Transcending the Transactional

The Brand and the User Experience


For those who have read any of my previous posts, this will be a bit of a departure. Lately, I’ve been mulling over the idea of transactional relationships and what they mean to the experiences we design. But transactional as opposed to what? I’ll explore the answer to that and what it means to the brand and user experience over all.

Pondering the Transactional

A few months ago, I had my first meeting with a new client. As we discussed his business and customer base, he described one of his vendor relationships as being “transactional.” Transactional? That struck me — it’s not something you hear every day.

Over the following weeks, the word “transactional” lingered on my mind. I reflected on the conversation many times and considered how to best describe what was meant. The general meaning was understood, but I was at a loss for a concise definition.


A few weeks later, I listened to a consultant as he reviewed some marketing materials he had in his hand.

“‘Buy now!’ ‘Act today!’ ‘Offer won’t last!’,” he said critically. He was making a point about the messaging and the types of relationships that were being encouraged.

“Yeah,” I replied, “It’s very transactional.” There it is again. “But transactional as opposed to what?” I pondered…

Transactional vs. Relational

From my experience with the several marketing teams I’ve worked with over the years, I’ve come to the conclusion that they can be divided into two groups: sales-oriented and brand-oriented. This is often evident by the shared language of an organization. If you commonly hear “Sales & Marketing,” that team is likely sales-oriented. If it is “Marketing & Communications,” on the other hand, it is likely brand-oriented.

There are two strategies that exemplify this — transactional marketing and relational marketing. In simple terms, transactional marketing focuses on the sale and relational marketing focuses on the customer relationship. So, a sales-oriented team adheres to a transactional strategy, while a brand-oriented team adheres to a relational strategy.

These strategies will also manifest themselves within the corporate culture. What’s the morale like? Are the people genuinely happy to work there or is the turnover high? Does leadership even care? All indicative of the organization’s business strategy — transactional or relational.

But as with most things, context is everything. There may be situations where a transactional strategy makes more sense. In the B2B world, for example, business culture has a tendency to operate under the old adage of “This is business, not personal.” With importance placed on ROI and how the bottom line benefits from a product or service, a transactional approach might be preferred by the business customer.

In the B2C world, however, a transactional attitude may come off as too assertive or offensive. Think about why most of us actively avoid sales people — the only thing they seem to care about is making the sale. This, in turn, affects the confidence we have in that person. Let me put it in more social terms.

In the dating scene, there are two types of connections that are typically sought after: physical and emotional. And the way we behave in pursuit of these two connections is different (or at least it should be).

Getting back to the B2C, focusing on the customer relationship means connecting with customers on an emotional level. And that’s what it means to be brand-oriented.

“A brand is a person’s gut feeling about a product, service, or organization.” — Marty Neumeier, The Brand Gap

At the end of the day, transactions are important for maintaining a healthy business. But if we focus solely on the sale and ignore the relationship, we concentrate our energy on customer acquisition and chasing prospects. Instead, we could be cultivating our relationships and fostering customer retention, which pays for itself.

Transactional vs. Meaningful

When talking about all this, I prefer to speak in terms of transactional and meaningful, not relational. Technically, they are all forms of relationships. It’s the quality of those relationships that’s in question.

Going back to the example of dating, is it a physical connection (transactional) that we’re in pursuit of or an emotional one (meaningful)? And since we’re all in the people business, this model holds true when courting our customers and users.

Meaningful Experiences

At the UX Immersion Conference 2013, Kelly Goto gave a talk on Mapping Emotion to Experience. In it, she discusses the need to create experiences that have meaning, not just pleasure or ritual. Experiences that delight without meaning are fleeting. Eventually, they will be replaced by novelty (game apps are a good example of this). It is the meaningful experience — the one that has personal significance to the user — that stands a better chance at longevity.

From Stephen P. Anderson’s book, Seductive Interaction Design

Think about the apps you interact with the most. For me, those would be (on iOS) Mail, Messages, and Twitter. The common theme between them? Connectedness. It goes beyond functional, reliable, usable, or convenient. It isn’t just pleasurable, it is meaningful. But to understand that, you have to understand my daily life — my personal narrative.

So how do we get to the narrative?

“User experience” encompasses all aspects of the end-user’s interaction with the company, its services, and its products. — Nielsen Norman Group, The Definition of User Experience

We get to the narrative by understanding the user experience. And the user experience starts with getting to know the user. Much like when forming personal relationships, it takes time, trust, and patience. Time to figure out who you should be getting to know. Trust that you will act accordingly. And the patience to keep working to get it right.

The Brand and the User Experience

You may have noticed that the Marty Neumeier and Nielsen Norman Group quotes sound very similar. That’s no coincidence. The user experience is an extension of the brand.

Excerpt from the Rail Europe experience map. Adaptive Path.

However, it seems commonplace in our industry that Marketing and UX are at odds with each other. In an organization where a sales-oriented team is dominant, that conflict is understandable. Transactional marketing tends to focus more on short-term goals — daily quotas, monthly reports, quarterly bonuses. This often feels like direct opposition to the user experience, placing business goals before user needs.

Conversely, relational marketing is more about the long-term. Consumer confidence, customer loyalty, and brand equity are goals that take time to achieve. Likewise, user experience goals — from functional to meaningful — also take time to achieve. The best results are produced when there is alignment across teams. Marketing and UX: Hand in glove.

Building a brand and crafting the user experience is hard work. It requires patience and the ability to see the big picture. The key is to invest in the people involved, both internal and external. The return is not only a product that our users adore, but a brand with relationships that endure.