In your experience: Is UX the future of branding?

Meaningful brand interactions aren’t born out of hard data alone, so are we witnessing a new era of user experience (UX) as the future of branding?

The past few years has seen the term user experience (UX) bulldoze its way into the lexicon of the digital and, more broadly, business world. Steve Jobs reinvented the Apple brand based on UX, just as the customer experience that Airbnb and Uber offers has been fundamental to their success, ditto the online reincarnation of Shop Direct brands Very and Littlewoods. Agencies are staffing up with UX professionals, while the BBC has a team of around 120-strong spanning UX and design.

Despite its rise, UX continues to play second fiddle to the role of data, which is the louder voice in boardrooms in driving business decisions. What’s more, some argue the reliance on data-driven decisions at the expense of UX is detrimental to businesses in the long-term.

Daisoo Lee, interactive design director at branding agency StartJG, says: “From a client’s brief to a designer’s concept, it has been a common practice in the design industry to use hard data to make one’s case. Hard data is still what often measures the success of a project. But data-driven briefs can result in little or no effect on brand advocacy.”

Too much focus on data?

For businesses, the ideal is to have a hand-in-glove relationship between hard data and UX, helping cultivate branding and design decisions. Data wonks work on the hard data, such as usability tests, analytics, surveys and benchmarks while UX professionals focus on the woollier, but no less onerous, task of using data to help step into the shoes of the end user, developing an understanding and empathising with them. UX advocates claim that through empathy they can help design a product to the user’s explicit and implicit needs.

However, it is well documented that data often operates in silos within a company: analytics can be working with one set of data while UX works with another set – a problem which can be particularly acute in the creative industries which can foster a culture of individualism.

According to Jane Murison, head of user experience and design at the BBC, who helped design the iPlayer and the CBeebies interfaces, the key to bridging this gap is a more intelligent and collegiate approach.

Murison said: “UX is starting to pervade in all sorts of organisations. I am not sure that graphic design or marketing are necessarily too data focused. But it’s a question of how intelligent you are being about that data. Are you asking the right questions?”

Murison’s design research team works heavily in qualitative research, talking to individuals to gain inspiration for BBC product designs.

She adds: “If we didn’t triangulate that [qualitative research] with quantitative data, it wouldn’t be worth anything. There be might be other organisations that are coming at it from the opposite direction: they might not be triangulating their quantitative with enough qualitative data.”

Clearly, an inability to share data can have disastrous consequences, potentially ruining a customer experience.

“The poor experiences we have as customers are usually the result of business silos,” says Omar Bakhshi, head of UX at OgilivyOne. “This separation means that when a customer walks into a shop, the staff has no idea who they are; even though they have shopped there before and spent months researching the products online.”

It is not the only challenge facing the UX industry in its battle for supremacy with data: there is also an issue that the virtues of UX can be hard to explain, let alone sell to the finance director, inherently distrustful of anything which doesn’t produce a clear return on investment.

Jonathan Wall, group e-commerce director at Shop Direct, which last year spent £100,000 on an in-house UX lab, tells us that stakeholder distrust was a key challenge he faced.

“When they [stakeholders] come and watch people interact [with the lab] it is much easier to get buy-in,” he says, adding that positive results from the lab has meant the £100,000 expense has already paid off.

UX is on the charge

However, the tectonic plates appear to be shifting towards more of a focus on UX, with an increasing number of clients less reliant on hard data to drive business decisions. This is partly fuelled by the spectacular success of disrupters like Airbnb and Uber, two companies which have become bywords for customer focus and design quality which its legion of fans empathise with.

StartJG’s Lee, who has worked on UX projects for Adidas and Samsung, argues that designers like him prefer working on more rewarding customer-focused projects, rather than those led by hard data.

He said: “Brands can better understand the intentions and state of minds of customers by including qualitative research into the process. It allows brands to engage and connect with the customers from their point of view and not from the business.”

As consumers become ever more demanding and with the technology landscape changing so rapidly, UX advocates believe their expertise will become ever more important.

Bakhshi says: “UX will dictate how brands design and craft every interaction between them and their customers, including customers browsing their site on their mobiles, physically visiting a store or comment in the customer service received via Twitter.”

UX may be inextricably linked to engineering change in the digital world, but Murison believes that the industry is short-changing itself and that it can also be a stimulus for behavioural change beyond digital.

She says: “I think we [the BBC] have some advantages. Many of the people in our organisation have a lot more experience creating amazing UX which go beyond the digital world. We have expertise creating amazing UX if we only thought of it that way. I think the best TV programmes are fantastic user experiences; I think Doctor Who is an amazing user experience. I think the theatre and opera offer amazing user experiences.”

Ignore UX at your peril

Data and UX are likely to be key two pillars driving business decisions in the future, though divvying up the appropriate measure of each is likely to prove the tricky part. What appears less tricky is understanding that, in an increasingly brand agnostic world, companies ignoring UX could face a tough future.

“Customers will only be loyal to a brand that maintains a meaningful, interactive relationship with them,” says Lee. “Brands won’t be able to survive the competition without integrating UX in to their business.”

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