Moving Ideas

User Experience : Why brands should care about growing online audiences

A few weeks ago, I was sent a letter from the bank containing the access code I needed to activate my online account. Having loaded the website to set it up, the link I was supposed to click wasn’t there. There were so many other options, and it all looked so complicated, that I klutzed around, tried a few other options and, in the end, did what presumably all of their customers must do: called the helpline.

The whole palaver really brought home that classic brand rhetoric; any effort requiring consumer engagement should either be useful or entertaining. (Preferably both).

Holding this thought as a benchmark against ideas in the brand development process brings real focus. It highlights the fact that we judge brands by how they make us feel, as much as by how they look or what they say. And what I felt about the bank was that they were disorganised, disinterested and frustrating. I was pretty much ready to lay the blame for the global financial crisis at the door of the fool who had designed this.

The notion that customers should have positive experiences when interacting with brands is hardly a new idea, the bank in question have put a lot of time and money into the design of their retail environments and advertising. Yet they, like many others, still neglect what is becoming the principal point of interaction with their customers.

Brands have an opportunity here to meaningfully express their values and reinforce in their customers’ minds what really differentiates them. How a brand behaves in this context is highly effective in building loyalty and generating referrals. And it goes so much deeper than just visual style – all interactions can be refined to build on key messages and support positive interpretations of the brand’s wider communications.

The choice of medium, channel and platform can further underpin brand expression. Credit Suisse, for example, have sponsored digital editions of magazines such as the Economist’s quarterly Intelligent Life, while Volkswagen have sponsored a free version of the iOS driving game Real Racing. These aren’t improving functional interactions between customer and brand, but allow the brands to align themselves with great content and enriched user experiences.

Meanwhile, UK retail trading figures from 2011/12 are reporting growth only in online sales. Media consumption habits are being reshaped by Video On Demand, IPTV and digital publishing. As a result of this rapidly evolving business environment, brands should be prepared to flip their entire marketing model to focus on user experience design. It’s in this avenue that their customers are most engaged and most able to interact.

My experience with the online banking service genuinely knocked my confidence in the bank. No amount of positive marketing can win that back now – only a serious improvement in their system. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. People regularly use social media to share their grievances about brands they feel have let them down and, as savvy tech users, their expectations are high. It’s time for brands to take a hard look at user experience – there is a real opportunity here to secure (or win back) customers’ trust.

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Stephen Shaw is UX Director at Frank. His diverse range of skills and experience span digital media and moving image design. Follow him on twitter, @stephentshaw