Brand as Context in Interaction Design
I’m sure that I was swearing allegiance to brands as soon as I began to develop the capacity for critical thought.
It’s probably fair to say that, at least in some ways, my ability to analyze and debate was defined by Spectrum versus Commodore, Reebok versus Nike, Coke versus Pepsi, Labour versus Conservative, SEGA versus Nintendo, Apple versus Microsoft, and more. These all were more than brands to me, they were almost systems of belief, and as such forced a decision about whether I identified with them or not.
Because we give meaning to brands, they stand for something; they have both value and a set of values. Therefore, it’s easy to think of the brands that we can agree or disagree with, and that have provoked a reaction in all of us, positive or negative. As the number of companies and their globally associated brands increasingly compete for our attention, this has become even more true. Consider how you feel as you read these words: Fox News, Oxfam, Facebook, Halliburton, BP, Goldman Sachs, Nike.
There’s a tremendous amount of difference in how each of us will react to those words, based on countless cultural and social parameters. Regardless of yours, you probably found it hard to remain neutral, and this is without any of the other signifiers that help to create the meaning and feeling that a brand can evoke, or that start to create the bond one might form with the organization behind it (or otherwise).
This says something interesting about how people have always perceived, reacted to, and built up relationships with brands. But how do actions, reactions, and behaviors reinforce the meaning of a brand? And how do we, as designers of all types but interaction designers in particular, better understand the role our work plays in contributing to how these relationships are nurtured and maintained?
By now, my own discipline of interaction design is all too aware that thinking beyond single points of interaction with products or services is essential for creating coherency and, through that coherency, a logical, joined-up experience that feels as if it comes from the same place with a consistent intent. We have learned to think in terms of systems and networks, and I believe the design is better for it.
This has been mirrored by a shift from a focus on performance and usability to a focus on a wider experience; it is this experience that can be aligned, differentiated, or targeted to support the larger meaning of a brand. What we missed by focusing on matters such as flow and consistency is how to imbue a sense of connection, ownership, and emotional involvement that make the most successful products and services truly compelling. Perhaps because of where our practice originally comes from1, we can still sometimes slip back into describing what we are designing in terms of logic or a process and seem content that this is enough to solve the problem we are trying to address. The products and services we design will never exist in a vacuum, and every person will approach them with a unique set of needs, predispositions, problems, emotional states, and everything else that makes human beings frustratingly complex;the things that no design documentation can adequately capture (no matter how hard we might try 2).
Designers need to understand the subtle difference between creating consistency and creating coherency. Making sure that all of our designs share common elements and behaviors across any mode of interaction—implementing a pattern, in other words—creates consistency, and design documentation, like a service blueprint or an annotated screen, helps to create this.
But, similar to how molds are created to ensure that every component of a product is manufactured in exactly the same way, this consistency can become repetitive and doesn’t go far enough to create truly equitable relationships between people and the products and services that they use. It is better to strive for coherency, where the consistency that we’ve already described in our design is married with a system of meaning that people can believe in and choose to be a part of: the brand.
This belief comes from the brand, and tying the two together—interaction and brand—in a coherent system will facilitate experiences that are richer and lasting. We must create the brand pattern.
Think about the relationship between a person and a brand as a conversation: traditionally, the brand would speak from the company outward. Brands used to be a broadcast voice, unidirectional, with specific messages and mediums over which those messages were delivered.
Now, brands are involved in conversations that are ongoing and require reaction. And designers must become comfortable with designing for a world in which these interactions spread across time and modality. Those traditionally involved with the development of brands have also become familiar with the idea of a brand as an expression that runs across many different channels of communication and can manifest itself in many different forms. It is how all of these are perceived together that creates the voice, tone, and personality of a brand, and that helps to create meaning for the brand.
As my colleague Paul Valerio wrote recently (read Raiders of the Lost Overture), it is this brand voice that we initially respond to, and the feelings that this evokes color the subsequent experience that we have with a product or service, particularly when we have no other reference points. In the same way that I will go and see a film from a director that I like, even if I have no idea about its plot or the actors that it features, I’m more likely to want to own a product from a brand that I identify with, even if this product exists within a new category (unless this category is such a stretch for that particular brand that it seems like an ill fit—a proposition that exceeds the permissions that a brand has built up with me). This can also work in the opposite way: does my perception of the Microsoft brand voice adequately prepare me for the elegance of the latest versions of Windows Phone?
Think about the brand of the company that you work for: if it was to enter a conversation, what might its voice sound like? Would it speak with knowledge, or would it sound young and eager to learn? Could it reassure you, or is it there to challenge you to create or think? Two relatively recent, and very literal, examples of interface as brand illustrate this point further. In 2000, Apple introduced the interface of its next generation operating system, Mac OS X. Rather than just previewing the interactions or visual language, they developed a whole new brand to describe the interface itself: Aqua. And more recently, Microsoft seems to have pulled off the same trick with Metro, which has evolved from a user interface to become something of a totemic direction for all of the company’s products; a system that was originally developed for a mobile phone interface has now practically rebranded the company itself5. By creating a brand for Aqua and Metro as distinct entities with their own tones of voice, Apple and Microsoft created more than just a collection of interface elements. They created something with meaning: something with which people—early technology adopters in particular—could engage in a conversation and begin to identify. These two systems of interaction blur the boundary between what brand and interface mean for the future of both branding and interaction design.
How would Aqua or Metro speak? The brand team’s job is to shape how this voice will sound. They craft a narrative around a product, service, or organization in a way that sets up the conversation, and in this narrative the brand team first identifies the traits that people respond to. It is interaction design that continues the evolution of this narrative, ultimately crafting the way in which the brand can speak with people.
Therefore, part of the role of an interaction designer is to be aware of that brand voice and continue to develop it further into the product or service that a company provides.
As the trade of an interaction designer is almost exclusively person-centric, with traditionally little sympathy for the brand in the design process (particularly if it conflicts with what we believe people need), this means that what we design is the way in which people enter into a conversation with the brand. We become the advocates for people within the world of the brand, giving them the tools and the voice they need to participate, while taking the narrative that the brand team has started and bringing it to life through the interactions we enable. It should also be the role of interaction designers to keep brands honest. Since it falls to us to make real the parts of a brand that people will have the most visceral reaction to, it is also up to us to ensure that what a brand promise is delivered in the products and services it produces.
An example of a brand that has clear meaning and personality is Virgin America, which delivers an experience that is absolutely coherent. If you are attracted to what the brand stands for, then (assuming nothing goes wrong) you won’t be disappointed when you show up for your flight.
The design of the check-in kiosks, the gate signage, the way in which the gate staff and cabin staff communicate with passengers, the safety briefing video, the cabin lighting, and the way that the in-flight entertainment system functions: all of these interactions clearly embody the brand voice, creating a coherency that people form a close relationship with. And it works, as Virgin America continues to set standards for best-in-class travel and service experiences6. To say that this success is attributed to either the way the brand is presented or the consistency of each interaction throughout a journey misses the point. It is the way that each delivers on the promise of the other—because they both flow rom the same place—that makes it work.
Compare this to Southwest or Ryanair, and it’s easy to see how brand meaning has become a context for interaction design. Both of these brands deliver experiences that match the meaning their brand has constructed just as powerfully, but in a markedly different way. For designers, the development of a compelling brand helps to round out the design, creating a before and after; it builds a background narrative and meaning that empowers people to respond to design in more complex ways.
There are a couple of steps we can take to help us as we design within this world.
Be mindful of the story
Always remember that no product or service exists in a vacuum. The things we design will compete for the attention of the people we are designing for, and the number of products and services people use will only continue to proliferate. So, be aware that people have probably already identified with an element of the brand.
Thinking about famous directors again: what is it that makes me want to go and see a film by a particular director? The best directors have a signature that they imbue into any of their films, often regardless of the plot or the actors: think of Jim Jarmusch’s intensely observed character studies, Wes Anderson’s ultimately life affirming whimsy, George Romero’s black zombie humor, or Roman Polanski’s ability to create oppression and unease. The most successful brands manage to do the same with the products and services that they create: Apple is cited for their use of materials that flow from their brand to the form of their products, down to the visual and interaction language of their software. While this is one specific design approach, it does create a coherent system that represents the brand (and this coherency has arguably contributed to Apple to becoming one of the biggest companies in the world).
By understanding as much as possible what the brand means, how that meaning is constructed, and what elements make it unique, we can begin to explore and define patterns of behavior that help support the brand meaning in a way that is also valuable for people.
See the brand as another context
Consider the brand as another context within which your design will live. We’re very used to the requirements and importance of designing for different contexts—indeed, the success or failure of our design often hinges on the fact that it is highly appropriate. While we look at issues of culture or use as considerations for context within our design, we should also try to see the brand as another type of context. It is important to realize that the people our products and services will reach might already have this context created for them, whether that’s through exposure to the brand itself, popular opinion or commentary about the brand or competing brands.
Investigating the brand’s context and thinking about the implications for our own design will help us craft interactions that are appropriate and, yes, coherent.
Here’s a fun exercise: look back at the list of brands from the beginning of the article. Just from the visibility that each of these brands has around the world, you probably have your own clear idea of how each of those brands speaks, and what their tone of voice is like.
Imagine how what the brand stands for might be embodied through an interaction that stays true to the brand (or otherwise). What if Fox News made an app that collected and published news about a particular event from a variety of sources, regardless of political leaning? Or, if Facebook created a map visualizing all of the advertisers that had accessed your profile over the past week? Or, if Goldman Sachs made a “Banker Bonus Calculator,” which allowed you to see the distribution of bonuses paid to top earners across Wall Street?
Each of those are counter to what we understand the core brand to be (for dramatic effect), and would feel, at best, awkward and, at worst, entirely false, but we could also think more seriously about interactions that would embody each of these brands in more appropriate ways.
Even though it is the convention for brand and design teams to approach their work from opposite directions, and they are frequently set up as such within a company, finding a way to cross over any organizational silos and ensure that each team is aware of how to complement the other is essential in a world where people seek coherency within the products and services they are interacting with.
The role of an interaction designer can now be seen as extending the work of the brand team, delivering an experience that builds on the meaning that they have begun to form. Interaction design that truly connects with people now requires a deep understanding of the context that the brand has created for it to live within, and defining a brand now requires deep consideration for how the meaning of the brand will be experienced through the products and services a company provides.
Footnotes and recommended reading
1 History of Interaction Design, Marc Retting
2 “Designing for Complexity,” Don Norman
3 “Words Matter,” JND.org
4 Twitter status, Matt Jones
5 “Redesigning the Windows Logo,” windowsteamblog.com
6 “Top 30 Airlines,” Conde Nast Traveler