October 29, 2006

The Interface of a Cheeseburger

All things have an interface. Shaping interfaces is shaping the character of things. The brand is what transports the character of things. When looking at McDonalds, iPod, Nintendo DS it becomes quite obvious that the interface is the brand.

No Forks, no Knives, no Language Skills

16 columns submenu horizontal, I think, standing at the counter at McDonald’s. I scroll left and right and put a simple cheeseburger in my mental shopping basket. 16 columns, yet so usable. “Cheezubaagaa kudasai” I hear myself say, and glancing at the cashier display and the French fry machine interface, I hold my breath: Wow. Why did I never realize? Being a foreigner in Japan, I decide to go to McDonald’s because at McDonald’s I don’t need to deal with language. I could get much better food in a similar price range if I were ready to think, read Kanji and explain myself. But I’m not, as I’m hungry.

I’ll fill you Without any Brain Stress

McDonald’s is very easy to use, I then think, and then the McDonald’s interface looks the same all over the world. Yes, that is why it is so successful. A simple interface. I don’t need to think when entering, ordering, paying, eating at McDonald’s. McDonald’s doesn’t make me think. That’s what the McDonald’s brand promises the hungry stomach: We’re sweet and we’ll fill you without any brain stress.

Sandwiches can be Complicated at Times

While checking out (paying), I decide to go through with this thought, and look closely at the cheeseburger, and yes, indeed. The cheeseburger as has the easiest food interface one could think of. No forks, no knives, no spoons, no plates, no chopsticks. Like a sandwich, but softer and sweeter and above all: Standardized. No alarms and no surprises when eating a cheeseburger. Almost as simple as “the only intuitive interface” – the nipple. Sandwiches can be complicated at times.

The standardization makes the cheeseburger’s interface a branded one. Only a McDonald’s cheeseburger looks like a McDonald’s cheeseburger. I unwrap it and look at the bread and the meat and the ketchup mustard color pattern: McDonald’s cheeseburger it is.

produkter05_300dpi, blogged to AHT from Flickr of eatmydesign cheeseburger

Print this Burger on my Card

And while I chew, and the sugars start tickling my synapses, I think that I should print this cheeseburger on the back of my business card with a new punchy claim. I walk home and start typing this article here on my cell phone, going over that claim and reducing it to two words and a symbol, now, standing in front of my house door, I nod, looking at my new nifty claim:

Interface=Brand

if you can see the interface being the brand…

In the mean time, sitting at my laptop going over that little article, I think: Maybe it is just a deformation professionelle, as I deal with interfaces, usability issues and branding all day long. I just can’t help seeing things that way. But then again, if you can see the interface as the brand, the brand being the interface: You might understand the success of modern branding concepts.

Superficial explanations

The superficialists might say, that brands create identity through consistency, which creates trust. Sounds logical, but brands are not logical, they’re emotional. If you see a brand as an interface it allows you to explore the notion of brand experience being user experience. People don’t analyze usability, they enjoy it. For the customer usability is a matter of well being, while using. And being well means not needing to think in order to act.

iPod or Zune, DS or PS portable?

iPods The iPod was and is successful because it’s pretty easy to use. But then: Where is the iPod logo? On the back! The interface makes the brand. The owner identifies with his iPod through its typical interface (click wheel plus screen), the 3rd person identifies the iPod through the white ear plugs.

zune

And that’s one more reason why the Zune is not much more than a copy. No matter how many features it counts – the Zune doesn’t have its own interface. Not for 1st and not for the 3rd person. It looks like a ornamented iPod with random ear plugs. Copies can’t “kill” the original if the original is that protoypical.

Nintendo DS vs Playstation Portable

Simpler doesn’t necessarily mean less. Look at the follow-up of the Nintendo Gameboy. The Nintendo DS has two screens. When I first saw it I was irritated. Is that the comeback of the Donkey Kong multiscreen, what’s going on?

nintendo donkey kong multiscreen

Not quite. It’s a different, particular, simple, and extremely usable concept. Play in the upper screen, deal with the options in the lower screen. The DS beats the Playstation Portable in terms of interface. And don’t even get me started on the Wii against Playstation3 when talking about interfaces…

ds pink
The list goes on and on: Look at the Dyson vacuum cleaner against the rest of the world. A part from being a great performer, it has a unique very usable interface. Star Bucks against suck ups. It’s a perfect WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get). Lego against all other wannabes. Coca-Cola against Pepsi (compare bottles).

Flickr, Craigslist, Ebay, Youtube

Compare Google Search against its twin Yahoo Search. Who wins? The original. Strong online brands, such as Flickr, Craigslist, Ebay, Youtube developed a unique, simple recognizable interface. And they’re hard to beat as their face is not a surface, it is interactive, it is an interface, it is the product itself. Copying it won’t work.

Market Leader with a typically Complicated Interface?

Unscalable amazon ia

You can establish yourself with a typically bad interface, if you’re early and lucky or if you have the market power to force people to use your product. See Myspace, Amazon, MSN, Windows, QuarkXPress. Once you get to be market leader with a typically complicated interface, you actually have a good shot at keeping your users, as they’re that traumatized that they wouldn’t want to go through another painful learning process. Nowadays you have a better chance to become successful though, if you go for simplicity and usability. And you have a good chance to develop a strong brand by just doing that.

Here’s a Shocker: Jakob Nielsen’s website has a Strong Identity

Usually strong usability, simplicity and a clear focus automatically lead to a strong identity. Here’s a shocker: Internationally acclaimed usability guru Jakob Nielsen’s totally anti-graphic website with all its geeky flaws and its absolute usability approach has a strong identity. Neglecting all notions of good taste, it looks extremely typical. And that is branding. Branding is not pretty, it’s strong. Craigslist and delicious with their standard link colors are not pretty, they’re strong, and as they’re interactive products, they’re strong through functionality. Facebook, maybe is an example of a very usable website that might go for a more audacious interface/brand identity.

Glue a Lego Brick to my Card?

In the mean time, I should print a Lego brick on the backside of my business card. Or glue one to it. With the claim “Interfaces make brands”. Or maybe I should print that cheeseburger on the back and a little red box on top that says: Interface=Brand. As we’re at it, you might as well teach a nonnative speaker which one works well as a claim:

a) Brand = Interface
b) Interface = Brand
c) Interface creates Brand Experience
d) Interface defines Brand Experience
e) Interfaces make brands
f) UI=Brand
g) Interface=Identity

Brand Equals Interface not Surface

That branding doesn’t equal to creating a logo, is an simple truth that brand consultants have been fighting for a long time. Yet it’s never been so clear until recently: Brand equals interface not surface. Recently we get more and more easy to use products. And if you ask the information designer, products become more easy to use, because most consumers are Internet users. The web teaches us consumers to consider usability when buying a product, it teaches R&D how successful a good interface is, and it teaches finance, how profitable usability is, it teaches the marketing department that mere exposure is just a charlatanry that won’t sell products anymore.

And the lesson I learned at McDonald’s? You can have a bad ugly product and still be extremely successful. As long as you have lots of sugar and a strong easy to use interface defining your brand identity.

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