User Experience is Brand Experience

The phrase, “we’re concerned about our brand,” is often misused. These words commonly mask a group’s real desire, which is focused on visuals. Translated to its intended meaning, this phrase might read, “make our logo bigger, and use more of our corporate color.” I might sound glib, but many would attest to the accuracy of this comment. Brand experiences are somewhat difficult notions to wrap one’s head around. As such, some mistake their visuals for their “brand.”

Presentation and Its Limits

Most acknowledge, at least in theory, that a brand is much bigger than how something looks. An apt comparison would be found in a person and what he wears. His clothing provides visual cues, which might indicate vocation, socio-economic standing, and life outlook. However, there’s more to a person than this presentation layer—including what he says, thinks, feels, and does.

In recognizing this construct, I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of presentation. Dress a homeless person in a suit, and people will treat him differently. Put a businessperson in rags, and she won’t get past her building’s security guards. Visual cues are powerful. The first information we receive about new things tends to be through our eyes. This makes the presentation layer information rich (at least superficially), and we process this data immediately.

If I see someone dressed like a hipster, my mind groups her with all those who share these characteristics. The category I’ve placed her in isn’t necessarily suitable to this person. With time, my other senses are activated. Her accent might contradict my first impression—as could the words she chooses. Similarly, her chosen discussion topics, mannerisms, gestures, and other bits of information will add depth to my understanding of her.

Although presentation is important, failing to think beyond the visual layer is a mistake. This myopia is comparable to obsessing over the size of your tie, while failing to develop your interpersonal skills—and then wondering why no one likes talking to you.

Why Doesn’t the Print Button Print?

Recently, my father-in-law asked me to help him check in, for a cross country flight. (During his prior excursion, he was stuck in a middle seat. He hoped to avoid such unpleasantness, this time, by selecting his seat 24 hours early.) We visited the carrier’s website, entered his data, and responded to some questions about baggage requirements. At the completion of this process he had the option to print his ticket, or have it sent to him via email, or text message.

As he doesn’t own a smartphone, we selected the Print option. After a moment’s delay, this action led us to a blank screen. I hit the Back button, and repeated the process. Same result. So, I tried again. Eventually, I gave up. As a workaround, I emailed the boarding pass to myself, and then printed the document.

The situation I describe isn’t the most terrible inconvenience one might endure; the experience was notably cumbersome, though. And this is my point: In spite of this organization’s adherence to logo guidelines, corporate colors, and standard brand treatments, all I remember is the broken experience. Perhaps this was a temporary glitch, but the interruption introduced doubt. If I can’t perform the most basic of actions on their website, what am I left to think of the airline? Errors/glitches on a basic system like this one make me wonder what else they’ve been sloppy with. For an airline, such notions are concerning.

Some reading this post will think, “There was a problem with the booking system, but you eventually got the ticket. What’s the big deal? Cut them some slack.” In principle, I agree; however, such a casual viewpoint belies how fickle brand relationships can be. Today’s customer has a vast amount of choice, and this leads to a ridiculously petty sort of entitlement. Slightly confuse a customer’s latte order, and he’ll consider you a moron. Interrupt his wi-fi access and he’ll think you’re ripping him off. Change what’s familiar, and he’ll threaten to leave your service—like they do when Facebook (a service made available, free-of-charge) makes a small change to their News Feed.

In spite of such overblown reactions, the customer/user can get away with this behaviour—because your organization needs him/her. As such, you need to understand what matters most to these individuals. If your corporate identity standards aren’t perfectly implemented in your site, app, or kiosk, they probably won’t notice; but, interrupt their experience, and they’re apt to react with vitriol. With this in mind, I raise the question: What’s the most important aspect of your brand—the visuals or the experience?

What It’s Like to Hold Your Brand

I don’t mean to freak anyone out about having an occasional system error. I only use the ticket printing example to illustrate how significant experience is, for your users. Yes, I want you to be concerned with matters of visual implementation. I also want you to be as concerned with user experience (UX)—because this area dramatically impacts the way your brand feels, for customers.

The baseline for online systems is an error- and confusion-free user experience. Navigation should be intuitive, options explicit, content clear, and so on. This is only the beginning, though. To facilitate positive brand experiences through UX, you’ll need to implement a more iterative, long-term mindset, in your operations. This involves continual monitoring your digital properties, regular testing of common use cases, and committing to putting the user’s experience ahead of any marketing directives you’re trying to meet.

This is no small statement, and this thinking runs contrary to the way marketing professionals learned to approach such matters. For the longest time, websites, apps, and other digital properties were principally thought of as apparatus that helped achieve marketing goals.

Although this can still be true, we increasingly find that UX defines the brand experience. Users are loyal to a tool, like iA Writer, with fewer features but more graceful UX. They become vocal advocates for experiences that bring them joy, like Netflix. Meanwhile, tools that empower them, like Twitter, rewire their daily habits. The user experience effectively becomes the brand, and the users—and their actions—do the marketing.

Let me take this a step further: The corporate identity you’re so intent on rigorously preserving? It isn’t really worth that much, any longer. In fact, you’d likely strengthen your brand, if you instead placed the bulk of your effort into your user experience. If it’s a contest, UX wins. (And, if you allow UX to win, your brand probably will, too.)

The Threat and Promise of UX

If you place visual identity concerns ahead of UX, you put your organization at risk. I say this because small groups tend to move fast. This speed enables them to make better stuff than you can. A small army of smart, motivated, forward-thinking people are working to overtake your organization, by attacking your weakest point. You might find such a notion alarming. Good—because while you’re tinkering with trivial details, someone’s preparing to eat your lunch. So, perhaps you need to be alarmed.

You’ve spent the last year working with a major brand studio, fretting your logo. Your competitor built hers in an hour, and will make it better if her business model takes hold. You’re stuck in meetings, trying to outline an approval process for blogging; she’s posting daily, and learning which content gets the most interest. You’re asking how to charge customers more; she’s driving the price to zero. You’re asking how to extend your user’s length of stay; she’s working to service them faster, so they have a frictionless online experience.

In case you think I’m being hyperbolic, I’d like to remind you of a few such cases: Search ate The Yellow Pages. Craigslist neutered newspaper classifieds. Torrents decimated cable television. These are the obvious examples, but there are also less known companies like Clearly Contacts, Dollar Shave Club, and ZipCar that are working to upset entire sectors. And if you don’t think someone’s working on disrupting your industry, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise.

One notable indicator in all of this, is found in the number design studios (not ad agencies) being acquired by growing startups. Good design talent is difficult to access, so, some organizations are buying existing design groups and plugging them into their operations. Think about that: how big of an issue is user experience design, if Google will buy a company—not for its fixed assets—but as a way to rapidly access design expertise?

These designers are notably different from their predecessors, though. They aren’t trying to exercise some kind of dogmatic control over how their work looks. Instead, they’re concentrating on the experience—and then letting users’ actions tell them whether their approach works, or doesn’t. This feedback isn’t coming through a survey or focus group; it’s being garnered methodically through data and testing.

People who work in branding live in a polarizing time. Those who insist upon following conventional rules risk their companies’ futures. Alternatively, those who put UX first, can topple giants.

We, the Despots

This morning, Monica Lewinsky’s name appeared in my Twitter feed. My first thought was to tweet a cheeky one-liner—referencing obvious (and tired) subject matter.

I then went on to read about Lewinsky. She recounted the experience of having her reputation destroyed on the internet. She also described the pain she felt as a result of the public harassment she endured. Since then, she’s made ending cyberbullying her mission.

I felt embarrassed.

Who was I to judge this person? What right do I have to mock another’s personal matters? Why would I trade my decency, just for a quick gag? More importantly: Am I the kind of person who’ll reduce another human being to a crass punch line?

If I’d acted on that dumb impulse, I wouldn’t have been alone. Tweets directed at her ran the gamut from, “Are you available for bachelor parties?” to, “I have a cigar with your name on it……” and “Let me tell u Moni, not all 21 year old suck the presidents dick.” (The sort of retorts one hopes will surface when these folks apply for jobs.)

A few hours passed, and Renee Zellweger’s name was trending. Turns out, the actress looks quite different than before—as a result of plastic surgery.

The public barbs that followed ranged from the cruel to the outright vicious. One compared the actress to Lord of the Rings’ Gollum. Another made an eCard that reads, “May your Halloween costume be as shocking as Renee Zellweger’s new face.” And everyone from individuals, to the “news” media were quick to take a kick at the actress.

A handful spoke to the insidious nature of Hollywood. They noted how it glorifies young actresses only to discard them upon reaching middle-age (and how this effectively forces these artists to undergo cosmetic surgery). Fewer yet acknowledged the systemic nature of sexism in media. I wonder if instead of our jokes, we should ask ourselves some questions. For example, why do we think it’s acceptable to judge, critique, and mock certain women, just because they have public personas?

Perhaps these spiteful leanings were always with us—and it’s just our tools that have changed. The internet, for example, isn’t just a set of technologies; it’s an amplifier. It takes our culture’s bravest moments, and highlights them for everyone to see. It can galvanize the voices of a silenced few, and raise them up for all to hear.

The internet also amplifies our weaknesses, as a people. My examples from this morning are just a couple of the most recent ones. Daily, we’re fed niblets of gossip that we collectively ravage. We extract every last bit of amusement from these, no matter the pain we inflict. Our appetites debase our morals and sensibilities.

But—we can be change.

You, me, every one of us: We can do better. We can think critically. We can challenge ideas. We can discuss issues. We can have heated debates, in which we say what we believe. We can speak with conviction, bias, or even ignorance. It’s in this discussion that we come to understand.

However, what we mustn’t do, is allow our weakest instincts to take hold. While any notion should be open to debate, we must preserve the rights of the individual. Because when we take momentary pleasure in others’ misfortunes, we are all made lesser.

Apple Doesn’t Design for Yesterday

Last night, I installed OS X Yosemite. After the marathon-length download, I finally saw it in action. My initial reaction wasn’t unlike that of many others. I’ll sum it up with the phrase, “This got hit by the ugly stick.”

Now, before you go all fanboi on me, please allow me a moment to explain my reaction. First off, It’s OK if I’m not immediately wowed by the updated GUI. Change works this way. Within a few days I’ll likely grow accustomed to this very flat, very Helvetica, environment. This was my experience when iOS was flattened. Although primitive seeming at first, after a few weeks, it felt fine—and its predecessors looked clumsy.

The biggest point of discomfort I have with the new OS X relates to type. Helvetica sets wide and isn’t always well-suited to screens. These shortcomings are glaring in Yosemite. I need to expand Finder window columns so they accommodate the girth of this type family; similarly, type in the menu bar looks crowded and soft. Admittedly, these are First World Problems. That said, I’m not complaining so much as I’m observing.

Apple’s decision to make a wholesale shift from Lucida to Helvetica defies my expectations. Criticize the company as much as you’d like, but it treats user experience with reverence. So, this leaves me wondering: What possible reason is there for this shift? Why make a change that impedes legibility, requires more screen space, and makes the GUI appear fuzzy?

The answer: Tomorrow.

Before I elaborate on this point, though, let me discuss yesterday. Microsoft’s approach with Windows, and backward compatibility in general, is commendable. Users can install new versions of this OS on old machines, sometimes built on a mishmash of components, and still have it work well. This is a remarkable feat of engineering. It also comes with limitations—as it forces Microsoft to operate in the past.

The people at Apple don’t share this focus on interoperability or legacy. They restrict hardware options, so they can build around a smaller number of specs. Old hardware is often left behind (turn on a first-generation iPad, and witness the sluggishness). Meanwhile, dying conventions are proactively euthanized.

When Macs no longer shipped with floppy drives, many felt baffled. This same experience occurred when a disk (CD/DVD) reader no longer came standard. I probably don’t need to remind you how weird it seemed for the iPhone to not have a physical keyboard. Apple continues to remove items that seem necessary from their products and line-up.

In spite of the grumblings of many, I don’t recall many such changes that we didn’t later look upon as the right choice. Floppy disks were too small. The cloud made physical media (CDs and DVDs) unnecessary. Better touch screens allowed a more efficient means of input, which made bulky keyboards unnecessary.

“What about this change to Helvetica?” you ask. It ties to the only significant point in yesterday’s iMac announcement: Retina displays. Just take a look at Helvetica on any high-fidelity screen, and you see a crisp, economical, and adaptable type system.

Sure, Helvetica looks crummy on your standard resolution screen. But, the people at Apple are OK with this temporary trade-off. You’re living in Apple’s past, and, in time, you’ll move forward. When you do, you’ll find a system that works as intended: because Apple skates to where the puck is going to be.

The House Party

Imagine a friend with a big house, where everyone is welcome. Given the many invited, there’s always something to see, hear, or discuss, when you visit. You can write stuff on the walls, show funny videos to friends, and even play games. He’ll even let you make a room private—just for you and your friends.

There are some rules: He asks that you use your real name. He doesn’t want you to put naughty pictures on the walls. He is against the house being used for elicit purposes. (He also has a strange thing with public breastfeeding—but we all have our hang-ups.) Other than that, he’s pretty chill.

After hosting the party for a while, Budweiser and a few other companies got in touch with him—and asked to take part. So, they paid him to put up a few of their banners. Reps from these companies visit and listen to what folks are saying. You find this weird, but it covers his bills—and you’d rather look at a few posters than pay to attend the party.

Sometimes, he wonders if rearranging the furniture would make the group discussions better. So, he tests varying arrangements and then switches to the layout that works best. This also upsets you—both that you are part of a test, and that he’s so determined to make the space better. Perhaps you just don’t like change.

This is an understatement. You don’t seem mildly perturbed with these improvements. In fact, the last time he tested a new room approach, you thought he was manipulating you. So you wrote nasty things on the walls—altogether forgetting that you are a guest in someone else’s house. You SHOUTED IN RAGE, when he moved the couch—but forgot all about it, a week later. You felt violated when he “infringed your privacy,” even though you put your photos in a place everyone could see them.

You don’t seem to be angry about climate change, wanton consumerism, or the NSA violating your privacy. Instead, you pout about how shitty your friend’s house is—and how, one day, you’ll leave. Strangely, you never do. He isn’t forcing you to stay, or putting you under duress. Come if you want, or leave if you’d like—no big deal.

I’m not implying that Facebook’s house is perfect; but, it is sort of remarkable. It’s improved how we communicate, service is consistent, and it mostly runs without a hitch. When management oversteps, they tend to step back and correct course. And—I repeat—you are always free to leave, should you be unhappy, or get bored with this particular party.

I wonder if our frustrations with Facebook are more about who we are than what it is. This network seems to activate our more needy characteristics. We crave a sense of connection and the adulation of our peers. As we witness the pseudo-lives others cultivate and project, we feel inferior. So, we respond, in kind, using Instagram to doctor ordinary moments, posting our most clever quips, and unintentionally bragging about ourselves.

Facebook might prove the greatest example of the medium being the message. The Status Update isn’t an invitation to dialogue, it’s a pleasure lever. Each time we post, we draw attention to ourselves, and beg for tiny nuggets of digital applause. This mechanism is powerful because it rewards our most self-serving behaviors.

So, instead of hating the house, or the host, perhaps we need to be more concerned with the ugly reflection we find in all its mirrors.

A Better Way to Fail Fast

Certain notions are so insightful that they spread quickly. As this happens, many such ideas are sapped of their meaning, and turned into hollow platitudes. “Fail fast,” is such a phrase, and it’s commonly repeated among those who work in, or with, startups.

The logic behind this phrase is sound. It proposes that making the right choices on undefined projects can be difficult; therefore, you shouldn’t dwell on setbacks. Instead, you should learn what you can from your missteps and move on—quickly.

This idea is powerful because it encourages innovators to look forward. Or, as Thomas Edison said, “I didn’t fail. I just found 2,000 ways not to make a lightbulb; I only needed to find one way to make it work.”

Without such a mindset, one can get hung-up on his/her stumbles. Worse yet, the resultant fear can slow the innovator from taking new approaches and entertaining somewhat divergent possibilities.

However, this phrase’s meaning has become perverted, affording many an excuse to give up and switch to something completely different. They use the words “fail fast” to avoid the hard tactical questions that need to be addressed, in order to advance. Instead of biting down and dealing with the obstacles at hand, they quit, and move on to something completely different—because they’re “failing fast.”

Let’s bring this discussion back to Edison. What if he had given up on the lightbulb and moved on to another challenge, every time he hit an obstacle? Sure, he could claim that he’d “failed fast,” but he also wouldn’t have achieved his breakthrough.

I’m all for failing fast. For this device to work properly, though, I choose to fail fast on smaller points, while keeping my long-term goal consistent. As such, I propose a simple rework of the phrase. Let’s stop saying, “fail fast,” and instead try: “fail on the small stuff fast.”

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