If you run a business or are in charge of marketing one, you know that your Web site is often the first interaction a potential customer has with your brand. For many of today’s businesses, particularly those in the digital media and technology space, Rich Internet Applications (RIAs) have become the primary point of customer interaction. With online experiences contributing so heavily to how people feel about brands, an effective union of user experience design and brand strategy has become critical to sustaining business success.
In a sea of copycat sites and apps, professional user experience design (UXD) has become the price of entry for any business that’s serious about establishing credibility, growing brand equity and engaging their customers online. Getting it right takes more than just powerful features, well-planned information architecture and eye-catching interface design.
There’s a human being, not a “persona,” on the other end who’s trying to get something done, not go through a “process flow.” And they’re deciding in real time whether your brand adds anything meaningful to their life.
The second coming of the dot-com boom has re-introduced the idea that all we need to achieve business success is a good (or not so good) idea, some seed money, a team of programmers and an interface design slapped on at the end. Software developers and designers are being asked to become co-creators of the brand experience. As a result, tactical and technical thinking are being applied to solve the serious strategic challenges businesses face in earning consumer trust and loyalty.
What’s missing is brand strategy.
As a brand experience designer, I’m often charged with bridging the gaps between our clients’ engineering, marketing, design and sales teams. It’s not uncommon for each to have different ideas about what their company does, or at the very least, why they do it. In less mature companies, the CFO and CIO may step into product development and create an ideological tug-of-war. When it’s a technology or digital media company, an engineering culture may dominate decision-making. While that’s a great environment for solving technical problems, it’s terrible for introducing a new product, or worse, a new brand to the marketplace.
Without a clearly coordinated effort to ensure that your online experience is a real reflection of your brand promise, a torrent of off-brand details pockmark the experience and send the wrong message. If technology is leading the discussion, phrases like “generate query” and “select product variant” are used to communicate with non-technical people. Tasks that could be completed in three or four steps require 8 or 10 separate screens, frustrating users.
On the other hand, if designers are in charge, data-driven environments that require speed are bloated with gradients and drop shadows.
Professional user experience design goes a long way toward getting these things right. But while the practice of customer-centric thinking does keep things focused on the user’s perspective, that’s often a one-to-one relationship. Brands are about the community. Brand-centric thinking expands user experience design to stay focused on the collective perception of who you are and why you matter. It’s about the whole, not the individual parts.
User experience is just one tactical expression of the brand. Choosing interaction design techniques for a client app isn’t much different from choosing paper stock for their brochure. They both reinforce the brand in subtle ways. What’s important is that the approach to every consumer/brand touch point is integrated and consistently on-brand. Solid information architecture, functional design and looks matter. But they must be rooted in clear brand strategy.
The online experience needs to continuously deliver on the brand promise to generate the trust people extend to the brands that consistently meet their expectations. This is how tangible brand value is created that’s built for the long term.