Usability and Branding

As corporate websites are key brand touch points, usability and online branding have become a central to any business.

Your website is more important for your company and its brand portfolio than your business card, your brochures, the products you sell, your packaging, the address and the building your company resides in. Branding value defines part of a company’s overall value, while usability is what drives a website in terms of numbers. However, on the Web, design and usability easily conflict. How does iA solve that problem?

Usability and Online Brand Experience

Websites are information tools, and as such they have to be designed according to specific rules. They have to usable and useful and they need a strong brand to make the exceptional experience they provide us with identifiable. Yet, successful websites often follow minimum design (see this year’s shooting star craigslist).

No design is a sure way to get the user’s focus on the functions. Design as such often jeopardizes the online experience and thus weakens the brand experience. When it comes to web sites, an elaborate graphic design tends to result in a worse (brand) experience.

Branding is more than just ensuring that customers recognize a logo or product name. Branding means creating an emotional association (such as the feeling of success, happiness, or relief) that customers forms with the product, service, or company. (…) Assuming that users visit web sites for a specific purpose, the better the site fulfills that purpose, the better the direct experience. —Branding and Usability, Jared Spool, 1996(!)

Brand Agencies are not Web Agencies

Of course medium appropriate branding will increase the overall value of a website without jeopardizing its functionality (see Google, eBay, New York Times). The bad news is, that brand agencies have started late with interactive projects, and thus have a weak stand when it comes to define “medium appropriate branding”.

From my latest experience here in Tokyo, even major brand agencies see themselves as “too small for interactive projects”. When in 2000 Interbrand Zurich hired me to help build up their interactive department, I had to convince a senior consultant with over 20 years of experience in branding (and one of the most talented people I ever worked with), that:

  1. In its core, online brand experience is about usability
  2. Fun is not achieved through animation but function and response
  3. Logos should not dance all over the screen
  4. Flash will not solve but create problems

Big or Small?

To design a chair one has to take statics and ergonomics in account. What use is a future style building if it has no widows, secret doors and hidden stairs that connect its floors through secret hallways? To design a website as a functional and well-shaped product one has to understand how websites work. Small brand agencies cannot be expected to have this kind of know-how. Big agencies must have an interactive department that think about screen applications (such as cell phones, PDAs, websites) from the very beginning of brand creation.

Web designers have learned a lot about branding and usability in the last 9 years. Still, web agencies cannot be expected to understand the depth and complexity of coherent branding, sometimes they do, but often the appearance of a company online is a mere CI catastrophe. Fair enough: Their job is to guarantee a product that works and not a product that is coherent with the business card and the letterhead.

As creativity has an innate love-hate relationship with technology, usability conflicts with graphic design. The job of the rare species called “interactive brand consultant” is to solve the conflicts between technology, graphic design, branding and use—in the name of the user, the consumer, the client. It’s difficult, but would chess be fun if it were easy?

Good product design is applied intelligence that resolves issues of technology, use and aesthetics. Like the Citroën DS, like Jacobsen’s Swan Chair, like Herzog & De Meuron’s Prada Building in Omote Sando.

Webdesign is Product Design

Webdesign, interactive design, information design is product design. You need to be an engineer to do the job. An information engineer. An information architect. An information designer. Or at least an information mechanic. It’s difficult and easy to explain, but when you manage to resolve the difficulties, the fun of making difficult matters easy is hard to beat.

iA creates digital products. We offer strategic design and consulting services through our UX studios in Zurich, Tokyo and Berlin. To get in touch, just write a short mail to [email protected]. Subscribe to our newsletter to receive brief summaries of our articles and interviews.