas. It’s happening, and it’s still worth reiterating the basic idea every now and again.

So it’s been 4 years and change since the original publication. True that more businesses have cleaned up their act on branding experiences. But so much brand building effort is still concentrated on the marketing aspects of the products. Companies are still missing the big picture. Sure, the sites got slicker and friendlier, commercials went viral, maybe even the buying experience was branded and you got a warm-fuzzy pushing the proverbial or physical On button for the first time. But what then? Chances are, customer service got worse, and they don’t reflect the brand message at all; they’re more about cookie cutter ops, in-the-moment ROI mindset group. The product usability is still crap, and my warm-fuzzy lasted about 20 seconds. It quickly vanished as soon as I experienced whatever it is that came after the welcome screen. And I’m not really talking only about digital products or software—or even products at all. Even service businesses are guilty of branding marketing material, and at best, their letterheads retain the message, but the engagement itself varies vastly from the initial experience. Sustainability is not there, the whole picture is not there—stinky bathrooms and moldy twin beds covered up by fancy front doors and gold-plated foyers and perfectly branded literature in harmonious accord with a Web 2.0 Web site. And the customer support can smile and nod, because brand/UX training told them to—or lose their job—but what can they do if the product is crap?

How else do we say it, so those who need to listen can hear it? Consistency across the entire experience, not just marketing, is paramount! Sustain my experience or lose my business!

Nice article. When you visit Good Brand Promotion Agencies Playschool Franchisee, look to see if teachers smile and are generally encouraging of children. Look to see how the teachers interact with the other children in the classroom and if there seem to be strong connections between them. Also talk to parents at the school about their experience.

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