Brand vs. Usability. By Jack Aaronson Monday, 16th February 2009
Which is more important: brand or usability? Does there have to be a conflict between the two? Today, we'll tackle the subject and try to find a middle ground between form and function. On one hand, best practices enable better usability. But adhering to them too much stymies innovation and possibly brand differentiation.
Does your site represent a strong brand? If not, you've probably built one that looks like every other site on the Web. If your brand doesn't have a strong voice, your site's voice is generic. If you don't have a strong visual brand, users probably can't tell your site from anyone else's. You don't want your company's services and products to become a commonality, but you don't provide enough brand experience to generate any real loyalty.
On the other hand, maybe your brand is carefully guarded and has very clear style guides and rules about its look, voice, and feel. In this case, your site has probably eschewed accepted standards of common sites in an effort to make it stand out. If you have a strong offline brand (e.g., luxury brands, highly differentiated retail brands), you may have striven to adapt that offline brand to online. While it may make complete sense to your current customers (who get your brand, voice, and nomenclature), how does this experience work for new customers who aren't brand loyalists?
A Strong Brand Equals Loyal Customers
First things first: if you want to have loyal customers, you need a strong brand. Customers are attracted to the things that differentiate you. I spoke at a corporate conference a couple years ago, and Gary Hoover (of Hoover's) was on the panel with me. In a discussion about brand, he mentioned the supermarket test. It's simple: if you're knocked out and wake up in the frozen food section of a supermarket, can you immediately tell which supermarket you're in? In general, the answer is no: all supermarkets look the same.
But if you're in a Whole Foods or a Trader Joe's, the answer is yes. Their brands aren't just the signage they use. They're embodied by everything in the store. Mind you, those two companies follow best practices for grocery store layout. But they do it with their own flair and attention to detail; every shelf and aisle reflect their brands.
The online equivalent of the supermarket test is similar. Instead of waking up in a foreign place, simply scroll down a Web page so the top navigation is hidden. With the top quarter of the page missing, can you tell what site it is? Or, in the novice version, name three adjectives the page (minus the logo and navigation) evoke. Are these three adjectives close to the ones you use to describe your company's brand?
For most sites, the answer is probably no to both questions. Those sites feature a logo on the top left, a category-based navigation bar across the top, subcategories down the left, and similar content on the page. While the logo on the top is obviously part of the brand, everything else seems bland and ordinary.
The difficult part is the fact that commonality improves usability. Windows and Mac OS applications became successful partly because once you knew how to use one application, you automatically knew how to use another one. This revolutionized software development. I remember learning all the WordStar control codes in the early days and the function keys in the WordPerfect days. They were both word processors, but with completely different user interfaces. I still hanker to print and adjust settings using control+F8.
With a common user interface, Windows and Macs made every program easier to use and made loyalty (and switching costs) harder to achieve.
Web best practices do something similar. On one hand, if you make your site conform to traditional sites, you're guaranteed your audience will be able to search, browse, and easily transact with your site. On the other, you probably sacrifice some brand in the process. Your uniqueness may vanish when you look like everyone else. Also, best practices come from innovation. Simply adhering to them means they won't evolve.
What do you do, stay with best practices and sacrifice your brand, or design a brand experience that will take users a little time to understand? These choices aren't mutually exclusive. Constraint breeds creativity, and within commonly accepted best practices there's still lots of room for an immersive brand experience.
Apple's site follows a fairly traditional site layout. Primary category navigation runs across the top. In most site sections, the subcategory navigation is underneath the primary navigation (rather than on the left side of the screen). The content area is a standard three-column layout, with promotions, products, and other modules surrounding the primary content. But the site is clearly Apple. Take the navigation off the site, and it still feels like Apple. This isn't just because of the color scheme and typography, but also because of how modules fly in and out. The Apple voice is also clearly at work on the site. It speaks to its customers very differently than other sites do.
In the retail space, Under Armour starts with best practices, then pushes the envelope to create a compelling brand experience. Its home page is a media- and brand-centric experience that evokes the hardcore athlete image of its brand. Its store is a fairly standard e-commerce home page, with categories in the top navigation and promotional boxes filling the rest of the page. Its category pages join the best of searching and the best of browsing to create a convergent experience.
The highly dynamic left navigation and its overall style remind us we aren't on a cookie-cutter site. Similarly, the product pages feature all the same options as other sites, but their interactivity and focus on details relevant to their audience sets them apart. While keeping with best practices, Under Armour has evolved and pushed the envelope to infuse much more of its brand into every part of the page.
Brand and Best Practices
You can have the best of both worlds. But before you differentiate your brand, you need to fully understand what that brand is. So many of our clients have no brand differentiation online because they can't concisely articulate their brand in the first place. Once you can clearly articulate your brand, the Web team must reflect that brand within best practices. Best practices only reflect what's worked.
Try new ideas that extend best practices, and maybe they'll become best practices (like the GUI for the Facebook iPhone app, which now defines iPhone Web app best practices). But going overboard with your brand to the disservice of usability will harm you in the long run. Designers who work with your brand but aren't usability experts aren't the right people to design a site. They may understand your brand, but they don't understand how people buy online.
When in doubt, use A/B testing. Find ways to innovate and infuse your brand everywhere you can. Then, follow the analytics to see which site actually converts more customers.
Does your site accurately immerse your audience in your brand while providing industry average (or higher) conversion rates? If so, congratulations! For everyone else, start figuring out if the correct balance between brand, uniqueness, innovation, and best practices has really been met.
Questions, thoughts, comments? Let me know.
Until next time...
Jack Aaronson, CEO of The Aaronson Group and corporate lecturer, is a sought-after expert on enhanced user experiences, customer conversion, retention, and loyalty. If only a small percentage of people who arrive at your home page transact with your company (and even fewer return to transact again), Jack and his company can help. He also publishes a newsletter about multichannel marketing, personalization, user experience, and other related issues. He has keynoted most major marketing conferences around the world and regularly speaks at Shop.org and other major industry shows. You can learn more about Jack through his LinkedIn profile and follow him on Twitter.
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