What marketing executives should know about user experience

Like it or not, the digital world has changed at a wicked pace, and more and more interactions between companies and their customers now happen via an interface. Software serves us everywhere, and the user experience now shapes these interactions every day. At the center of all this change sits the brand. TV and print advertising now regularly feature digital experiences from the likes of Apple, Google, Toyota, GE, and Amazon. The visual interface has become the new face of your brand. This means that the role of Chief Marketing Officers (CMOs) is now harder, and their influence must reach further into the organization than ever before.

Customer interaction cycle
More customer interactions are now digital, and the brand sits at the center

Expectations are now much higher. My wife, for example, has lost all patience with technology. She hates how TiVo doesn’t record her programs on time; her Dell laptop seems to break frequently; her iPhone is too slow. It’s not just my wife, though. I see it frequently in healthcare and financial services. Even employees in larger enterprises have lost patience and expect better.

At Cooper, I see clients struggle with traditional marketing practices to deliver software that lacks the deeper level of engagement that customers are looking for. Some of our clients have changed their approach to marketing and product design and are reaping the rewards with a place on Forbes’ Most Innovative Companies list.

Camcorders replaced by Flip
Products like the flip have changed the way we record and share movies

User experience has improved from, for example, yesterday’s clunky camcorders to today’s magically simple Flip camera, but the competition to provide better experience grows daily. There are now more than 500,000 apps available on Apple’s iPhone and many more for other mobile platforms. It’s no longer good enough to have an intuitive interface. The question has become: How can marketers connect customers and brands in the digital era, and direct their organizations to guide products that inspire lasting engagement?

Software is a different experience

First of all, software isn’t fashion. While marketing campaigns can change at a rapid pace, software interfaces can live for years, sometimes decades, before undergoing major identity change. Visual interfaces need to express a sense of timelessness, and can’t be tied to a brand initiative that’s likely to be gone in a few years.

You may remember the sporty line of Sony Walkmans, with their design stuck firmly in the 80s. In contrast, Apple’s iPod hasn’t undergone a major change in 10 years and still has a modern feel to both its hardware and software.

Sony Walkman
Apple iPod
Sony’s Walkman feels far more dated than the more iPod generation

Software has become more complex and we must balance style with usability in interface design. A good interface is a humble servant of information, but this stance means we have less opportunity to show a strong visual identity. Instead, the identity must live in the visual details, and the interactive flow becomes the memorable experience. The brand’s identity can still be strong because its power is more than skin deep.

litl web book
The litl interface surfaces content and remove all sense of complexity

One frequent challenge is the belief that a universal brand- or style-guide should drive the look of all products. But the best digital products focus on a unique set of users and contexts. It’s not a one-size-fits-all experience. For example, we recently helped a medical products company redesign a set of touchscreen devices operated by non-technical users. The company’s visual standards, developed by their marketing team for all of their products including those for dark room technicians, weren’t engaging for our group of users. With our research-backed findings, we convinced the central team to adopt a new set of visual standards for these less technical devices.

Too much rigidity in guidelines can result in products that look the same but speak to no one. Just look across Apple’s products to see a diverse set of interfaces. Also compare their products to their own human interface guidelines and you’ll find they often break their own rules in lieu of a better experience. A CEO I work with told his team, “the person’s the same, but the clothes they wear can change depending on the occasion.” Guidelines can define the person and suggest a wardrobe.

User experience design can transform your organization

Software is determining ever more interaction points between companies and their customers. Thus we see the software-defined user experience having a greater influence on how organizations are perceived. What’s more, this now extends well beyond software

We recently crafted a vision for a software suite by closely collaborating with a large Silicon Valley company to establish a set of user experience design principles. Initially, we intended just to improve software development quality. However, the design principles we introduced quickly extended outside of the software domain. In less than 18 months, these guidelines have helped transform them to a far more service-oriented culture. The principles now guide legal teams, appear on employee security cards, improve HR processes, and even support their sales experience. Because of its effectiveness, the company has begun to embrace a design-centric approach to business and product development.

Defining a memorable experience that customers love

To help companies create experiences that better support their company goals, we host popular experience workshops where new ideas and perspectives emerge. This new approach to brand strategy helps teams agree on the feel of their future experiences. The workshops help the conversation feel less abstract by using imagery as a guide. People can draw from their own experiences to support their views. The conversation becomes less subjective and more meaningful with tangible examples to point at.

Experience workshop
Output from an experience workshop where images drive ideas in a group discussion

It’s often the participants less integrated with their teams who are the most grateful to have participated in what they considered a highly engaging and educational meeting. Most importantly, teams are equipped with more effective tools to guide and evaluate their work with users.

A strong visual experience strategy derived from qualitative user research can help you identify the true value of your product from your user’s point of view. Their experience can then be elevated and strongly differentiated in the marketplace. Your focused visual experience establishes your brand more effectively than ever before, enabling you to create experiences that go beyond usable to one your users will fall in love with.

What marketers should know

User experience design can drive users to be more engaged with brands, but behavior is as important as appearance. The visual interface design sets expectations about the experience, but the product’s behavior delivers on that promise. And engagement starts with understanding your customers.

A completely consistent experience won’t speak to diverse user groups with unique goals and unique contexts. The new standards for software design need more flexibility to connect with users. Experience strategy can be defined for each product while still serving the broader business goals.

A strong experience strategy, derived from qualitative user research and experience workshops, can bring a collected vision to your organization and not only identify the true value of your products but help you transform the way your company does business.

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Nick Myers

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