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Brand as Context in Interaction Design

by Ben Fullerton
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Considering a brand as a complex entity with its own story and set of values can help interaction designers connect with customers.

I’m sure I was swearing allegiance to one brand over another as soon as I began to develop the capacity for critical thought.

Reebok vs. Nike, Coke vs. Pepsi, SEGA vs. Nintendo, Apple vs. Microsoft—these warring companies were more than just brands to me, they were almost systems of belief. As such, they forced a decision about whether or not I identified with them. Now, as an interaction designer, I have come to view the sentiments built up around brands as a necessary context for the design of meaningful products and services.

Because people assign meaning to brands, brands stand for something; they have both value and a set of values. This meaning we endow brands with makes reactions to their behavior something of a personal matter. Consider how you feel as you read these words: Fox News, Oxfam, Facebook, Halliburton, BP, Goldman Sachs, Nike.

While there are tremendous differences in how people react to these brand names—based on countless cultural and social parameters—whether consumers view them in a positive or negative light, they likely find it hard to remain neutral. So, how can designers of all types—especially interaction designers—better understand the role their work plays in nurturing and maintaining these relationships?

Even though brand and product design teams typically approach their work as distinct teams with different measurements for success, it is essential to work across organizational silos and ensure each team is aware of how to complement the other. People seek coherence within the products and services they interact with, and interaction designers must think beyond single points of interaction to create logical, joined-up experiences that feel as if they come from the same place as the brand.

When interaction designers focus solely on matters such as flow and consistency, they miss opportunities to imbue products and services with a sense of connection, ownership, and emotion. Perhaps because of where UX practices originally came from, interaction designers can still sometimes slip back into only describing a design in terms of logic or process. But products and services don’t exist in a vacuum. Each person will approach them with a unique set of needs, predispositions, problems, emotional states, and everything else that makes human beings frustratingly complex.

Part of succeeding in this environment involves understanding the subtle difference between creating consistency and creating coherence. To create consistency, designers should apply the same common elements and behaviors across any mode of interaction—they should implement patterns, in other words. But there’s a risk that this consistency can become repetitive and fail to create truly equitable relationships between people and the products and services they use. It is better to strive for coherence, where consistency is married with a system of meaning that people can believe in and choose to be a part of: the brand.

Corporation Out

In the past, the relationship between a person and a brand was unidirectional, with the brand speaking outwardly from the company. Brands used to be broadcast voices, with specific messages and mediums over which those messages were delivered.

Now, brands are involved in conversations that are ongoing and require reaction. Marketers who manage brands are already familiar with the idea of a brand as an expression that runs across many different communication channels and can manifest in many different forms. It is how all of these are perceived together that creates the voice, tone, and personality of a brand—which, in turn, creates meaning in the brand.

In his recent article, “Raiders of the Lost Overture,” my colleague Paul Valerio, suggests that you have to know what your story is about, not just what happens.

This is the most important thing to figure out, and also the most difficult. It’s similar to the difference between your product and your brand. The product is what your company sells, but the brand is what your company is about. You must know this inside and out in order to encapsulate the brand and communicate it effectively from the beginning.

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 itself.

By creating brands for Aqua and Metro as distinct entities with their own tones of voice—and each with its own well-developed story—Apple and Microsoft created more than just a collection of interface elements. They created something with meaning that started a conversation with potential users. These two systems of interaction blur the boundary between what brand and interface mean for the future of both branding and interaction design.

Clearly, this involved discussions about how Aqua or Metro would speak, and the brand team’s job was to shape how this voice would sound. They crafted a narrative around a product, service, or organization in a way that set up the conversation, and in this narrative the brand team first identifies the traits that people respond to. Speaking broadly, interaction design continues the evolution of this narrative, ultimately crafting the way in which the brand can speak with people.

People In

The trade of an interaction designer is almost exclusively person-centric, with little sympathy for the brand in the design process (particularly if it conflicts with what designers believe people need). This means that what we are designing is the way in which people enter into a conversation with the brand. Interaction designers are 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 a brand’s 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 friendly, sleek design of the check-in kiosks and gate signage, the outgoing way which the gate staff and cabin staff communicate with passengers, the entertaining safety briefing video, the sophisticated cabin lighting, and the ease with which 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 experiences. 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 from the same place—that makes it work.

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

As I already mentioned, 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.

Think about famous movie directors. What is it that makes someone want to see a film by a particular director? The best directors have a signature that they imbue their films with, 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 pervasive feeling of 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).

See the brand as another context

Consider the brand as another context within which your design will live. While we look at issues of culture or use as considerations for context within our design, we also need to see the brand as a 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. 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 who have accessed your profile over the past week? Imagine 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 these examples are counter to what we understand the core brand to be, and would feel at best awkward and at worst entirely false, but the exercise invites us to think more seriously about interactions that would embody each of these brands in more appropriate ways.

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.

Our future brand loyalties will depend on how well interaction designers collaborate with brand teams and take ownership for the brand experience as well as the product and service experience.

An earlier version of this article appeared in experience design firm Method’s 10×10 series of industry abstracts

Tokyo street image provided by Shutterstock

post authorBen Fullerton

Ben Fullerton,

Ben Fullerton is a Director of Interaction Design in Method’s San Francisco studio. He has over 12 years of experience working in-house and at consultancies, from start-ups and large corporations. His award-winning work has spanned mobile, brand, application, strategy, product, and service design. Ben participates in the wider design community through regular writing, public speaking and educating.

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