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Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience: How a pursuit of a "total user experience" has derailed the creative pursuits of the Fortune 500
If there is a future for designers and marketers in big business, it lies not in brand, nor in "UX", nor in any colorful way of framing total control over a consumer, such as "brand equity", "brand loyalty", the "end to end customer journey", or "experience ownership". It lies instead in encouraging behavioral change and explicitly shaping culture in a positive and lasting way.
Brand is a phenomenon that has emerged over the last century as a method of differentiation and control, with marketing beating a drum of "brand messaging", "consistent impressions", and a single "brand value". User Experience is a more recent unicorn to chase, with designers claiming to drive business success through a focus on a prescriptive customer experience. There is a long history of extremely fragile collaboration between the offices of the CMO and the traditional shepherds of behavior-by-design, as designers become enamored with brand embodiment in products, and marketers striving to "own" the product specifications, features and functions. The fragility of the bond is obvious, as both groups frequently disparage the other in both private and public venues. As blanket generalizations, designers describe marketers as less honest then themselves, and disparage the PRD as a laundry-list of jargon and nonsense. Marketers, in turn, often view designers (and by proxy, the product itself) as a means to an end; the goal—revenue, market share, and brand equity—will be achieved through business rules, not through creative endeavors.
Both groups are to fault, and both groups are perilously ignoring the huge potential at their fingertips. As members of both groups cling to brand and UX as differentiators, they have mistakenly focused on control as a means of generating revenue. In fact, neither brand nor UX will serve as the driving force behind financial success in the coming decades. "User experience" is just a new name for old thinking, and "User experience practitioners" exhibit the same hubris that has long plagued "brand thinking": the large name-as-mindshare mentality that a company can own a space, a segment, or even a consumer.
The Problems of Brand and User Experience
For most of the twentieth century, brand—and the marketing machine that created it—ruled the culture of developed countries. The earliest parts of the 1900s boasted brands built around industrialism and production, and these acted as literal and figurative crests, positioned as major pillars of production. The mid part of the century led to the family-focused brands positioned as domesticated icons of class and consumption. And the late 90's exposed global brands, dominated by large, faceless and relatively unknown holding companies making profit simply by waiting for an opportune time to offload a company to another company. Yet the rules of the game are in deep flux, due to sustainability, a credit meltdown, and an awareness of humanitarian efforts in developing countries. The basic, fundamental properties of major brands are increasingly questioned, as evidenced by the disparaged and embattled Ford and Citibank, and the questions of these mega-brands are more commonly rhetorical and pejorative.
In spite of this, brand equity facilitated by marketshare is still a goal of the Fortune 500, and it is common to hear clients—both marketers and UX professionals—speak of "winning" in relationship to the user experience.
Simultaneously, however, clients struggle with the reality of brand complacency. They describe how their customers have become familiar with a particular brand-purchasing behavior, and continue to perform that rote behavior based on circumstances. This includes placement on the shelf, color of a label, and the realization that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". There is no "relationship" with the customer; this is a fragile connection that is the consumptive equivalent to taking the same route to work each day. This is a scary reality to face, as brand complacency implies a dependency on switching-costs as a means of retaining market-share. Brand complacency indicates a trend towards commoditization.
The Threat of Commoditization
A commodity is something that has no qualitative differentiation. Mass production drives commoditization within a particular product line, while the traditional "bunch and swarm" mentality of the marketplace drives commoditization across product lines. A desire to create a new set of interactions is an urge to escape this push towards sameness. Innovation is a business goal to produce products that have qualitative differentiation, and there are various forms of innovation—such as disruptive innovation—which are intended to produce massive qualitative differentiation.
In western civilization, the artifact is continuing to diminish in relevance and importance. While people continue to consume things, these things are increasingly a means to an end. Our relative wealth has positioned even the lower-middle class in a position where there is time for leisure, entertainment, and emotionally charged experiences.
Interesting, too, is the speed at which the digital artifact has moved from being exclusive and expensive to nearly free and ubiquitous. Software, once priced at hundreds of dollars and appropriately as scarce, is now widely available for no cost; networked services have enabled content feeds across artifacts, rendering even some services as irrelevant in the larger scheme of the competitive landscape. As an example, for many years, Microsoft offered a for-fee product called Outlook, which manages electronic mail. Google then offered a free service called Gmail, which also manages electronic mail. Then, as Google externalized the Google mail feed through a series of APIs, mail can be embedded in unlikely places—including other products, such as an instant messenger client (like Trillian), or even on other websites. The "designed product" has become less interesting and relevant, and no matter the innovations pushed by Google or Microsoft in their products, the data itself has been shifted to a champion position of value.
Behavioral Change: The Goal of Our Work
The focus on brand and control of the user experience is an attempt to avoid the above commoditization and irrelevance of artifact, and it references a dated model of dominance—one where a company produces something for a person to consume. This is the McDonalds approach to production, where an authoritative voice prescribes something and then gains efficiencies by producing it exactly as prescribed, in mass. The supposed new model is to design something for a person to experience, yet the allusion to experience is only an empty gesture. An experience cannot be built for someone. Fundamentally, one has an experience, and that is experience is always unique.
Interaction design is the design of behavior, positioned as dialogue between a person and an artifact. A person commonly doesn't talk to an object; they use it, touch it, manipulate it, and control it. Usage, touching, manipulation and control are all dialogical acts, unspoken but conversational. Conversation is only a metaphor for interaction, but it's a useful one. Many of the same ways we "read" an actual, spoken conversation have parallels in describing and discussing interactions between people and things. Consider:
- Both conversations and interactions have flow, and often have a beginning, middle, and end
- Both conversations and interactions act as intertwining of multiple viewpoints. In a conversation, the viewpoints come from people; in an interaction, viewpoints are embedded in an artifact by a designer.
- Both conversations and interactions act as both methods of communication and methods of comprehension; participants both contribute to, and take from, the activity.
- Ultimately, both conversations and interactions serve to affect behavioral change in participants.
This is powerful, as it describes an implicit way of extending a designers reach—and personal point of view, or message—into the masses. It is this mass distribution of dialogue that describes culture; we build culture through our objects, services and systems, as we define behavior through interactions. This is of equal prominence to the claim of "designing experiences", yet leaves open the potential—the need—for the people (pardon, the consumers) to actually participate and contribute in a meaningful way. The things we do in the design studio have grand significance in the world. Our design decisions—even small, detailed, nuanced design decisions—resonate for years, and usually in a phenomenally large scale. Yet because these design decisions have an impact that is diffused and quiet, our impact is hard to notice and pin down. Culture is something that's not immediately describable; the question "where does culture come from?" is almost as large a question as "where does life come from", and is equally as evasive.
Cultural Change: The Implications of Our Work
This is a fundamental point that serves to elevate the importance of a designer, and also serves to articulate the implicit responsibility a designer has to the world around them. It's such a fundamental point that it's worth making again, in a more overt manner:
- The interaction designer designs various aspects of an artifact.
- The designer either explicitly or implicitly hopes to change behavior in a user.
- This behavioral change is "baked" into the artifact, and then disseminated, in mass.
- The artifact serves as a stimulus to change behavior in society.
- This combination of artifacts and behavior describes culture.
Every design decision—from the large and strategic decision to design accounting software, to the small and nuanced decision to use a checkbox instead of a radio button—contributes to the behavior of the masses, and helps define the culture of our society. This describes an enormous opportunity for designers, one that is rarely realized. We are, quite literally, building the culture around us; arguably, our effect is larger and more immediate than even policy decisions of our government. We are responsible for both the positive and negative repercussions of our design decisions, and these decisions have monumental repercussions.
Our Deep Responsibility
For most designers, this responsibility is hidden by the celebratory claims of designing experiences. This claim almost abdicates the long-term responsibility, as "an experience" has an end, at which time the designers' role seemingly ends. The work is meaningful only on an immediate level of craft and creation, and while designers often take pride in a product once it has launched, they do not frequently make the connection between their creations and the culture that surrounds them. "They've stopped using my product—their experience is over." Convenient—but utterly false. Because emphasis is placed on innovation or brand, designers learn to value their work based on newness or recognition; metrics for success are tied to profit and marketshare, rather than positive and long-term culture change. As the causality is extended over a long period of time, it is diffused as a single product mixes with the rest of the milieu. The individual contribution of a single designer feels muted and insignificant, as there is no feedback loop to indicate the role of an individual design in shaping culture and society.
These negative qualities of our last century's focus on brand and experience have been forced upon the business of design and the design of business, but it is only interaction and the ability to change behavior that will serve as fundamental pillars upon which to drive successful new endeavors. We must refocus and reposition our work within major companies away from a marketing-driven focus on brand and a design-driven focus on experiential ownership. Instead, it is up to us to emphasize the value a company can provide in changing human behavior—the lasting, nuanced, intellectual, and deep responsibility we have to the culture we are building.
This requires a conscious tradeoff and reprioritization. Instead of control, we must focus on frameworks. Instead of seeking to own and prescribe a singular experience, we must strive to adapt to the peculiarities and nuances of human behavior. And instead of complicity absorbing the corporate drive towards power and brand positioning, we must acknowledge the huge responsibility implicit in our work and constantly vocalize how our work supports humanity and the cultural landscape that surrounds us. We've built that cultural landscape, and we owe it to ourselves and to our work to tend to our creation as it morphs, changes and adapts. As you cringe from someone talking into a Bluetooth headset on the subway, or smile as a child and mother look at photos on their phone, realize that this technological culture is ours in the making. Both the bad and good are our ongoing fault and responsibility.
Kolko, Jon (2009), "Our Misguided Focus on Brand and User Experience: A pursuit of a "total user experience" has derailed the creative pursuits of the Fortune 500. Available on the online web zine Johnny Holland.