Creating a Brand Appropriate User Experience and Designing for Trust: An Interview with Margot Bloomstein

Brand and content strategist Margot Bloomstein explains how to create a message architecture and why sometimes a slow UX may be more beneficial

Oliver Lindberg
UX and Front-End Interviews

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Photographer: Sharona Jacobs

For a long time companies forgot to think about the needs of their users. Companies only focused on their own needs and what they wanted to express. That changed with user-centred design — people started digging into the needs of different audiences. But there’s a risk that an organisation can lose itself in exclusively paying attention to users. Brand and content strategist Margot Bloomstein is on a mission to bring the pendulum back to the middle.

“If companies within a particular industry that speak to the same audience only focus on the needs of that audience, it would be a very bland experience,” she argues. “Airlines that sell the same product would all look and sound the same, and that’s just not right because we know that they differ as brands, even if they fly the same routes, sometimes at the same price point. We know that the experience that JetBlue, Virgin and United offer differs wildly, and people have different loyalties, proclivities and interests that correspond to those brands. I like to work with my clients to help them best express those differences. If they know who they are, then they can better decide what they want to communicate and what kind of language, content types and platforms are best to engage their audiences.”

Margot has worked with clients like Timberland, Lindt, and Al Jazeera America. With each brand, she helps ensure their communications decisions are not just right for their audience but also right for their corporate vision, an approach she calls brand-appropriate content strategy. Should a brand be communicating in short, truncated sentences, long-form copy or in bulleted lists, for example? Should they be conducting video interviews with their stakeholders, or would it be better to hear directly from their biggest customers?

Photographer: Erik Westra

Creating a message architecture

The first step, regardless of the client’s industry, size or problem they’re trying to solve, is always to help them create a message architecture. Bloomstein defines this as a hierarchy of the communication goals that can be used to guide the copy creation as well as the visual design. For this purpose she tends to facilitate an exercise around BrandSort, a deck of cards that she’s created to help the client prioritise and clarify all those crucial communication goals.

Margot guides the client through a three-step process (first introduced in her book Content Strategy at Work) of sorting attribute cards describing who they are, who they’d like to be and who they’re not. She then analyses which terms are so core and important to the brand that they want to make sure they hold onto them, while others are discarded.

“Maybe you’ve always been thought of as traditional and you realise that’s stodgy and boring, but you still want to be seen as established, responsible and reliable,” she explains. “Finally, we figure out the natural patterns in those terms and rank them. We find out what’s most important to communicate — for example, your sense of innovation and being a ground-breaking, thought leadership-orientated organisation.”

Once the message architecture has been established, Margot moves into the more tactical work. This could be conducting a content audit and establishing editorial style guidelines. The message architecture is used to measure the brand’s existing content to test it.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve worked with a team that might start out by saying they want be seen as modern,” Margot laughs, “but when I ask them what that means and how it differs from how they’ve always done things, oftentimes people pause and shrug, because who doesn’t want to think of their work as modern? We have to unpack those terms and go from abstract to concrete. The BrandSort tool is a way to do that. By the time you get to the actual content, whether it’s speccing out photography, developing infographics or writing copy, it’s real and concrete, and you can see how it all goes back to the original message architecture. I firmly believe that you cannot conduct a content audit that is effectively qualitative as well as quantitative unless you first understand the message architecture of an organisation.”

Designing for trust in an uncertain world

Margot, who has a background in design, first got into the profession when she joined a content strategy team at global marketing and consulting company Sapient in 2000.

Her first client was Lotus, the software company that acquired the technology behind the first buddy list and instant messenger. Margot collaborated on the team to help figure out how to unite two software products into a single software as a service, which included coming up with the right tone for branding, major calls to action, and taglines on the homepage for the new product. Content strategy, Margot says, gave her the milieu to address some of the biggest problems that organisations face. In some ways her experience as a content strategist has not changed but it has substantially evolved.

At the moment Bloomstein works with brands to explore how they can establish credibility through choices in content and design. She’s also writing a book about how brands and organisations can foster trust and empower their users (Trustworthy: How the Smartest Brands Beat Cynicism and Bridge the Trust Gap will be out March 2021 from Page Two Books).

“When we think about how we choose to include or exclude information, edit content or call attention to certain parts of the page, whether that’s online or in print, we operate like political strategists,” Margot argues. “It’s important for our audiences to understand more about how we make choices as content strategists, copywriters, designers, or creative directors to elevate certain parts of our argument, call attention to certain products and maybe pull attention away or distract from unfavourable reviews. We make those choices all the time, whether it’s around the density of the information on the page, our use of photography or overwhelming our reader with lots of details.”

When asked for examples of brands that just get it right, Margot highlights clothing companies Patagonia and Icebreaker, and motorcycle-gear retailer RevZilla. “They use a lot of different content types to engage their audience,” she enthuses,” and they choose content types that align with their communication goals. Patagonia commission a lot of their own content, both photography and longform content from outdoor enthusiasts and athletes who use their products sometimes every day, whether it’s to scale a mountain or work on a particular bouldering problem. RevZilla, meanwhile, has an excellent customer service through live chat as well as more proactive content types such as video reviews of all their new products, and the depth that goes into their content aligns with their brand and communication goals.”

Faster experiences aren’t always better

Margot stresses that longform content allows for a slower pace and a slower read, which may be a surprising technique to recommend at first. After all, online experiences these days seem to be mostly fast, efficient, easy and orderly. Not all experiences need to be fast to be functional, however. Longform content can afford readers and customers the opportunity to slow down, explore and learn on the website in the same way as they would in the real world.

Watch Margot Bloomstein’s talk Content Strategy for Slow Experiences:

There are two major areas of research, as Margot points out, that support slow content strategy and slower, well-paced user experiences: psychology and brick and mortar commerce.

“Empiricism teaches us that when people have the opportunity to cultivate their knowledge of the world through first-hand experience, they gain a greater sense of confidence and courage in their convictions,” she argues. “We believe what we see. When designers give people the time to slow down, dig into the details, and collect more information about a camera lens or candidate they want to support for example, it turns out they feel more confident in their decisions. We can measure that success, especially on purchases, when we see a lower rate of returns.”

If somebody had a product in their shopping cart, we used to hurry them up and get them out of there, but that’s never been the thinking in brick and mortar experiences.

“When people are considering a higher priced purchase or just want to spend more time browsing, shopkeepers don’t rush them out of the store,” Margot laughs. “Instead we like to move people around the store to help them consider other items and purchases. Those are slower experiences that pay out in dividends, sometimes literally, for the brands that encourage them offline, so naturally that works pretty well online too. It’s not right for every brand and purchase, and if someone is interested in a low-price purchase, we shouldn’t be putting up roadblocks to that. We need to let them hurry through. But in other cases, it’s right to help people slow down to help support them where they are on their customer journey.”

According to Margot we can learn a lot from adjacent industries like journalism, media, and politics. “When we look and see how they associate text and imagery to allow for slower experiences by offering speed bumps through either the design, the information on the page or the actual content of that information, then we can see opportunities to help consumers find greater courage in their convictions. Sometimes that translates to readers having greater faith and trust in a particular news outlet, or to people returning again and again and again to the same retailer, or to people just feeling smarter about their choices. When I feel that I can see consistency in the content that a brand is creating and some transparency and insight into their communication goals, then I can feel more confident in my relationship with them as well.”

And that’s the essence of a brand-appropriate user experience. Content strategy can help identify and support whether the user experience that most fits your brand should be fast or slow, and ensure that you communicate with your customers with consistency and clarity. User needs are still important but the brand controls the experience, not the other way round.

This article originally appeared in issue 301 of net magazine in 2018. Photography by Sharona Jacobs and Erik Westra.

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Oliver Lindberg
UX and Front-End Interviews

Independent editor and content consultant. Founder and captain of @pixelpioneers. Co-founder and curator of GenerateConf. Former editor of @netmag.