Building Brand into Structure

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Walk into any K-Mart. Then walk into any Target. You’ll see similar merchandise (substitute Martha Stewart for Michael Graves), similar target audiences, even “There is a balancing act that the IA must perform between the needs of the brand and the needs of the user.”similar prices. The difference between the stores is brand.

If you followed usability gurus like Jakob Nielsen blindly, brand would have little to no place in information and interaction design. Logo goes here, they argue. Shopping cart goes there. Users don’t want an experience, they want to find information and to do things as quickly and simply as possible.

But what if the client’s (or your own company’s) brand doesn’t support these dictums? Not every brand is utilitarian, lending itself to shopping carts and blue underlined links. And even in brands that do support these “rules,” there are differences —brand differences —that affect the display of content, site nomenclature, and users interactions with the site.

Branding 101
Whole books have been written about branding and corporate identity. A brief summary of them is this: “Brand” constitutes the essence of a company’s core characteristics —or at least the characteristics it publicly displays —and how those characteristics (or values, as they are sometimes called) are presented.

Companies can have “core characteristics.” Typically, these are one or two adjectives that define the spirit of the company. Volvo: safety. Toys “R” Us: playfulness. The US Marines: duty and honor. Many companies have a set of secondary characteristics that also inform the brand. IKEA’s core characteristics are probably affordable and Swedish; its secondary brand values might be stylish, useful, enjoyable, utilitarian, and probably a few more.

Brand as a driving force
Depending on the company, brand can drive everything from new product development to marketing to the costumes employees must wear as they serve up fries and hamburgers. Brand should be a component of every decision a company makes, from its customer service to its logistics to its letterhead to its interactive properties.

If a company (and its consultants) waits until the visual design phase to add in brand, it’s too late: it is guaranteed a flawed product. Navigation, nomenclature, and content presentation must also reflect the company’s brand. The most elegant visual design in the world isn’t going to overcome inappropriate interaction design.

Different brands: different design
What works for one site might not work for another because of brand. Amazon’s ordering process is fantastic and a model of innovative interaction design. But it can’t be directly ported over to every site because, in all likelihood, the other company’s brand would reject it like bodies reject the wrong blood type. It just wouldn’t fit. Different brands require different treatments of the same functionality.

I recently did an ecommerce B2B project for a luxury high-end retailer known for their personal service (and for their lawyers, which is why I’m not mentioning their name!). When I sat next to their customer service representatives in their call center, I was astounded at the level of service their customers asked for – and received. A pair of $400 cufflinks messengered from one of their stores that afternoon. Two hundred silver bowls engraved with the company logo and sent to two hundred separate people. A set of crystal turtles, pieces of which were scattered among five different stores, combined into one order.

It was extremely obvious that, although it contained some of the required functionality (and did so in an excellent fashion), the Amazon ordering system was not going to work for this client. Their customers were used to being able to specify the details down to the color of the ribbon that was wrapped around the gift box.

Brand can also affect how content is displayed. Because this company’s brand was all about luxury and sophistication, pages could not be packed as densely as most ecommerce sites. Only three products could be displayed on a page, and because some of those products were $350,000 US diamond necklaces, the size of the product image had to be large enough to display its quality.

I’ve found this on other ecommerce sites as well: the more sophisticated the brand and the higher the quality (and cost) of the products, the fewer products there are per page. The Gap Inc. family illustrates this well, with Banana Republic’s site displaying only a few items per page, the Gap more, and Old Navy most of all.

It’s not just in information display either. Take the Shopping Cart. It’s a very useful metaphor, nearly ubiquitous on ecommerce sites. But calling it a “Shopping Cart” simply doesn’t work everywhere. Victoria’s Secret, with their little pink and white shopping bags filled with unmentionables, would have been foolish to use the “Shopping Cart” nomenclature on instead of the “Shopping Bag.” When’s the last time you saw a shopping cart in a lingerie store? It simply would have been out of place. And even though it might take a user a few milliseconds initially to equate “Shopping Bag” with “Shopping Cart,” those few seconds are well worth it if the feeling you get from the site is that of Victoria’s Secret and not Yahoo Shopping.

Why do companies care? Because brand is a differentiator. In crowded marketplaces – and the web is the most crowded marketplace ever – brand is one thing that separates companies from one another. Companies with strong brands (sometimes called “brand equity”) can sell the same products as their competitors for more money. Starbucks is a case in point: they can sell a $5 cup of coffee because their customers are also buying the Starbucks experience, the Starbucks brand.

Brand vs. User
Of course, there is a balancing act that the IA must perform between the needs of the brand and the needs of the user. If you focus too much on brand, you risk turning the project into a branding exercise and not one that will meet anyone’s goals.

In some cases, this is fine: the business goal is to establish or reinforce the brand. Take a movie site I just produced for Warner Bros., Its goal is to drive people to the movie by embodying the spirit (i.e. brand) of the movie, nothing more. Users (target demographic: males 11-24) who go there might be looking for specific information about the movie (cast bios, etc.), but for the most part, they want to know what seeing the movie is going to be like. They want to know what the experience of the movie will be. A site that is all about the movie’s brand meets both the users’ and the business goals.

But in most cases, a site’s goals aren’t only to promote a company’s (or a company’s product’s) brand; they are either to provide information (content), sell things (ecommerce), or provide services (online trading, bulletin boards, gaming, etc.) – sometimes all three. How does one balance brand with users’ needs?

The golden rule is this: The brand should never hinder usability unless it would be entirely against the brand’s values to do otherwise. Sometimes, this means fewer items per page, sometimes it means calling the Shopping Cart “My Makeup Case.” Sometimes it means extra pages in the ordering process to ensure the personal service the user expects.

Although these changes may not be instantly familiar, they are, in the long run, more useful because users go to sites for a reason, and part of that reason is brand. People expect different experiences from different sites, just as you expect them from different physical places. Users who head to to buy an expensive piece of art would probably think twice about doing so if the information design looked like eBay. They might even think they’re on the wrong site. No one minds sifting through long lists of semi-sorted items on eBay because it is part of the eBay experience based on the offline experience of sorting through junk at a flea market. But it won’t fly on a site with a more sophisticated brand.

The experience that users would have with the company in person should not be radically different than the experience they have online. The online experience can be better, more efficient, and done at three in morning in your underwear, but the traits that a company presents live should be the same ones they present digitally.

And even if the company has no bricks-and-mortar component, they still have people, and those people have personalities. The positive personality traits of those people, collectively, is their brand.

How to keep brand in mind
Brand should be an essential component when considering everything from how content is clustered to navigation to taxonomy. Here are some tips to keep your project within the company’s brand umbrella:

  • At the beginning of a project, consult the company style guide. Often, these contain clues (if not outright instructions) for using the brand in various contexts.
  • If you are consulting, visit the company’s workplace or store to get a feel for both what being an employee and being a customer would be like. If you are in-house, try to distill your knowledge about your company down to its core values. Often, you will have been bombarded by these messages already.
  • Ask about brand values. Often, the marketing people are going to be your best source for this information, and your best allies for promoting brand through structure. Explaining to them what you are doing and why, asking for their input, should head off any “brand turf” wars. If you get blank stares, it’s up to you and your team to push for a brand workshop or be stuck taking an educated guess.
  • Look over any TV commercials, print ads, or other collateral materials like brochures. Note how the company presents itself and displays its products and services. What are the adjectives that describe the work? Your designs should also reflect those adjectives.

Once you’ve done this brand exploration, you should use it to consider your designs: how does the company group its products and services in both its physical spaces and its marketing? Does it make sense? Are its customers used to it? (Be careful with this last one: even if its customers are used to it, it doesn’t make it worth porting over to the digital space.)

Nomenclature is a major area for branding. The subtle difference between say, “Company Information” vs. “About Company X” vs. “About Us” can make all the difference in the world to the feel of the site without sacrificing usability. Is the brand friendly enough to use “My”? “My Mail,” “My Account,” etc.? Or would a more impersonal “Account Information” work better?

Functionality is a particularly challenging place to address brand. One could argue that for applications, the usability of the application is paramount, and that the majority of the branding work for them should be done in visual design. Indeed, a little branding in this area goes an extremely long way. A rule of thumb is that the stronger the brand, the more you can deviate from application standards. Company X will not be able to get away with having its buttons in a odd location, but Disney might.

If your application is part of a suite of applications, it probably behooves you to make your new application conform as much as possible (and reasonable) to the other applications in nomenclature and interface design (consistent location of navigation, etc.).

The appropriate experience
One of the goals of Design with a capital D is to provide the appropriate experience for what is being presented. To paraphrase legendary adman Tibor Kalman, design is a language, not content. By being aware of brand when making your information and interaction designs, you’ll help ensure an appropriate experience that supports the overarching brand.

Dan Saffer is a senior user interface architect at Datek. He has worked with a diverse set of clients, from Lucent Technologies to the World Wrestling Federation, during the last seven years of interactive work. He is contractually obligated to say that he won a fellowship in 1998 from the Mid-Atlantic Arts Council. He lives and works in New Jersey and is not writing a book about IA.


  1. Treating nomenclature as part of the ‘brand’ makes sense. The nomenclature is the conversation the site/software is having with the user and reflects a particular culture. It can be related to the ‘language’ or culture of the target user group or the culture which the brand is attempting to convey.

    However, I strongly believe that the nomenclature is a secondary step in user experience. The primary point is deciding that you want a shopping cart at all.. who cares at first glance what it is called. The secondary point is working closely with marketing or the appropriate departments and user’s to understand what the brand is trying to convey and what experience will give the desired effect. Nomenclature should be suggested by the branding. The user experience should not be compromised from this because the user experience is primarily functional and secondarily form. Branding is a kind of ‘form’ for the user experience, thus it is of secondary concern.

    There is a lot to be learned within the realm of basic user experience already much less getting into the form of it. The bones of the beast must be in place before it can have a body which takes on a form of any sort.

  2. “Of course, there is a balancing act that the IA must perform between the needs of the brand and the needs of the user.”

    If you are saying branding requirements and ease of use are sometimes opposed, then that seems a wrong interpretation of usability as the “rule police”, and branding as “visual design”. Usability isn’t a force that opposes branding, just as it doesn’t oppose visual design. Only *bad* usability does that. Branding isn’t about visual design, even though advertising is one of the main vehicles through which branding is achieved.

    Visual design in advertising is a tool for creating an experience.

    Usability in web design is a tool for creating an experience.

    Conveying brand values through the customers’ experience is how you create a brand. Usability is concerned with the customers experience. How could there be a balancing act?

  3. There’s a balancing act because brand needs are, by definition, part of the company’s needs. The company wants to convey its brand values to the user/customer via the user experience. Sometimes those needs come into conflict with the needs of the user.

    Example: A user needs help information, but the company calls (for brand reasons) its help area Support Center. It takes the user additional time to figure out where help is. The IA needs to weigh whether Support Center is acceptable nomenclature or not.

    For me, usability is a set of metrics to measure ease of use. Some of these metrics come from research, some from user testing, some from experience. Usability can suggest courses of action (e.g. putting the global navigation below the fold might not be the best idea), but sometimes the suggested course of action does not fit the brand of the company. The IA needs to negotiate these conflicts.

  4. Definately a balancing act between branding and usability. How many companies brands promise “ease of use” “predictability” or other Usability goals? For instance, Vodephone’s new brand values include “red” “travel” and “rude”. (Well, ok, it’s Vodaphone for teens.) Certainly it would be a balancing act between creating a site that’s both usable and “rude.”

  5. I really like the following quotation:
    “Design: the interaction between understanding and creation.” ___Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in “Understanding Computers and Cognition”
    Too often we see this appropriation of the word “design” ONLY to mean visual design, graphic design, and information design…and not other forms of design: software design, hardware design, system design, and experience design. The thing I like about the quotation is that it bridges so many gaps.

    One of the things that and its ilk failed to remember was the importance of understanding. Such project leaders fail to take understanding into consideration. And I think that’s one of the prime roles of the IA/HCI/ID space: to help further understanding within the context of what’s created.

    I see branding as the expression of company goals…and yes company goals can conflict with users’ goals. For example, I led the HCI efforts to create a new in 2000. Our user research strongly indicated users did NOT want nor expect a “shop” for multi-tens-of-thousands-of-dollars items. Yet the customer felt that offering eCommerce was a crucial goal. A year after the launch, it was reported to me that only one sale had occurred.

    Also, users wanted to be able to compare prices among competitors: how much is this machine and what features does it have, compared with the competition? The client felt that meeting this goal (users wanting to make an informed “buy” decision) violated their goals to protect the sales force and also the corporation’s privacy.

    Did the brand suffer? I think so. Could there have been a middle road to meet both users’ and corporate goals? I think so–and I think in almost every case, there is a way to do so…hence the balancing act.

    yet in the cases where brand conflicts with users’ mental models and expectations, I feel strongly that the corporation needs to reexamine its brand.

  6. Yet another chance to tout my new favorite (older) quotation:

    “Design: the interaction between understanding and creation.” ___Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores in “Understanding Computers and Cognition”

    Seems to work for me these days. Too often visual designers co-opt the word “design” to mean only graphic, information, and document design. Software, hardware, system, and architectural design also come to mind.

  7. Dan,

    Thanks for saying some things that need to be better understood by the IA/HCI/UX community. Usability isn’t EVERYTHING, it’s a very important and often overlooked aspect of a site/software/whatever.

    I’ve found recently that branding is an excellent way to explain the need to focus on user experience. Often when sites have bad usability or IA they are in conflict with their company’s brand strategy. Said another way: if a company values branding, then usability for the sake of branding has value. It’s often much harder to sell usability simply for the sake of usability. Same goes for IA.

    You’ve also pointed out that UX/IA can’t just focus on the needs of the user — we also have to consider the needs of the business. Sometimes people forget that — in their desire to be good user advocates they can go too far.

    Excellent article!

  8. I have to catch myself from becoming enmeshed in a brand vs. usability debate. Dan’s comments regarding Jakob and usability nearly hooked me.

    One helpful mantra from the usability gurus worth stating here is “test it.” Brand consistency can be affirmed by the targeted demographic. And any balancing can be negotiated from there.

  9. I’ve read the piece several times. I’m not sure I get it. I understand certain parts, then I trip over the failure to adequately distinguish between brand, branding and brand experience.

    In the privacy and security of my own blog I ranted where I knew I wouldn’t be held to task over what I said – or how I said it.

    But now I find, from a suggestion, that I should comment on the piece. I guess, for me, it comes close in areas but falls short of truly showing me how to build brand into structure.

    My main areas of conflict of the piece are around the definition of brand/branding/brand equity/brand experience. The lack of attention to the process of building brand into structure and then the superb examples that so simply illustrated the key points, but in an order void of a clear ‘storyline’.

    I was left with some solid real-world examples but not the ability to apply Dan’s “building” process to anything else.

    Dan lost me when he attempted to disregard most of the books I’ve read on brand to say that they could be summarized to be the essence of the company’s core characteristics. The books I’ve read simply state that a brand is a name, term, sign, symbol, or package design that identifies a product and distinguishes it from others.

    However, he had won me over when he attacked Nielsen’s approach to design, as I am sure many took sides immediately. Yet, I was lost again when Dan asked me what were to happen if my brand was void of personality or experience. I thought that was a contradiction of your definition of a brand, Dan?

    I guess that was my key area of discomfort, which was to watch Dan explain his real life experiences of brand being translated online, as well as building a brand into an online experience but to have to read how he jumped from discussing a brand as an image or identity and loosely attach equity to the strength of a brand. Brand experience then Branding, then back again…

    Dan suggests somewhere, that “Brand should be a component of every decision a company makes…” which is an outstanding statement – perhaps should have been made in bold as I wholeheartedly agree and would have appreciated seeing how business and brand should consider design, especially in the case of building it into structure.

    I was looking for the process of design that would capture the way to build brand into design. If design is communicating and being understood, then how does a business translate both its aspirations and the way it behaves, online?

    Business and brand are entwined, and perhaps it is with the consideration of the design process, that organizations can better understand how to develop products/services that are consistent and inline with their brand aspirations and current expression.

    If I walk into K-Mart and Target, the difference is not simply the brand, it is the experience I have within them. I think that is what K-Mart and Target design, the experience and then everything around that experience that will best be understood as that particular branded experience.

    I think the point is about the experience of brand and what simple rules Dan has learnt and picked up to build some of that experience into an online presence. Which is, in some places about branding and identity but they are elements of the experience.

    But I could be wrong…

  10. Couple of comments:

    This piece was never meant to be a complete view of brands and branding. I’ll refer you to two books I’ve enjoyed for that: “Marketing Aesthetics” by Schmidtt and Simonson, and “Emotional Branding” by Marc Gobe.

    My quick definitions:
    Brand=Collection of characteristics surrounding a company or product.
    Branding=A physical or digital representation that embodies said characteristics (ie a web site, a brochure, a marketing display).
    Brand Experience=What happens when a user/customer encounters the brand through branding.

    So, Damien, you and I don’t disagree on this. When you go to K-Mart you are having a brand experience, because you are being exposed to the K-Mart brand via its branding. Try to say that three times fast. 🙂

    I also never meant to imply that ANY brand is devoid of personality. “Utilitarian” is the phrase I used, which is not the same thing. IMHO, a brand without a single personality trait does not exist. Every brand has some characteristic attached to it, even unintentionally.

    I was also trying to make aware/remind IAs/IDs about the importance of brand so that they could incorporate it into their design process, not suggest a new process for them to do so. Although I suspect most of us work in a similar fashion (explorations -> task analysis -> site maps -> wire frames -> prototypes -> testing), I’d be uncomfortable suggesting a new process. And because brands are so diverse, I couldn’t say, “For X you need to do Y,” because it is a case-by-case thing, and one of the things that what we, as designers, are being paid to do: translate offline brand to online. The tips at the end of the article were my attempt at giving some approaches to doing that. I’d love to hear more.

  11. To me there seems no real difference beetween Dan´s Focus on branding and Jacob Nielsens focus on information delievery. Both must serve the user who has a certain need for information beacuse the net is a informational place. But information must bee seen not only as a reading that can be delivered via hypertext – a human beeing has some other senses and also an emotional layer that can (and must) be adressed to deliver the message sucessfully.
    In designing a web apperance the designer must ask himself (objectively) what he really wants to deliver to his/her (himself/herself unknown) audience. In many cases brand is part of the deliverable – Dan mentioned some examples where a emotional context is part of the message. Sometimes an emotional context is nearly the whole message – why pay thousands of dollars for some little transparent stones ?
    But if brand and it´s emotional context is part of the information Jacob Nielsen is also right – what he points out is that the delivery process must be as straightforward as possible – fast, without confusing navigation elements and so on. These guidelines apply for brand elements also. Very often brand guidelines are designed for conventional information carrier and disregard the possibilities and the traps of web design.
    So a designer must ask for the whole picture he or she wants to deliver to his/her audience (another point Jacob Nielsen is right on – too often a designer assumes that his/her view of the world in general and his/her knowlegde of the product in special applies to the rest of the world too…) and choose the right combination of brand design (which means of course these little images…) and usability. Like always in real life, things tend to have more than one side…

  12. Dan,

    In my current gig (in-house IA) I and all the designers I work with deal with branding issues daily. I don’t think any of us has a problem with integrating the house brand with user needs.

    Our problem (this is turning into a Dear Dan letter, sorry) is the self-styled branding police who, with little design experience and less technical expertise, mandate the brand experience with regard to IA, experience design and functionality. User testing is usually not permitted for various reasons, so there’s no let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may moment where the complications are solved.

    What do you do when you are forced to create designs that follow the immediately visible branding issues (color, font, etc) but continually sell out the user by trapping them in sites that confuse, obfuscate, or worse?

    Remember, user testing isn’t an option, and the issue tends to be extremely territorial. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on this problem and how to deal with it.

  13. Dear Melissa, 🙂

    I wish I had some advice for you, but without knowing any specifics about the site or your process, the only thing I can suggest is doing things earlier on that they can ping off of before you get to a stage where you start diagramming.

    User Scenarios springs to mind. If you can write up a logical narrative of a user going through the site, and get the brand police to sign off on it, you can use it against them later. If the user experience is presented to them in a story, their lack of expertise might not cloud the issue so much.

    If that doesn’t work, after the designs are done and they have had input, you could go back and do another set of User Scenarios. Then you could compare and contrast. (“Here, it takes 5 steps instead of the original 2 I proposed.”)

    You might also get a list/diagram from the branding police of (what they think are) the company’s brand values. Then, when you present your designs to them, refer to the diagram to show how each of your decisions reflects those values. Tedious as hell, but if it the difference between a good design and a bad one, might be worth it.

    Does anyone do user testing in these days of slashed budgets?

  14. Dan, thanks for the comments. User scenarios are out, user testing is out, based on “we don’t need it/we can’t afford it”. If I post more I’d probably get canned or have an apoplectic fit, so let’s take this offline. I’ll email you.

    Meanwhile, a brief illustration of my job:

    1. Signoffs? Mwah-hah-ha!

    2. And my design did streamline things, but I was told “We want to force the user to read through all these screens [7 levels!] before they buy, and we don’t want clear navigation, especially back to the home page, because we want them to buy stuff, not go anywhere else.”

    Meanwhile, here’s a quote for all IAs in the current economy, courtesy of Percy Bysshe Shelley:

    I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!

    — “Ode to the West Wind”

  15. “Center of the World ( is not a usable website, but it tends to reproduce the experience of the movie.”

    Center of the World (COTW) *is* a usable site. You seem to be mistaking “usability” for “blue links and no images” with that statement. Increased usability of COTW could be achieved by improving their zooming interface (faster, and allowing to zoom out following kinda established usability guidelines for ZUI’s). The visual aspect of it, and the discovery-feel of it (what makes it enjoyable) are in no way anti-usable. On the contrary. In games there is something called “playability”, a concept related to usability, but including additional factors. Games that aren’t usable cannot be very playable. Usability does *not* mean everything needs to be obvious for example – it just means the basic interactions you can do need to be clear – something many games do very well.

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