Saturday, April 05, 2008

Brand vs. Usability

Which is more important? ...

"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."    (Continued via ClickZ)    [Usability Resources]

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