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.”
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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. 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.
Focusing on the business side of the user experience equation, Steve has over 14 years of experience as a UX design and strategy practitioner, working on Web sites and Web applications. Leading teams of user experience designers, information architects, interaction designers, and usability specialists, Steve integrates user and business imperatives into balanced user experience strategies for corporate, not-for-profit, and government clients. He holds Masters degrees in Electronic Commerce and Business Administration from Australia’s Macquarie University (MGSM), and a strong focus on defining and meeting business objectives carries through all his work. He also holds a Bachelor of Science in Applied Statistics, which provides a strong analytical foundation that he further developed through his studies in archaeology. Steve is VP of the Interaction Design Association (IxDA), a member of IA Institute and UPA, founder of the UX Book Club initiative, Co-Chair of of UX Australia, and an editor and contributor for Johnny Holland. Read More