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Defining digital brand experiences

  • Posted on April 27, 2021
  • Estimated reading time 3 minutes

What are they, why do we all need to “sweat the details”, and what steps should brands take today to truly stand out?

We all know that positive business results can happen when a company works to create sustained desire for their products or services versus the team next store. Brand marketing is all about the science and art of creating preference. Yet this is historically difficult to accomplish in the digital space because the right experiences often cross-cut multiple parts of an enterprise—groups often not used to working as closely together as they could. We’ve all experienced being asked for personal information and then, minutes later, be asked for the same information again by another associate. Apps crash, colors clash, usability can sometimes seem an afterthought, all costing us valuable time. These relatively small misfires can ultimately add up to a lack of trust in a company, and worse, a defection to a different brand that can meet the customer’s expectation.

One answer is to sweat the details of how a customer’s time is spent both with and without the brand, looking not just for the grand moments we call “life events”, but the far quieter moments in between—the steady drip and accrual of rewarding customer expectation at every touchpoint, no matter how small. Yes, some moments may matter more than others, but we humans notice and penalize moments of inconsistency even more than we reward the high notes that sporadically dazzle. Unfortunately, we get used to excellence fast. It becomes the baseline. When consistency of experience quality is interrupted it seems to stand out like a sore thumb (Think of that reaction you have when an air conditioner that was humming in the background suddenly stops).

The leading brands in the world invest significant resources to sustain that "ambient magic", while others often struggle to maintain even a modicum of consistency across their touchpoints and channels. To understand a little more about why this happens we have to break down what we mean by good experiences in the first place.

The anatomy of experiences
Good experiences are composed to two main factors: the temporal (related to time), and the sensorial (related to human perception).

We start by being time designers.

The best time-based brand experiences are often ones where customers are pleasantly immersed in the moment and wanting to engage even longer. This is experience design tied to helping consumers achieve maximum “flow”, with nothing discordant happening to snap someone out of the moment. Many digital experiences are engineered exclusively to provide this negation of time—choose any social network as an example of product managers and designers working to keep you rapt in attention way past your bedtime. Personally, I had to deinstall TikTok off my mobile device as it was much too easy to burn an hour watching pointless yet addictive content.

Another way of thinking about time in design would be to innovate ways to give time back to consumers. These strategies are about designing for expediency through thoughtful elimination of unnecessary steps in a process, digitizing the analog, embracing self-serve, or leaning deeply into automation. Who literally wants to spend more time at the bank, or waiting for a mortgage approval, or in line at a movie theater (remember those?). Designing for a brand’s absence sounds a bit counter-intuitive, but it will become more and more obvious as a trend as AI and predictive analytics enable better personalization and more automated transactions—thus, saving time.

Business strategy decides which approach--time suck or time savings--will lead to the best outcomes. My take is that brands that anticipate and automate services (i.e., pursue LESS time with customers) will be ever more appreciated in 2021 and in the future. Beyond the financial services examples cited, consider retail (less time shopping), utilities (less time paying), and healthcare (less time waiting) as viable vertical industries to “give back time” as a differentiator. In short, try to reframe the "time spent" key performance indicator (KPI) to "time less spent" in your brainstorms and see what happens to your roadmap.

The sensorial elements of experience design are what are actually most human: skillfully engaging all of our senses to be remarkable. Everything is fair game and must be considered: form, color, sound, type, motion, words, imagery, and video. In environmental design this expands to space, lighting, scent, touch, time of day, and potentially taste.

Sensorial design, like all design, appeals to the right brain and the left brain simultaneously. Like a memorable summer evening at Disneyworld where every detail seems to have been thought through, you know it when you experience it. Can we all say the same for our current websites, apps, or store designs?

Getting it done
With these definitions in mind the hard work of experience design comes back to careful planning and flawless execution. The companies we all most admire act like schools of pelagic fish dodging and weaving in unison, all working instinctively and by design to common purpose. Apple, Nike, Amazon, Spotify, and Netflix are fundamentally designed to align their talented parts around one consistent and evolving brand experience. Unfortunately, as mentioned many companies resist breaking down the silos necessary to act as one entity or brand.

And a note on experience platforms and technology: they can enable the strategies above when well leveraged, but in themselves address neither time nor human senses directly. To digital marketers and brand builders, it is what is put into platforms that matters the most. Up to that point, platforms are empty vessels until marketing and other content creators apply their magic moments of customer interaction and experience. If you don’t believe me imagine Facebook without people, Netflix without movies and TV shows, Google without content to index in the first place. Content is still king.

So now what? Here are some practical next steps to consider:

  • Audit user experience touchpoints for your brand by persona and interwoven channel.
  • In your next brainstorm broaden your definitions of design to include both time and human senses and see what breakthrough thinking you achieve.
  • Strongly consider where automation and AI reduce touchpoints and friction while providing even better service.
  • Less is more, so deliver fewer interactive features at a higher level of polish to stand out. You can’t sweat the details if your roadmap is packed with too many items to polish.

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