A call to create more meaningful relations between products and their users.
We live in a world of constant availability and endless opportunities to interact. Big news! We are aware of our attention constantly jumping from one notification to the next, from newsfeed updates to fake news, and sometimes if we are lucky, we even pay attention to real human interaction (cf. “closeness”, “empathy”, “real life”). Nowadays, the potential contact points between corporations and consumers are more diverse than ever and cutthroat competition to attract consumers’ attention is in full swing. The increasing overstimulation leads to a growing, more economic redistribution of our attention, especially regarding corporations and their brand messages. In the worst case scenario the “information overload” leads to inactivity, indifference and unreflecting consumption of data and goods. Alone the measures implemented by teams of psychologists and product managers for networks such as, Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp, etc. manage to get us “hooked” — to get us on a psychological hook in order to use their products as often as possible, that is.
We are increasingly overwhelmed. The ‘fear of missing out’ only amplifies the feeling of hardly being capable of handling the incoming amount of information, of not being able to put it in order or assess which information is true or false, helpful or useless. Surrendering, we drown in the sedating streams of social networks. Reflexes beat reflection and the desire for simple solutions is ever growing (cf. attention span, conspiracy theories, nationalism, etc.)
Call me romantic, but I truly believe that designers of digital products have the power and thus should aim for creating real, meaningful relations between products and the people who use them. We need products that are of use to people, instead of products using people.
The traditionally disposable form of one-way communication by brands and their messages has turned into a constant dialog via various forms of media. Brands are metamorphosing from rigid entities to flexibly reacting interaction patterns whose core remains constant and recognizable.
A corporation’s digital products are a pivotal interaction pattern: User experience is brand experience.
The NielsenNorman Group has worded this precisely:
Most people can’t differentiate how they feel about a brand from how they feel about the experiences they have with that brand. […] UX can be part of — or all of — the reason a customer chooses to engage with a company or its products.
Nowadays, users expect their needs to be clearly understood and addressed at every potential contact point. To recognize digital products as brand messengers that intentionally trigger subconscious associations and emotions and not merely as information carriers, is a fundamental prerequisite in successfully gaining consumers’ attention.
In January 2017 the Apple App Store alone contained about 2.2 million different apps. This impressive number shows that the amount of apps a single person is actually able to use on a regular basis is rather limited. In May 2016 so-called zombie apps made up 90% of all apps in the Apple App Store; on at least one third of all available days these apps do not appear on any top list and can only be found when searching for the exact name of the app.
High quality UI & UX Design is increasingly establishing itself as a ’hygiene factor’ whose absence predestines a digital product to be a zombie product. Besides a clearly formulated product strategy (virality, growth, etc.) brand-oriented design in particular can ensure long-term success and effective differentiation.
When we interact with people we automatically try to categorize them and their meanings for us: Are they likeable, open-minded, introverted, clever, professional, trustworthy? We subconsciously judge appearance, gesture, facial expression and language and assess the consequences of this behavior so we can act accordingly. Interaction with interfaces follows the same rules. As soon as we use a digital product, we subconsciously read its appearance, its “behavior” and therefore its meaning, its story. What is this product, what is it able to do, what can it offer to me, how do I interact with it? Within a split second we decide whether a product is relevant and attractive for us or not.
Based loosely on an axiom of a communications psychologist Paul Watzlawicks: “One cannot not communicate”, I would state: products cannot not communicate. As soon as a company launches a product on the market it communicates on several levels and channels — whether it intends to or not. It triggers associations and pictures. Therefore, designers of digital products should ask themselves first: Which story should this product tell? What is its identity? Story and identity of a product have to match the desires, fears, goals and motives of their users. The good news is that this story has already often been written in form of brand positioning. It is therefore obvious to use brand positioning as the foundation for the design of digital products.
Neuroscientific findings make it possible to translate abstract brand value into a specific design language. This is possible because the way we deal with products, and what this triggers in our brains, follows a certain set of rules. Brands and products send signals which we subconsciously decode. There is a certain connection between product characteristics and the mental level behind it. Depending on their physical characteristics (their digital representations respectively) and their behavior, we preferably choose products that address our goals and motives. This phenomenon is called conceptual consumption and it is a determining factor in our decision to either purchase products with soft sounding brand names, or prefer digital products with a cool, reduced color scheme and sharp, precise forms, or products that are easily controlled with a mere gesture of the index finger.
Every pixel, every animation and every interaction with the product has the potential to make the brand behind the product come alive. Colors, shapes, font, layout, movements, tonality, every element of an interface tells a story through its design. Not just the graphic design of an interface has a vast influence on its perception. Our subconscious perception highly differentiates between an app whose elements produce a dynamic, bouncy animation when navigating it (example 1: mental concept dynamic, excitement, progressiveness, suitable for sports apps, for instance) or apps whose elements move in a surprising and light manner (example 2: mental concept facility and stimulation, suitable for lifestyle apps, for instance).
The tonality of textual content — for instance the button title, toggles, or other UI elements — is another example for the subconscious perception of a digital product. The human and empathetic aspect of a brand is highlighted to a much larger extent in the phrase “I’m awake” (example 3) than in the significantly more prosaic and technical phrase “Course status: online” (example 4), for instance.
User experience plays a significant role in the credible communication of a corporate identity. Every interaction with a digital product brings with it the chance to create an emotional and sustainable connection between the user and a product or its brand respectively. The more senses one product manages to address simultaneously and compatibly, the more sustainable is the message of the brand or product stored in the memory bank of the user’s brain.
Increasing digitalization and the “Internet of Things” leads to a gain in relevance for the brand-driven UX design approach. The way the products communicate with us, the timing of it, the way we touch and use products, and the way we integrate them into our daily lives contribute significantly to our perception and categorization of a product’s character in our daily interaction with it. In the best case scenario, the character fulfills the expectations that have been created because of brand preference. For example: The character of a Bosch refrigerator has to be in sync with the brand Bosch: Its behavior towards the user is competent, precise and with a certain authority regarding food storage. However, a thermostat by the Nest brand behaves emphatic, modest and cordial, more like a family member.
Every product has its own character which a user perceives on different levels. If this character is not clear and conclusive, the product’s chances of success are minimal. Appearance and behavior have to match the brand, the product has to fit in seamlessly with the user’s everyday life, enrich it accordingly and attend to their goals and motives with every interaction. Mental concepts can aid to translate brand values into specific design and interaction patterns. Whether an interconnected refrigerator or an intelligent thermostat ‘behave’ rather like a warm-hearted family member or a professional inventory manager, every contact point with these products has to follow a different script. A high quality, brand-oriented user experience can sustainably excite users about the product and the brand. It has the potential to build relations, trust and a loyal customer base and create something truly outstanding: A real emotional relation between user and product.