Eric Karjaluoto

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.

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