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Brand frameworks and tools for experience design

Chris Dickman Fri, 10/11/2013 - 09:55

Excerpted from Experience Design: A Framework for Integrating Brand, Experience, and Value (Wiley)

By Patrick Newbery, Kevin Farnham

A brand is a living entity—and it is
enriched or undermined
cumulatively over time, the
product of a thousand small gestures.

—Michael Eisner


We believe that bringing a business’s Brand to life through the products, services, and experiences customers have with the business is an important component of experience design and actually differentiates it from other user-centered design methodologies. One of the biggest challenges that both business and design face, however, is that a Brand is seldom defined with a real eye toward the actual experiences customers will have related to value. Brands have traditionally been developed with the goal of expression and have focused on developing a distinctive identity and communicating meaning through visuals and words. Another challenge is that Brand tends to be managed within a marketing function of a business and the emphasis is on visual consistency applied to tactical messaging based on specific business goals (building awareness, driving lead generation and demand, fueling sales, etc.).

There are two very common circumstances that we have seen when business and design come together at a strategic level around Brand. The first is when a start-up has an executive who tasks his or her design agency to help develop a world-class Brand before there is any substantive product, service, or customer base. We understand that executives want a high-quality Brand identity system, but it begins to position the Brand as just that—the visuals—and it does not address the experience component that makes the Brand real.

A second common circumstance is when a new person is brought in to run the marketing function of an existing business, and that person has a strategic objective to breathe new life or meaning into the Brand. Although it’s natural for one to want to have an impact through one’s position, it’s important to understand what the current position of the Brand is and what really can and should be done to reflect changes in value for the customer. The risk is that the only real change that gets made is a new visual identity for the Brand, while the value (products, services, and customer experience) hasn’t really changed.

We believe that too often Brand is equated with Branding. The problem is that the efforts involved in defining a visual and verbal refresh of a Brand don’t necessarily address the Brand’s role in defining real value or experience. For the purpose of experience design, we would like to propose several frameworks to help unlock the Brand for use across all areas of the interface between business and customer. We aren’t going to go into the basics of Brand, because the topic is already well covered in other books. But if you are looking for a solid foundation, we suggest reading Strategic Brand Management by Kevin Lane Keller and Building Strong Brands by David Aaker.

Brand Basics for Experience Design

For experience design, we are primarily interested in two things:

Brand concept or essence: There are several different names used, but the basic premise is that there is some underlying idea that is important to the business and to the customer that relates to the kind of value the business creates and how it relates to customer needs and perceptions. Regardless of what it’s called, it’s an important aspect for any Brand, but it’s also essential for taking an experience design–centric approach because this should function as a guide for developing value.

Brand attributes: These are qualities that help characterize the Brand as it’s expressed through touch points between the business and customers. They should also be applied to the qualities of interaction that anyone (including employees and partners) has with the Brand.

There are different approaches to developing Brand attributes, but the key point in relation to Brand experience is that a Brand relies on multiple attributes but not all attributes get equally used in bringing the Brand to life through customer experiences around value. This is because of the nature of words and how words function when used in a descriptive or prescriptive way.

For our purposes, Brand concept and Brand attributes provide a firm foundation for building and differentiating experiences that engage customers around value. As we discussed in the previous chapter, the why of value for a customer and the how of value delivery are questions that must always be answered when business and design are collaborating. To put it simply, the Brand concept informs the why, and Brand attributes inform the how. Concept and attributes can also reinforce each other, but we suggest starting with the basic relationship first. Part of getting this right is to check the integrity of the Brand concept and attributes to ensure they’re going to be useful and don’t need further development.

Brand Concept Frameworks

We use two frameworks to ensure that the Brand concept and attributes have been thought through and can function as a solid foundation for use in experience design. These frameworks preexist our concept of experience design, but we frequently use them because they help us guide the Brand conversation in useful and meaningful ways.

The first framework is the Ansoff Growth Matrix. This particular matrix is often used in developing corporate strategy because it helps develop different areas of focus that have specific tactical implications for a company. The illustration below shows a version of this matrix, and when used in strategy, the quadrants are usually labeled, starting in the upper left and moving clockwise, as market penetration, product development, diversification, and market development.

We suggest also using this matrix to review the Brand concept. (You can even apply and use the quadrant labels, if desired.) This will help you understand whether the Brand concept remains relevant and can be used in all the quadrants, assuming that each quadrant represents a specific scenario of how a company and customer set would be interacting given specific business goals and market environments that the business is likely to encounter. For example, if you are developing a Brand concept, assume that you will be starting out in the upper left quadrant. Now choose the next likely quadrant that you see your business plan leading you to and develop scenarios for what you plan to do to reach that goal, trying to describe what would be different from your current offering. You can then look at your Brand concept and ask if it seems to comfortably include the new requirements, in addition to the existing focus.

It’s not important that you are planning to make the kind of moves your scenario implies immediately, but it is a good way to ensure that you have a Brand concept that is extensible. If it is, then it can be consistently used as a touchstone for evaluating the value you produce for customers and why they should care. If, however, it seems as if some highly probable scenarios will push the Brand concept to the breaking point, you should consider rethinking your Brand architecture (a framework we are about to present) so that future evolution does not come at the expense of the initial success you are creating.

The second Brand framework is a standard Brand architecture and value positioning matrix, as shown in the illustration below. Brand architecture refers to the relation-ship between Brands that a company owns and uses. The vertical axis of the matrix is a spectrum between two common approaches that businesses take—Branded house versus house of Brands (we believe this spectrum was first coined by David Aaker and Erich Joachimsthaler).

Each side of this spectrum has its own pros and cons depending on your business, industry, customer base, and so on, but our main point is that for your Brand concept to be an effective input for experience design, you need to determine how well it supports the kind of business and activities you intend to pursue. Failing to do this creates internal and external confusion and can become incredibly complex to manage and design for correctly. If you wind up with more than one Brand, it will be difficult to have them mean the same thing, and if you simply create Brands for different purposes, they won’t necessarily have different experiences unless you can provide guidance for what is different about them.

Think about it like this: Through how many Brands will you represent your business activities and have the market (all potential consumers, not just customers) see and experience your actions? It is important to understand whether or not everything is going to be covered with one Brand or with several Brands. If it’s the latter, you should be defining how these Brands are related, if at all, at a Brand concept level.
The horizontal axis of this framework speaks a bit more to the qualities the market should perceive when customers are experiencing the value the Brand delivers.

In some ways this can be seen as either a roll-up of the Brand attributes or an important criterion for developing and prioritizing attributes. If you find that it makes the most sense for your Brand to be more Branded house or single Brand concept dominant, then you should decide which side of the overall value perception works best for the Brand concept. The more pragmatic and tangible the overall appeal of the Brand, the more limited the kind of value it can provide, as it always needs to reinforce the pragmatic and tangible aspects of the value. The more idealist and aspirational the appeal of the Brand, the more important it is to make sure that customers agree that the pragmatic and tangible value you provide leads to the idealistic and aspirational value they seek. It’s much easier to prove a tangible, but having someone agree and believe in intangibles can be more powerful at driving certain kinds of behavior.

If you are a house of Brands, then each member Brand should have a clear intended value perception. Whether or not the member Brands’ value perceptions relate to one another depends on whether or not a given customer is likely to buy more than one and how the value delivered from each relates to the others. It’s not imperative that they relate in any way.

You can start with either of these frameworks and check how your thinking plays out across the other, but the main thing to do is consider your Brand through both of them to make sure that you have a clear understanding of the Brand concept and how singular or componentized across Brands it needs to be. Without a clear understanding, you will have difficulty talking about your Brand and how you will use it to create and deliver value.

These ways of looking at Brand concept are really just preparatory steps for using Brand to build value and engage customers. What’s even more important than thinking about how your Brand concept maps to your business goals is making sure that you can connect the Brand concept to value for customers. This is where many conventional approaches to Brand stop short. The downstream flow of intent from business to customer and the corresponding upstream flow of meaning from customer to business is the key area in which Brand concept needs to be considered. Why? Because this is what customers really care about, and if you do this right, we believe you can build a differentiated Brand.

Brand Concept to Real Value

Over the years, we’ve worked with many different clients and tried to help them understand the Brand-value connection. In our work with Nokia, specifically with Brian Kralyevich, we developed a framework for just this purpose. Kralyevich had worked in the design services field during the late 1990s in San Francisco and then had become a client of ours when he was at Microsoft, where he was involved with Windows, Zune, and Xbox. When he was at Nokia, he was helping the product company begin to focus on designing services. As we worked with his group, he related the concept of Red Threads—design principles—that they used in his teams at Microsoft. The idea was that a universal design principle could be something that teams could use as a guide and an objective in various design efforts and that,
if effectively achieved, could unify the experience for end users. We proposed taking this idea a step further using a similar approach—but instead of design principles, we suggested translating the Brand concept into a set of Brand value pillars that are value proposition categories or themes that would inform service development. This would help designers approach developing new services in a way that ensured that the experiences people had with the services reinforced the Brand’s position and meaning.

The concept rests on three simple levels. The illustration below shows how these levels work. The first is the Brand concept, which can be taken as is or, using the processes outlined earlier, refined to align against emerging opportunities or changes in the business. The next level is the Brand value pillars. These are categories that define the types of value propositions that relate to the Brand concept but generally describe how a customer gets value at a high level. It’s essentially describing a class of products or services that would take the idea embodied in the Brand concept and turn it into real value for people. A Brand concept can have multiple Brand value pillars, but each should be fairly distinct from the others and it should be clear why they are different.

The next level would be made up of specific ways of bringing this value to reality and to customers, either through features, entire products, or services. Each Brand value pillar could have multiple examples of real value. The only requirement is that each example must articulate true benefits through value (either tangible, intangible, or aspirational) and through outcomes that would make a difference for customers (ways of thinking, emotions, or actions).

The purpose of such an approach is twofold. The first is it moves the discussion away from high-level Brand concepts that no one can really disagree with as being good but that no one really uses in decision making on a strategic or tactical level. The second is to build a mechanism for exploring decisions around the development, design, and delivery of value through products and services that can be used to ensure that the outcomes support the Brand and aren’t random or driven by shortsighted efficiency needs. It also helps business and design move away from simply evaluating design outcomes based on appearance and allows them to examine how effective an approach is at delivering Brand value.

The Brand concept, a singular idea, can rest on multiple Brand value pillars, and each of these can be made real in multiple ways. Think of it this way—many people develop a spiritual or religious affiliation. A Brand concept is analogous to the basic underlying belief of a spiritual belief or religion. All religions have tenets or principles that people who believe agree to follow and use to guide their actions; Brand value pillars are the analogy of these tenets. The features, products, and services are roughly equivalent to the practices, acts, and deeds one does in compliance with these tenets to bring the spiritual or religious belief into daily living. We aren’t trying to equate Brands with religions; we are just using the example to make a point (although business leaders might enjoy the thought of Brand tithing). Making Brand actionable through concepts such as Brand value pillars (or whatever you would like to call them) provides some very useful benefits. It creates a framework of multiple value-based criteria that can be used to inform product and service development and help guide and prioritize how value is made real for customers. It also allows for the weaving of different variations of Brand concept–related value to be used within a product or service, helping diversify and differentiate product and service offerings. But perhaps one of the most interesting aspects of this framework is that it also allows the Brand concept to be reinterpreted into different kinds of value as changes in the business environment arise. It can function as a Brand’s DNA for future evolution and can become a way to investigate new areas in which sustaining, down-market and disruptive innovation can be researched and developed.

We hope that readers are able to see how something such as the Brand value pillars tool can be used to inform the why of a project. In conjunction with the Brand concept, it can be used to help ideate features and opportunities and to prioritize requirements in a way that differentiates a product or service from those of competitors. What we think is so powerful about this is that it’s not placing any “design” stakes in the ground but is focused on what is valuable to the customer. In this way it helps bring the Brand out of the visual guideline police role and gives it an active role in delivering value. That having been said, there’s one other framework that should be used with it—one that helps bring the Brand to life by answering how.

Brand Attribute Framework

Brand attributes are qualities that help differentiate Brands and that are often used as criteria for developing and evaluating design outcomes used in the expression of Brands. Often, Brand attributes are listed in Brand guidelines, usually with some context as to why they are important for the Brand, but that’s it. They rarely get used on an ongoing basis.

While working at another studio many years ago, we were involved in a project that was intended to develop the Brand and user interface for a software product that would provide an innovative way for venture capitalists to collaborate while evaluating prospective investment opportunities. The project director led the client team and the design team on a thoroughly engaging process of developing different approaches to what the personality of the Brand might be. It culminated with a work session in which four personas were revealed, each being a potential representative of what the brand character was like. Each one was based on a real or fictional character that the collective teams had discussed and decided were relevant. In addition to bringing the personas to life visually, there were additional terms—attributes—about the Brand and product that had come out of discussions in the preceding weeks. These terms had been grouped to enhance specific personas, and the discussion was lively as everyone talked about their favorite persona and why they liked it.

When it was time to choose the right persona for the Brand, it was a relatively simple process; two stood out as the most appropriate, but one was perhaps too conservative for the company and its innovative product. A winner was chosen. The chief executive officer of the company said to our project lead, “Boy, this was fun! Also seems like it took a lot of time to do all this. So how does this inform our Brand and our product interface?”

That’s where things came to a stop. The project director had done a great job of teasing out relevant attributes in a way that was entertaining and creative, but they didn’t have an effective strategy for how to use the attributes. We say “effective strategy” since the project director had assumed that it would be self-evident how to apply the attributes to the Brand. But there were two problems: (1) Some of the attributes seemed to challenge each other, and it was unclear how we would prioritize them for the Brand; and (2) it was unclear how the attributes would inform the user interface of the product.

This is when the next framework was born. We realized that not all attributes are created equally. Many of the attributes were semantically or conceptually related, and one could categorize them into meta-attributes that contained or relied on individual attributes. Not all attributes could or should be applied equally. For instance, it’s a lot easier to visualize “modern” or “friendly” than it is “innovative” or “efficient.” We also realized that things such as “efficient” and “smooth” might be more powerful when applied to behaviors (transitions, or the way a tool works) than simply conveyed through colors, shapes, or font choices.

The illustration below shows the Brand attribute framework. The purpose of this framework is to help identify what the purpose of an attribute really is and to help make it more effective as a criterion for developing and evaluating experiences customers have with a Brand. Although this can be used during the development of a Brand, it can also be used with existing attributes or to help establish attributes that speak to certain areas of experience that may not have originally been considered when the Brand was developed.

There are several steps to using this framework, but the first is to simply group the attributes into categories of similarity or relatedness (for instance, “integrity” might include terms like credible, trustworthy, and reliable). The purpose of this is to reduce the number of main attributes to a manageable number; we usually suggest three to five meta-attributes.

The next step is to list the attributes hierarchically and then add a brief description of how the words should be interpreted. These descriptions can be enriched through examples—references, photos, or other elements—that help to clarify the descriptions. This can be important, because what modern means to one person may differ from another’s vision of it. Or in some cases, a reference to a sound, an object, or the way something moves or feels will be the best description. The goal is to bring the attribute to life in a way that makes the most sense for those who chose it as being relevant for the Brand.

Then, based on the literal and added meaning of the word, look at the overall experience matrix and decide where the attribute can most effectively be used. It’s not important that each attribute work in every experience “cell,” and it would be surprising if many did. What’s important is to be clear about how an attribute should be considered, based on the areas of the experience to which it applies. The degree of detail in defining the experience cells can vary, but we have presented what we believe are important basics. It’s also important to consider how the Brand personality will be positioned and what kinds of products, services, and touch points will be experienced by customers. You don’t need to populate experience cells that will have no relevance to the customer’s experience of the Brand. Conversely, you want to make sure you identify and describe ones that will be very important.

Note that you may map your Brand this way and realize that there are a lot of areas of experience for which you have no attributes to apply. This is exactly the problem with many current approaches to Branding—they happen in a bit of a vacuum and don’t really anticipate what the Brand is going to need to accomplish. It’s also to see how easy it is to not apply the Brand, beyond application of a logo and color to product and service experiences, especially if no one has thought about how the Brand should be brought to life. It’s possible to update this kind of matrix based on design outcomes that happen to be successful and seem to embody the Brand, even though it was largely the result of an inspired creative team and not necessarily based on inputs to the design process. Ideally, this kind of attribute matrix would become an additional section of the Brand guidelines.

We will close this with one last point, and that is to illustrate how the Brand value pillars and Brand attributes matrix can be used in concert to help guide a product or service development effort. Our purpose here is simply to show how focusing on the Brand can bring a more Brand-centric approach to answering the why and how when business and design collaborate.

The illustration below shows how Brand attributes are used to help determine how a given Brand value pillar is used to create value in a way that reinforces the qualities of the experience a customer has in perceiving value delivered by the Brand. As business and design explore the actual processes and stages of engagement at a touch point, decisions about the actual techniques used can be evaluated against which attributes enhance the value and communicate the unique character of the Brand.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of using the Brand beyond the surface of experiences is realizing that Brand value pillars and attributes should be applied to the entire customer journey, not just to products and services, as a means to identify levels of engagement before, during, and after the customer has bought from the business. The categories of value embodied in the Brand value pillars can act as a foundation for developing a range of initiatives that deliver value and give customers a reason to interact with the Brand.

Excerpted with permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Experience Design: A Framework for Integrating Brand, Experience, and Value by Patrick Newbery and Kevin Farnham. Copyright (c) 2013 by Patrick Newbery, Kevin Farnham, and Method, Inc. All rights reserved. This book is available at all bookstores and online booksellers.

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