The Experience Tells the Story

The Mad Men era of advertising has passed. But what does advertising mean in this new age where there is no such thing as a “traditional” agency? Today, a brand’s communication and engagement strategy is no longer a separate and distinct practice from the design of a product or service. The two are intertwined. The product is the marketing, and the marketing is the product.

A brave new world

I became a designer to make things that improve the lives of people. I had, and still maintain, a belief that the little details bring the greatest value, deliver the deepest meaning, and make the biggest difference in our lives. This is the power of design. Styles and trends may entertain, but without true empathy and connection to human meaning, eventually they fall apart. That’s why I hated advertising and shunned the worlds of marketing, communications, and even to a degree, branding.

But in the last few years, the worlds of advertising and product design are converging. CMOs are spending more on technology than CTOs. The web is more important than TV. Digital products and services are more important than communications and messaging for customer engagement and brand creation. Two-way conversations between brands and consumers are more important than one-way, top-down campaigns. Results are measured by engagement instead of number of impressions. Nike, with a record high marketing budget of $2.4 billion in 2011, has dropped their spending on TV and print advertising in the US by 40% in just 3 years. Instead, Nike is going where the customer is, spending nearly $800 million on non-traditional advertising in 2010, and foregoing $100 million-plus campaigns to focus on online campaigns first. In a 2013 survey by Econsultancy, 55% of marketers globally are planning on increasing their digital marketing budgets this year, with 39% of them planning on reallocating existing budgets towards digital channels.

This is a permanent shift and not a passing trend. We’ve moved into a brave new world where products and services must deliver real value while telling engaging stories through a multitude of digital devices and within a network of multiple brands, services, and platforms. And in the end, the basic requirement of making a human connection and delivering meaning remains. Without that, nothing really matters.

Great marketing is now largely driven by great digital product and service experiences. And great digital product and service experiences deliver brand engagement, brand value, and future sales revenue. The two are intertwined. The product is the marketing, and the marketing is the product. If the experience of a product or service is unsatisfactory—be it on the web, mobile or tablet, on a TV, in a car, or on a household appliance—people will know, and they will tell their networks about it. A company can say whatever they want in a campaign, but in the end what matters is the value the company delivers. Ultimately, great products deliver great marketing, and great marketing comes from great products.

This shift has wide ranging implications and challenges preconceptions, attitudes, and ways of working across the board. It challenges how brands connect and deepen engagement with their customers and how they grow revenue. It challenges marketing and product teams to work more closely. It challenges how advertising agencies engage clients and organize themselves. It challenges copywriting and story teams, rooted in pop culture instinct and entertainment, to collaborate with user experience teams and other “production nerds.” It challenges interaction and interface designers, rooted in human need and usability, to bake story into their designs, and work in integrated ways with marketing teams and advertising “creative.”

Standing on the shoulders of giants

As a practically minded, product-focused interaction designer, I have been forced to confront my own prejudices and preconceptions about marketing and branding. I am better off for it. Through this lens, I have a deeper appreciation for the craft of story and the role of the brand. I see how a brand belief can be the inspiration for new product concepts and also guide the details of a user interface like navigation, feature/functions, screen layout,and workflows. I’ve come to embrace cultural instinct and the strong pull of a really good pitch. The responsibilities of marketers to understand and reach their users, and one in the same with the responsibilities of designers to craft and deliver meaningful experiences.

Designers across the fields of interaction design, usability, information architecture, and the rest of the alphabet soup that is broadly labeled UX, should all open their minds to collaborations between trades. In fact, I believe we must if we wish to remain relevant in this new reality. The same holds for traditional advertising professionals, but the situation is far more urgent as the traditional agency business becomes increasingly irrelevant. For agencies, it’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when. As one big-agency executive recently confessed, it’s “like denying global warming.”

It’s easy to think that the worlds of marketing and product design are impossible to combine. The cultures between the two are decidedly different, are often adversarial, and usually sit on opposite sides of an organization. Yet, they aren’t so different.

I recently read David Ogilvy’s Confessions of an Advertising Man. Written in 1963, an age when print and TV were primary communications channels, this is a classic text by a legendary master. Ogilvy started his career as a door-to-door salesman in Scotland, his native country. After working in kitchens with master chefs and even trying his hand at farming, he founded an advertising agency, which grew to become one of the largest and most respected agencies in the world. He passed away in 1999, in the beginnings of the digital age, never really having to grapple with any of these changes.

And yet, the text is hugely relevant for today’s digital world. In particular, his views on what makes great campaigns hold lessons for everyone trying to make great digital product, service, and brand experiences. In the book, Ogilvy lays out 11 principles for creating great campaigns. They were the principles that he infused throughout his agency to guide day-to-day work.

As I read through each of them, I was struck by how relevant they were to digital experiences and the creation of products and services. By swapping a word here and there and shifting the context from a campaign to a digital interface and user experience, Ogilvy’s principles are better than anything produced by any of the UX thought leaders working today. More importantly, they are just what we need to hear in this new world.

1. What you say provide is more important than how you say provide it.

Ogilvy considered advertising to be about helping consumers decide to buy. It’s ultimately about making sales. What’s central to helping people decide to buy is telling them about the product in the most effective way. “Your most important job is to decide what you are going to say about your product, what benefit you are going to promise.”

In the same sense, the most important job for digital products and services is deciding what they are going to do. People don’t use a digital product or service because it has dramatic animations or is visually exciting. They use it because it provides tangible value, real utility, and great content. If people can’t get this, the experience fails.Take Dropbox as an example. Dropbox has a single, simple metaphor that carries through the entire service from how it works, to how people use it, to the brand identify and name. It’s a box you drop stuff into, and then your stuff is everywhere you need it to be. It manifests as a folder into which you drag and drop files in a familiar way on a PC, and is made available on any synced device. In this way, the core value being provided is expressed throughout every bit of the product, service, and brand experience.

2. Unless your campaign experience is built around a great idea, it will flop.

Ogilvy wasn’t interested in creating basic campaigns, adhering to industry standards, or the conventions of the day. He was “determined to blaze new trails” and deliver tremendous results for his clients.

Too often, digital designers lack a similarly grand ambition. Creating a new experience becomes a task of organizing content and features into tidy categories and standard interface elements that, while usable, lack any deeper meaning or connection to bigger ideas—particularly when it comes to brand. Making something usable is not a virtue; it’s a basic requirement. Tapping into bigger ideas—ones rooted in the brand at large—drives better design and ultimately great digital experiences.

3. Give the facts benefit.

“Most modern copywriters find it easier to write short, lazy advertisements. Collecting facts is hard work.”

Ogilvy was interested in uncovering as many facts about a product as he could, and communicating them to consumers. It didn’t matter if competitors had a similar product or could say the same things. What mattered was providing facts about the product. For Ogilvy, “short, fast advertisements” betray a lack of commitment to craft, and a disregard for the customer.

A similar dynamic is at play with digital products and services. People are interested in benefits—in what a product or service enables them to do. As designers, it’s our responsibility to understand the customer benefit in the fullest sense, and then craft experiences that maximize the benefit to people. Easily said, damn hard to do.

4. You cannot bore people into buying using.

Ogilvy thought competition for people’s attention was “becoming more ferocious every year”—and that was 1963. It has only gotten more ferocious, more fragmented, more varied, more of everything since then. Yet the job, as Ogilvy defined it, remains the same: “It is our business to make our clients’ voices heard above the crowd.” The same is true for digital experiences.

The product and service experience has to stand out above the crowd. It has to be something people enjoy using, that they recommend, endorse, share, and most importantly, return to on a regular basis. For design teams, this boils down to craft—to how well the team can craft the overall experience and all the seemingly little details that make the difference between average and great experiences. As Ogilvy said, “the good ones know their craft.”

Take the example of Instagram. Even though Hipstamatic was the first to launch a photography app, Instagram smartly layered in social media activities to a well-crafted mobile photography experience. They are now a leader in photo sharing: over 40 million photos are uploaded a day from 90 million monthly active users.

5. Be well-mannered but don’t clown get in the way.

“People don’t buy from bad-mannered salesmen, and research has shown that they don’t buy from bad-mannered advertisements.”

Ogilvy worked as a door-to-door salesman. He had experience introducing himself, building rapport, gaining trust, and ultimately making a sale—all in a few precious moments while standing on someone’s doorstep. He knew the value of charm and how to use it.

The charm of a digital experience—tone, character, personality—is important. Charm comes through all the little details—from the visual design, the copy, the motion, how errors are handled, and more—expressing a coherent overall sensibility and conveying a sense of human engagement. The important thing to avoid is getting in the way of people’s effective use of the product or service. This usually happens when a product tries to be cute or assumes people will be more interested in using the interface than they are in getting value out of it.

The history of user interface design is littered with failed experiments of bringing charm and human engagement into the experience. Clippy is a classic example of things gone wrong. Apple’s incorrect password window shake effect is a great example of doing it well.

6. Make your advertising experience contemporary.

Ogilvy struggled to “tune into” younger consumers who were just starting out in life. For him and his agency, this ultimately meant having a team of young copywriters, simply stating that “they understand the psychology of young consumers better than I do.”

Being contemporary requires more than keeping pace with change. It requires seeing a longer, iterative product development arc and anticipating change before it happens. It means continually reassessing, improving and reinventing what you deliver to customers and how you do it. Contemporary digital experiences have to fit with people’s shifting expectations and the broader context in which they live. In today’s globalized, multi-platform, IP-based, and micro-demographic world, there’s an ever increasing range of audiences and variety of expectations and contexts. In some ways, it’s still a young person’s game—at some point, everyone’s inner Luddite kicks in.

7. Committees can criticize advertisements experiences, but they cannot write create them.

Design by committee led to bad outcomes in Ogilvy’s day same as it does today. Some things will never work.

“Advertising seems to sell most when it is written by a solitary individual.”

The same principle applies to digital product and service design. Many experiences feel like an assorted collection of features, in large part because they are the result of committees collecting requirements. They lack the coherency that comes from conviction and vision.There’s a reason successful digital startups come from small, nimble teams working together. The rising popularity of lean and agile methodologies comes in part from a recognition of what it takes to make great product quickly. The idea of the “maker’s schedule,” as described by Paul Graham, recognizes the rhythm of making.It takes vision, focus, and dedication to create great stuff. This fact will never change.

8. If you are lucky enough to write create a good advertisement experience, repeat it until it stops pulling.

Ogilvy recognized the market as a fluid, ever changing thing. People are born and die every day. In any given market, people leave and new people enter every day. The point is to constantly engage, to “have a good radar” as he put it, and to know what to repeat and what to change.

Good digital experiences take time to build into lasting experiences. It takes a continuous improvement through a series of updates and versions. In the digital space, our “radars” have become very strong. We can track and monitor how people use products and adapt and respond accordingly. Any good team knows you have to take this ongoing view on the design and development of digital experiences.

But, there’s also a dark side to the scale and flexibility of the digital environment. Designers must recognize when to stop adding features, and what was great about a product in the first place. Evolution is essential, but it has to be balanced with retaining what’s successful and what people love about an experience.

Take the search page as an example. The simplicity and focus of that page hasn’t changed. The quality of the results have improved radically, because of continuous monitoring, refinement and engineering effort. More recently, the results have evolved toward a more application-like experience.

9. Never write an advertisement create an experience which you wouldn’t want your own family to read have.

To Ogilvy, the whole point of an advertisement, is to talk about a product in a way that encourages purchase. Lying about a product or misleading people with false information will eventually be found out by either the government, or more significantly, by the consumer. “You wouldn’t tell lies to your own wife. Don’t tell them to mine.” The same goes for product and service experiences.

If you make crap, people will find out quickly. These days, this is amplified by the fact that people can broadcast their opinions through online reviews, social media, or—in extreme cases—mounting a small media campaign against the product and brand. Word of mouth is more powerful than ever. If you provide a great experience, people will want to repeat it. They’ll also tell others about it. A bad experience damages reputations and wastes time, money and patience.

10. The image and the brand.

Ogilvy advocated maintaining a consistent style in a brand’s advertising over a period of years. This is essential to building a coherent personality, a lasting brand image, and market success.

“The manufacturer who dedicates his advertising to building the most sharply defined personality for his brand will get the largest share of the market at the highest profit.”

Every product and service experience must be recognized as a contribution to the total brand image, and designed, maintained, and managed with this central truth in mind. The experience from one device/platform/touch point must build on that from others over time. Ultimately, a pattern must be built through these successive experiences. And that pattern must be rooted in the core values and belief of the brand.

It takes guts and dedication to maintain a consistent pattern across different features, versions, platforms, and devices. There are so many forces working against it: the draw to do something different and new is tremendous, the voices of “best practice” and “industry standards” are loud. Yet, rewards await those who invest in a consistent pattern and who have the stability to stick with it over time. It is the sum total of all the experiences people have with your brand that define its value and determine your position in the market.

The long arc of the Microsoft Metro design language is a case in point. With roots in earlier Xbox and Zune interface designs, the Metro design language blossomed with the release of Windows Phone 7, and has expanded into Windows 8 and even the Microsoft brand identify. Through this process, it has led a rebranding of the entire company, all starting from the product experience.

11. Don’t be a copy-cat

“If you ever have the fortune to create a great advertising campaign, you will soon see another agency steal it. This is irritating, but don’t let it worry you; nobody has ever built a brand by imitating someone else’s advertising.”

Ogilvy’s point in all this is to focus on the product, do the hard work, find a great idea, and ultimately build a lasting brand over time. This principle sums up all of the other principles.

The world of digital experiences is awash in imitation—be it crass IP piracy, copying a market leader, borrowing concepts, a principled adherence to “best practice,” or simply using standard components offered by a development platform. The critical thing is to bring your unique value and style, to define a sharp personality, to create a unique experience. Nobody has built a brand by copying the experiences of others. Friendster and MySpace, for example, offered pretty much the same service as Facebook. They all had similar feature sets, but Facebook did it all in their own unique style, tone and delivery, and they remain the market leader. As a result, MySpace was forced to go through the difficult task of defining a whole new experience and redefining the business in turn.

Apple successfully sued Samsung for copying the iOS experience—app grid, icons, and the like. Amusingly, in their complaint, Apple rightly cited Microsoft’s Metro design language and the new Windows Phone OS to illustrate that not all smartphones must be designed the same.

Following “best practice” and doing lazy design are two sides of the same coin. In the end it pays to focus on defining a unique pattern, and building a strong brand over the long term.

Working together

Well-established marketers may already know Ogilvy’s principles, however it is worthwhile to consider them from the context of digital product design and development. Looking at marketing through the lens of digital experiences will help to bridge the gap between the communications and the value delivered for a brand, product, or service.

For digital designers who previously believed that marketing had nothing to do with their job, Ogilvy’s principles are a consideration for ensuring that the resulting experience tells the story and vision of the brand.

In order to create great digital experiences and businesses for today and into the future, the worlds of marketing and product design must focus on the shared end goal of engagement. The point, ultimately, is to deliver value and create a meaningful relationship between a customer and a brand, in the intersection of a brand’s belief and the customer values.