I find that my line of work as a visual designer can be described as a balancing act between enabling positive user experiences and correctly applying a company’s brand and tone of voice. And although many other facets of service design could be described in a similar way, I’m approaching these themes from a user interface design standpoint.
A brand, in broad terms, is any set of qualities that set a company apart from its competitors. It stands to reason that a company that’s widely associated with positive brand qualities would want to protect its brand integrity, all the way down to the finest details.
A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service or organization.
— Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap (2003)
Digital Brands — Identity Vs. User Expectation?
Many companies have a set of brand guidelines that define how the brand should look, feel and sound in different contexts. To support consistent messaging about the company or service, brand manuals often document acceptable applications and usage of color, fonts, document layouts, images and key messaging.
Maintaining and monitoring acceptable brand applications is important, because brand identity sets the tone of a customer’s initial impressions and gives a brand its recognizability across different channels. A brand’s personality or identity helps build customer relationships. Visual signals establish differentiating factors and brand positioning. A digital service certainly needs to communicate the same values and ideas as the brand as a whole.
But once we start talking about digital services and user interfaces, building a positive brand image stops being just about staying visually on brand. Visual design for online services is not just about making a nice-looking page. In fact, overly harmonious and pretty might mean hard to figure out and lacking in meaningful visual cues. User expectations of how things should look and work need to be accounted for, and users have been trained by multi-million dollar companies like Facebook and Netflix to expect user interfaces that are easy to navigate and minimize friction between the user and their goal, especially on a mobile device. According to a Google research study, only 9 % of mobile site or app visitors will stay if they don’t quickly find what they’re looking for.
Reducing Friction to Align with User and Business Objectives
A large part of our perception of a brand stems from our past experiences with that brand. Google’s study shows that customers who don’t find immediate utility in an app or a website will not only move on, but 28 % will also be less likely to ever buy products from that company in the future. In 2014, Harvard Business Review explored ways to quantify the impact of customer experience on sales and wrote that repeat customers who had the best past experiences spend 140 % more compared to those with the worst past experiences.
28 % of users who don’t find immediate utility on a website will be less likely to ever buy from that company in the future.
On one hand this presents a challenge: anticipating users’ needs and presenting them with the right calls to action at the right time is difficult. On the other hand this is also a brand-building opportunity. According to Google’s data, 29 % of mobile users will immediately switch to another service if they can’t find the answers they’re looking for. Being that other, more nimble service can be a very cost-effective way to build up a following for a new service. Traditional branding activities are expensive and time-consuming. For a new service or a startup, there is no better brand experience than beating the competition at giving the user what they’re looking for, at exactly the right time, in an easy-to-understand interface.
Now, there is an entire field of expertise dedicated to reducing friction between the user and their goal on a website or within an app and increasing the share of users that reach a specific goal, and that’s Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO). Much of the methodology behind CRO could be thought of simply as means for improving user experience through giving the user what they need for as efficiently as possible — or before they even know they need it.
For example, to be able to quickly respond to user needs, the primary calls-to-action that a site or app provides should be prominent. It’s important to make room for these primary calls to action and to steer away from cluttering pages or screens with secondary content that might result in user confusion or drive traffic away from sales-generating activities.
However, identifying the key user needs and figuring out what form those key calls-to-action should take — how they look, how they’re phrased — is difficult to accomplish with just a designer’s intuition. In other words, it’s critical to have an understanding of how people use your service, because otherwise you’re just taking shots in the dark. Brand-building interactions shouldn’t be decided by a designer’s gut feeling or the highest-paid person’s opinion. That’s where CRO tools like page analytics, user research and A/B testing come into play.
In Service of the Brand — or the Brand Aesthetic?
Methodically testing different variations of an interaction flow or of individual page elements — headlines, value propositions, buttons, pricing charts, testimonials — is integral to generating more sales or leads without investing directly into more traffic. Good brand guidelines allow for enough leeway that as long as brand values aren’t being contradicted or users misled, you can try different color combinations, different copy treatments, different page layouts or a number of other factors that might affect the way users understand and experience the interface.
Outdated brand guidelines — or ones primarily designed for print applications, even if recent — might be at odds with conversion optimization best practices, or might even lead to usability or legibility issues in a digital context. An overinsistence on consistency across channels might likewise lead to problems when trying to optimize the user experience in each channel. For example, I’ve worked with visual identities that have been built around several primary colors, of which only one is meant to be used at a time per page. This makes sense in a PowerPoint or print context, but if a website has to be built in a way that avoids using multiple colors per screen, those colors can’t be used to convey meaning or to highlight important elements. This has the effect of making it harder for a user to identify key links and buttons. It also severely cripples a designer’s ability to test different approaches to conversion rate improvement.
An overinsistence on consistency across channels might lead to problems when trying to optimize the user experience in each channel.
Conversion rate optimization is a continuous effort, and means methodical testing and research to align a service better with its business objectives (or key performance indicators — KPIs). Done right, this translates to more efficient service for users. If this process is hamstrung by outdated or draconian brand visual guidelines, then a question arises: are we trying to serve the brand aesthetic or the business goals? If the brand guidelines prevent testing different solutions for reducing friction between the user and whatever our business model wants them to do, the brand guidelines have failed the brand.
Compromise is inevitable when designing services. Delivering the best possible outcome means knowing which compromises to make. An insistence on very strict branding consistency and guardianship across all channels can prevent testing highlight colors or easily scannable copy. An online service like a website or an app is not meant to define what the company brand should be. It should deliver on the best expectations the company’s customers have of the brand.