Brand Value and the User Experience
Published on July 14, 2004
Jet Blue Airlines cares about their customers and it shows. In February 2000, founder and CEO David Neeleman started the airline with a simple strategy focused on “bringing humanity back to air travel by offering passengers low fares, friendly service, and a high quality product.” Understanding their customers‘ needs, habits and desires has truly given Jet Blue an advantage over their competitors. Their vision of “humanizing” the experience ties into their business model, which focuses on providing exceptional customer service and reducing costs and inefficiencies whenever possible (source: “Flying High with Jet Blue” uncredited author). The flight itself is a friendly, comfortable experience. A partnership with DirecTV allows passengers access to 24 cable channels during the flight. Even when I needed to change my return flight at the last minute, I was surprised to find myself with a $25 credit; now that is service with a smile.
What do companies like Nordstrom, Jet Blue, Amazon and Dell have in common? They have built their brand value on providing a positive experience for their customers on- and offline. Successful companies match business objectives with customer needs. They combine ongoing testing, feedback and improvement cycles into their daily practices and invest in listening, learning and modifying the user experience to create positive returns in revenue and loyalty. This means user experience is not just a practice or a process—it is a philosophy.
The user experience should be:
The term user experience has been defined and described in many ways, but at gotomedia we define user experience as “the overall perception and comprehensive interaction an individual has with a company, service or product. A positive user experience is an end-user‘s successful and streamlined completion of a desired task.” When designing a good user experience it‘s important to remember these four principles, which should be a part of any usability or user experience specialist‘s toolkit. While these are not the only components of a complete experience, these principles form a solid structure upon which to build a foundation of usability, information design and brand application.
Create comfort—first and foremost.
The notion of creating a familiar, comfortable interface backfired when Apple launched E-World in 1994. E-World was an online community service similar to AOL. The extremely cute interface was created to mimic a small town environment with a bank and a library and a bar, which should have been very familiar to most people. However, when signing onto the service (using a 14.4 modem) it was as if you stepped into a ghost town or a Twilight Zone episode in which the townspeople disappeared. There was no sign of activity on the site. In contrast, AOL‘s just-launched service was booming. The icons changed each time you visited, the chat rooms were open and inviting and content was everywhere on the page. With AOL, you felt comfortable because there were people chatting, the site was active and, of course, setting up and signing on was extremely easy. AOL won over E-World‘s service because they were able to expose a mass audience to a new technology in a way that was non-intimidating and easy to use.
Online, comfort is created in many ways. The tone and voice of the company, established through copy and content, should reflect the brand personality of the company: The Onion can afford to be irreverent whereas the Whitehouse.gov should be a bit more formal. Sites should be very clear in explaining their services and offerings—and it should be clear how to get to what you are looking for. When buried deep within a site, following various links and cues, it is important to be able to get “home.”
Create a friendly and appropriate “voice” for your company that is reflected in the copy and in the visual language of all materials, online and off.
Make sure the home page explains the purpose of your site, company or product clearly and concisely.
Create an easy way to get “home” from every page of your site. Use standard conventions such as linking the logo back to the home page.
Make it easy to find what you are looking for. Search should yield usable results (not 2,000 non-relevant links). Paths to products or information should be easy to follow and hassle-free.
Keep surprise to a minimum. When linking outside of your site, give a warning and use a pop-up if possible. When downloading a PDF or other media, make it clear how large the file is and give an estimated download time.
Make the experience intuitive.
Our everyday experiences with products, services and companies, both on- and offline, are filled with hits and misses. The interfaces we interact with on a regular basis must be intuitive and easy-to-use or they will be donated with the next run to Goodwill. Case in point: many of my friends rave about TiVO so I took the plunge and bought a device, which I thought was TiVO, only it was not. Struggling to use the interface, record my favorite shows and, the ultimate trick—watch one show while recording the other—proved to be nearly impossible. There was no “season pass” (which allows you to easily set your TiVO to record a show for the season) and my experience has been rather, shall we say, poor. So I intend on switching from my DISH DVR (Digital Video Recorder.) Bye-bye DISH and hello TiVO!
Complex applications in the past were software-based and packaged with manuals and training. These days, every industry from pharmaceuticals to human resources has migrated their complex systems to the online environment. Much attention has been placed on improving the usability of the “front-end” of Web sites, but most Web applications continue to be developed by engineers with little to no actual experience in user experience methodology, information design, brand application or usability. This is not just a trend—it is an oversight by many companies not willing to invest in improving the user experience. Or they simply are not aware of the business benefits of providing a streamlined experience.
Think like a first-time visitor—understand specifically who they are and what they are looking for. Provide an easy starting point from which to begin.
Navigation, links and content should be easy to read, not full of jargon or insider terms your company may use internally, but which would be unclear to an outsider.
Organize your site in a way that makes sense to the visitor, not according to how your corporation is organized.
Make sure that links and clickable items look active. Make images and headline text active when appropriate.
Incorporate rounds of small-scale (informal) usability testing into your development process.
Keep it consistent.
We all have our favorite restaurants. We know where to park, what the hours are, and what dishes will be served. We know to expect great service, and to pay a price that is reasonable. Every time we go to our favorite restaurant we expect these things to be consistent and, when they are not, we are dismayed. Recently, one of my favorite sushi restaurants in San Francisco was sold to new owners. When I entered the restaurant the décor was slightly different and the faces were unfamiliar. I ended up leaving the restaurant and heading to a different facility. How disappointing!
Creating a consistent experience takes time and attention to detail. Although your site may change over time, the experience of interacting with your organization or company should retain a consistent focus on quality of product, service or content. At gotomedia, we start our brand investigation by looking at every instance of logo currently being used, on- and offline. This includes memo pads, mailing labels, sales and marketing materials and more. One New York-based client had over 30 different logos in use at the same time. We collected them all and presented them in a report showing all of the variations and lack of consistency amongst all of their divisions.
Maintain brand standards whenever possible. Invest in the creation of a branding style guide for your company that translates to your online presence.
Use CSS (Style Sheets) to create consistency and to ease updating.
Use clear and consistent labeling from the top-level pages down through the lower-level pages of the site.
“Chunk” similar information together on individual pages and create a consistent manner of representing content on pages.
Content should be consistently written and presented throughout the site and in marketing and advertising materials.
Build credibility and trust.
Let me tell you about the Kobe Beef scam. I was excited to cook dinner for a group of friends for a special occasion and a friend recommended a Web site with a special “6 steaks for the price of 4” sale. The site was sent to me via my friend, so I felt the site was trustworthy. I was wrong. During the ordering experience, I was surprised to find there were no options for shipping the order. There was no “expected date and time of arrival” or options to ship the order via next-day air. For something this important (dinner for 6) and perishable, wouldn‘t you want to know when it would arrive? While placing my order I noticed I had been routed off of the Web site and into a Yahoo! storefront. This did not make me feel comfortable. After I ordered I tried to email the company and I tried to call the 1-866 number. There was no answer. Was it a scam? Most likely, but if it was a credible company they did an extremely poor job of facilitating a trustworthy customer experience.
Trust is important—when submitting personal information and credit card numbers online, it is extremely important to build a certain amount of trust with your audience before they will feel okay about submitting personal and private information. Collect only relevant information from your audience. If additional details are desired, make them optional. Develop a credible presence by making sure the site has no typos and is clean and functional. Links should not be broken. The site should be free from errors at the most basic level.
Have a non-legalese, easy-to-comprehend privacy statement linked from every page of your site.
Make it easy for your customers to contact you. Provide multiple ways (1-800 number, email, live chat) to connect with your company.
Get back to any customer requests within 24 hours.
Provide an easy customer feedback form; follow up with phone calls, online surveys and customer visits at least twice a year.
A little service goes a long way. If there is a problem—FIX IT.
Notify your customer base before making drastic changes to the site. Allow your audience to be a part of the change rather than being surprised by the outcome.
Make it so.
Commitment from the top level of an organization or company, to focus on creating a comfortable, intuitive, consistent and trustworthy experience from start to finish, is necessary for ongoing success. Such companies understand the business value this approach will yield over time. User experience professionals generally have a small arsenal of usability specialists who are ready to deploy task analysis and customer observation toward the improvement of a site or product. Although usability is only one component of the entire user experience, it is a viable and measurable place to begin. In the end, the interaction a visitor has with your company is an emotional experience; over time, positive experiences lead to trust. Strive to create an experience that is compelling and memorable. Remember, successful businesses, online and off, are built with the customers in mind.
Kelly Goto is principal of gotomedia, inc. a San Francisco based company focused on web redesign and user centered methodology. Kelly also continues to lecture and teach internationally on the topics of usability, information design and workflow. Kelly, along with Emily Cotler, recently co-authored Web ReDesign: Workflow that Works.