Often a derided term, branding covers a wide range of attributes that people associate with your company. It’s not just the colour of your logo but also things like your tone of voice, the quality of the service that you provide and anything else that shapes how people feel about your company. With this in mind the UX of a company’s website should certainly be considered part of their branding.
Hany Rizk discussed this point during his interesting session at UX Camp Europe. His session titled ‘Is UX killing the Experience?’ started off with some points about how UX is branding and how people should consider this more when designing sites.
One of the most important facets of a successful brand is standing out from the competition. Companies need their brand to stand out to make them memorable and also so that people can relate to them and, ideally, show brand loyalty.
So if UX is branding, and brands need to stand out, then should the UX of your website be different to your competitors? If so, how does this fit in with conventions, which are important for making a site usable? The picture below is taken from Hany’s session and shows the similarity between the user interfaces of some popular mobile sites.
It’s clear to see the similarities there, and there are many other examples too. It’s not just about similar visual design either. Twitter for example seems to be getting more and more like Facebook every day, perhaps risking moving away from the simplicity that made it successful in the first place.
On a general level there’s a question of where to draw the line between following conventions and giving a unique stand-out user experience.
Our Conversion Specialist Chris summed this up nicely by saying: “User experience conventions are in danger of homogenising the online experience across not only brands, but industries. While best practices are helpful, this is hindering brand differentiation which is an integral aspect of branding as a concept.”
Conventions Are Good For UX
In this article Jacob Nielson looks at two university websites, one which follows the main web conventions and another that does not. After some user testing he discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the more conventional university site performed a lot better.
While I don’t think anyone would suggest breaking with usability conventions for the sake of it I do think that site designers should also consider whether their designs stand out enough from competing websites. This is the case for the visual design, the user interface, the information architecture and it goes even further than that.
Twitter Vs Facebook
Going back to how Twitter is becoming more like Facebook this article makes some interesting points. To quote from the article:
“It’s part of a larger trend in the world of social networking services. As each one — from Twitter to Facebook to LinkedIn — seeks to be everything to everyone on the net, they’re looking more and more like each other. There may be drawbacks to this sort of thing, but at this stage in Twitter’s evolution, it makes perfect sense.”
“During its fourth-quarter earnings report earlier this year, Twitter revealed that although its user base was growing, its user engagement (that is, how much time users spent actually interacting with Twitter) was slowing down. It’s a sign that even if people are testing out the platform, they’re not sticking with it, and that could be because Twitter has traditionally looked and operated so differently from other social networks. “
It looks like Twitter have decided to move away from the differences that made it stand out, and made it popular, to begin with. This could be a risky strategy as they may start to alienate their longer term users. They are also potentially losing some of the things that made them stand out from Facebook. If they get too similar to Facebook then users may be left with a simple choice between the two and as Facebook currently has well in excess of a billion users, compared to Twitter’s mere 255 million, there only looks like being one winner there.
Linked in is also getting in on the action with their ‘spotlight‘ feature for premium accounts.
Personalisation And Testing
One way to keep with conventions but still stand out as a brand is to use more personalisation. This could entail showing slightly different versions of a website to different types of users. In the example of Twitter they could use a style that looks more like Facebook for new users while keeping a more traditional Twitter feel for existing/longer term users.
Designers looking to move away from established conventions, like those who designed the Bucknell University site in Jacob Nielson’s article may have benefited from more user testing prior to putting the site live. Even if this gave positive results they could have run A/B tests against a versions of the site with more conventional navigation.
Breaking design conventions when building sites is a controversial tactic. While it can make you stand out against your competitors it is likely to lead to a site that’s harder to use. The key here is finding the right balance between convention and uniqueness. The best way to do this is thorough in-depth research into your users, detailed user testing and ongoing A/B testing to ensure that the design that makes you stand out is one that your users love too.