I’ll start this article with a short tale, a story that ended badly, but not so much since it was the origin of the considerations that led me to this point.
I was a young interaction designer who was very proud to have been invited to an interview at a major London firm. I went back to present the outcome of the task I was assigned: it was an e-commerce prototype for a sports brand’s sneakers. The evaluator listened to me and then said: “Excellent, Federico. What would you change if the client was Nike? or Puma? or Adidas?”.
I shushed. In the end, I mumbled an answer that didn’t satisfy anyone, firstly myself, and in fact, I didn’t get hired. But when I stopped blaming myself for not being able to come up with an adequate answer to that question, I began thinking.
What determines the experience of a brand, and how does it play out? What implications does it have in the design of a product or a service? What does it ultimately mean to design products where the user can breathe the real brand’s identity throughout the experience and in every interaction people have with them?
Is brand experience design the missing part of branding?
Branding and communication agencies have learned to manage this very well: a Nike or Redbull adv tells out the brand’s values loudly in every aspect, from the tone of voice, the images used, the music played and so on. When we look at a service experience and a product proposition, delivery patterns and business model…things begin to get complicated. Yet all of these aspects contribute to the definition of the brand proposition.
64% of consumers choose, change, avoid or boycott a brand based on the values it represents.
And we can agree that this assumption becomes even more relevant now that design is becoming commoditized and interfaces eventually tend to all look a bit alike.
Moreover, as behaviours and channels become more hybrid, along with more straightforward offerings, the brand relationship becomes the most differentiating asset to rely on: the brand experience must be perceived identical and consistent at every moment of the relationship, on any channel. If the channel strategy loses relevance, then the brand strategy must increase in prominence, building trust whilst strengthening the ties and expectations between people and companies.
We can say, somewhat provocatively, that brand experience design is the missing part of branding. And Daniel Kahneman would have a couple of things to say about this last statement. If the arc of the experience begins with the expectation and ends with the memory, then all the elements that create the interaction are relevant to define the brand’s perception.
To pretend to design and control in detail the whole experience a user has is idealistic and, if granted, also presumptuous: each user’s personal, intimate experience is the consequence of a relationship between multiple ecosystems. However, we can design the individual moments that build up the customer journey to be as aligned as possible with the brand promise. As designers, we need to act not only on the visual and communication aspects (visual identity) but in all the dimensions that fall within the brand actionability.
We can look at the distinctiveness of the brand experience as a key element, for each of the different horizons on which to orient our action as designers — present, near future and long-term future.
Now — Microinteractions beyond visual identity
As designers of experiences, more and more digital ones, we spend a lot of time shaping the experience’s micro-moments. We spend a lot of energy defining the ideal timing for a transition, figuring out the animation that describes the most consistent loading for the product we’re designing, finding the right words to address a customer in an email or a form. How much time do we spend defining the best way to highlight a mistake or a problem, decide on the tones of voice of an IVR or select the best background tunes for our waiting customers? Yet, even these are expressions of the brand and should reach the user like an app or a loader.
The hybrid omnichannel context in which our users move seamlessly is composed of many small moments of a relationship, often far from each other or from the channels that the different brands own and control (e.g. google flights or a story on Instagram).
Creating consistency and memorability in all these moments becomes even more crucial, distinctive and increases the chances of becoming memorable to a user.
Aligning all these details to the brand promise allows for a stronger identity and, on an emotional level, transforms into tangible all those brand values that make it distinctive and unique.
On the other hand, the brand’s perception contributes to creating expectations in people about the service, its process, and its performance.
Let’s take the example of customer care: as a consumer, I expect the customer care of a company such as Amazon to be able to solve my problem — whatever it may be — as simple and as straightforward as possible, almost immediately; if I have a problem with my Enel energy bill, I expect to talk to a person who, through codified processes, not only provides me with the solution but also explains the reasons why that problem occurred and its causes, in order to have me understand the context of an articulated situation that is often confusing for ordinary citizens to manage on their own.
As designers, we have the possibility, the ‘weapons’ and the sensitivity to control all these small details whilst accompanying our clients in transforming their design system, evolving it from the traditional canons of ‘elements that make up the interface’, into the aggregator of all the expressions of a brand that, if orchestrated carefully, can become its tangible manifesto.
Near future — User Research insights vs Brand Promise
There are many factors that we consider in transforming our clients’ business towards operational and relationship models capable of leveraging emerging technologies and enabling new business models.
Most of the insights we gather come from working alongside end-users through various qualitative research techniques, combined with benchmarking, continuous analysis of competitors/comparable, ‘seasoned’ with flashes of technological opportunities. Often these activities are more inspirational than real project drivers.
Defining a unique selling proposition and a brand identity starting from this information, however, translates into creating adapted ‘versions’ of products and services that already exist. In some way, that gives way to compromises dictated by the project’s timeframe, legal or organizational constraints, along with limited tech capabilities.
As designers we must give to the information gathered in the field a different meaning, spending time in understanding not only the mechanical aspect of the brand experience but, above all, the emotional relationship and the ‘empathy’ that develops between the feelings of the end-user and the product or service that he uses or is dreaming about.
It is precisely on this level of emotions and feelings that the whole dynamic of the experience is triggered, within the dynamic relationship between what is the real experience and what a user perceives, representing the fertile ground for design activities capable of defining one product’s specs over another.
One of the aspects that, in my opinion, distinguishes the designer from other forms of consulting is the concreteness with which we represent our thinking.
Tangible artefacts, such as prototypes, become the simplest and most immediate way to convey abstract concepts such as added value or brand unique selling proposition.
When crafting them, however, it is crucial to highlight all those nuances that differentiate a product from another, making it memorable.
Designer’s work must be a constant balancing act between the ambition to meet a user’s need and express the brand promises, as consistently as possible, through small experiential moments that, indeed, become distinctive of a product or service.
Being able to move nimbly and continuously between the macro-level of the definition of a new business and the micro-level of the single interaction becomes a must-have feature of a design process in positioning a brand, thus becoming even more relevant in contexts characterized by many layers of decision-making, each with specific objectives and focus.
Therefore, the micro-details become a stimulus for a broader comparison, almost like a bed of pins. Each interaction element becomes the eye of a needle to focus on in order to lay in perfect balance and avoid any pain.
Next futures — The analysis of technology and human evolution to evolve the brand in its possible future
Working with companies to imagine how they could face the scenarios that the future will present to them, for designers, means:
- find and interpret sociological and human behaviour trends.
- visualize them together with technological evolution trends.
- define plausible scenarios by designing the future user experience, representing the principal and likely traits of how a company’s business will evolve with the challenges that the world will present in 8/10 years from now.
Manipulating these elements, too delicate and crucial for a company’s destiny, actually means acting on what a brand represents and will stand for in the future.
Designing a company’s transition from today to tomorrow implies questioning what that brand is today along with defining its role in tomorrow’s society.
We understand that the brand mission and brand vision will likely change, but even more solid aspects like brand values are bound to be challenged.
Indeed, the Brand promise and the brand identity, represent all together the most exciting dimensions to play with for a strategic design team.
How will they change over time whilst keeping a tangible value to their customers along with maintaining a clear differentiation in the marketplace in a sustainable future? This is not an easy question to answer and implies a complex process to be solved.
Designing a company’s brand promise and brand identity is critical to describe the role that a specific business will play in meeting the needs of its customers, as well as to determine how a company will apply technology to generate value and reduce complexity.
How will you address the ecosystem of channels and tools that we’re going to have to deal with — as citizens, consumers, designers, and businesses?
How do we make sure the brand experience doesn’t shatter or go astray in the face of the increasing complexity?
Designing this promise in detail, considering all the aspects that determine its varied anatomy is a fundamental first step. From these assumptions, we can define the path that will lead a company to evolve towards its future. The transformation trail will touch all the brand’s dimensions, including the vision and mission, which may have to be radically transformed, to achieve a different future.
Approaching the brand experience from this perspective, keeping at the core the complex ecosystem of meanings that define the brand identity in a specific moment and over time, on one hand, requires a broader, systemic and strategic vision from us as designers, on the other hand, it must find the whole company as its natural counterpart, starting from the executives down to all staff.
The brand identity should then become the last contender in every decision a team makes, both at a strategic level and at a more operative level: the relevance and effectiveness of our work depend on it, it is a matter of ensuring continuity in the value that the consumers give to the products and services we design.