Branding in UX: It’s About Messaging & Experience

Branding (verb) is about communicating an organization’s messages and values. The brand (noun) is the personality of every aspect of the company a user interacts with. Personalities aren’t one dimensional. For example, a friend can be all of the following: fun to hang out with, annoying to work with, loyal in friendship, but reckless in romance and lastly they might be a real ass when arguing with. People aren’t just fun or angry, they are complex and behave in different ways depending on the situation. Companies, being made up of people, can suffer from the same problem—a lack of consistent and predictable behavior.

Savvy businesses will try to create a consistent experience through out the different touch points customers have with them. A great way to kill a brand is to set expectations of experience high during the selling process, then deliver a bad experience when it comes to support. Anyone consider Dell a great brand? Perhaps IT departments, since they get a more consistent experience than consumers do.

So what about style guides, typefaces and color palettes. Why are these topics the main focus when businesses talk about branding? Some how experience and brand have been separated; even in technology related companies. A brand is about experience, tone and messaging. The fundamental role of visual design should be to clearly, emotionally and beautifully present information to the user. Humans are visual creatures which leads to a false inference that brand equates to visuals. Visuals communicate branding and if they are effective they can symbolize and embody the message.

How to Kill Creativity & Dilute Messaging

Many corporations create style guides (sometimes called branding guidelines) which are excessively restrictive. This may work fine if the message never changes or evolves. To create a great experience messaging should be adapting and reacting to new needs of your customers. This might make some people gasp, but sometimes new messages are better represented by a visual design which better reflects the message even if it’s a bit outside of your precious style guides.

Branding is not just about colors and typefaces. So why do certain parts of a business tend to focused mostly on these things? It’s because it easy and familiar. Especially for individuals which don’t have creative or user experience backgrounds. Marketers understand the power of a brand. They want their logo and colors to be as recognizable and powerful as Coca-Cola’s, but even they often fall into the “visual design is our brand” trap.

Most companies are in the position of trying to build their brand, not maintain it. To build a brand a company shouldn’t be afraid to stretch and bend some guidelines. Be flexible with your visual design so that your message can be heard most effectively. If you align your message with a great experience then you’ll really build a great brand.

I think this problem becomes more apparent when new platforms emerge. For a long time websites were designed to look like a hand-out flyers in a browser. In fact, I still run into these sites. Companies and designers were afraid to adapt their brand to how the web works and more important to the new interactions that the web has. I see this happening again with mobile and tablet apps. Business try to stick as closely to their web design guidelines when working on mobile apps. It doesn’t have to be these way and even some big businesses have done this well. When Chase Bank’s mobile app was released it was far superior to it’s web offering and design. Even PayPal’s updated app has a different look and feel to their iPhone application. It seems as if they were trying to align their brand with iOS’s hipper look and feel.

I’m not saying that all brands should bend their visual design to fit the platform they are going to be on. Paypal has a brand that feels stale and yet they are faced with the challenge of competing with fresh upstarts like square. By embracing a more modern and warm visual design they are trying to communicate qualities such as hip, modern, convenient so that they can remain relevant in mobile space.

Visuals Needs Message

Design of a Crucifix

Please don’t start a religious debate. I’m just citing a crucifix because it’s one of the most recognized symbols in the USA. Coca-Cola and Apple have been done to death in branding conversations. But don’t fret—I’m still going to bring up Coca-Cola. It’s hard to resist.

If someone showed you a crucifix and you had no concept about the teaching of Christianity it would evoke a completely different response. That’s not to say we all have the same response to a crucifix. But most people won’t have a literal response to symbol. Here’s an example of a literal response “That’s horrible, there is a guy half-naked nailed to a cross.” It’s a bit morbid if you don’t understand the context. Without the message the visuals have a completely different meaning.

An average response to a crucifix in the United States might invoke an image of a religious institution Catholic, Christian, etc. After that our feelings about those religions will invoke an emotional response. The devout religious folks may recognize the crucifix as a symbol of love and sacrifice. An agnostic or atheist may just see it as as symbol of church and not have much a response to it. Christopher Hutckins would probably have more a negative emotion towards the crucifix, because religion to him seems symbolize many negative aspects in societies and history.

Remember the example isn’t about how people feel about crucifixes. My point is that a crucifix has no meaning unless you understand the message and value it represents, regardless if one is religious or not. The crucifix is a symbol for a message not just a iconic design.

The Best Logo Wins?

Is Coca-Cola’s logo so much better than Pepsi’s and RC Cola’s? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps it’s a stronger brand, because the logo represents (through billions of dollars of advertising) nostalgia and an association with a pleasing treat. This is why Coca-Cola and Pepsi often don’t talk about great taste. Consumers knows what they taste like already. They want to you to associate them with pleasure, happiness and lifestyle. Often Pepsi will aim for hipness either by celebrity association, or by their social initiative campaigns or some other lifestyle association. They do this by associating their visuals with there brand messaging. Their messaging evolves over time and they often update supporting visuals to reflect this.

Interaction Designers are the Connectors

How can we affect the brand? In many organizations we may (or could be) be one of the most important players when it comes to branding software or hardware products. Unfortunately Marketing, Creative and Technology don’t work as closely together as they should. As interactions designers we are accustomed to being a bridge between the business and the user. We’re also the hub between multiple departments. What other position in the business works with Marketing, Creative, Technology, Customer Service, Sales etc? Perhaps a Business Analyst or a Product Manager do, but they each are responsible for focusing on there own areas which tend to be slanted towards the business’s goals and opportunities. As interaction designer we work with both of these positions and are tasked with creating business value and customer value. This is why we have the opportunity to create a great brand. (Especially when we team up with our fellow BAs and PMs. This can the trinity of creating an amazing user experience.)

First steps first. Try to get to know key people in as many parts of the business as possible. A great way to do this is actually one of the first steps to creating personas for a business. It’s called organizational introspection. Basically set up 15–30 minute interview with key members (key doesn’t just mean management) of the business and ask them the following.

  1. What are the goals for this person’s department or area of influence?
  2. What are the future goals for this person’s department or area of influence?
  3. What makes our product or service different?
  4. What do you think our brand represents?

By understanding the goals of each department you’ll be able to design an experience that suites the business. You’ll learn how the business really views their customers. This is something reading a mission statement won’t tell you. More importantly you’ll be able to see areas of weakness; parts of the business which have user experience issues. More importantly still, you hopefully will gain a contact (subject matter expert) in each department that you can utilize for knowledge and collaboration in the future.

When a meeting related to their area of expertise pops up, invite them to the meeting, generally they’ll love the opportunity to have input and get away from their daily duties for a bit. (Try to be conscientious of people who work in Sales, they may work off of commission or bonuses so their time is very valuable to them. And remember everybody likes snacks.)

Brand Ambassadors

Branding Sketches, Wireframes, Task Flows and other IxD Documents

Many interaction designers have a t-shaped skill set, meaning we generally have skills in multiple areas. Even within design we have a strong knowledge of IA, UX, graphic design in addition to interaction design. Unfortunately we often restrict the application of our skills to fit the documents that we are required to produce for project. Without going on a tangent about documentation design vs agile product design, I’ll just say that you shouldn’t be afraid to add personality to documentation when appropriate.

Information architecture docs, content strategy, wireframes, etc. can incorporate brand elements. These documents should be expressing the message and the purposed experience. As interaction designers we are tasked with creating interfaces around user behaviors. How effective can sterile wireframes be if we haven’t tried to incorporate messaging in the tone of the business as well as creative elements that improve the experience? There isn’t a reason a wireframe can’t have good copy or a sketch of a innovation interaction. Just make sure you don’t delay sharing your designs just so you can think of good copy. I some people disagree with mixing documentation, because they are used to working in a linear, waterfall process. When you’re doing lean UX it’s best to express the experience like your putting an onion back together. Add the layers up as you go along, but test what you can then refine the layers as needed based on research.

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