Brand Is in the Details
Seemingly insignificant site design elements can torpedo a brand message. Jack Aaronson tells you how to stay vigilant.
A reader sent me an e-mail that read, "Pop-up ads... as soon as one pops up I leave the site." This got me thinking about how a brand is affected by Web interface elements that are (seemingly) unrelated to the brand. This column isn't another soapbox about pop-ups (that ship sailed long ago). It's about brand-detracting Web site elements outside the "core" branding of most companies.
We'll start with pop-ups, but not pop-up ads. Sites use pop-ups for different reasons. Some use them as confirmation tools ("Are you sure you wish to delete? OK/Cancel"). Others use them to display shopping cart contents. Still others use them in "wizard" fashion, to usher the user through a discreet process, such as creating an account or configuring a product.
Although all are legitimate pop-up use (they mirror the dialogue box in most operating systems), they're brand-detracting because of a collective hatred of pop-up ads and spam. One company I'm currently working with has an entire credit card sign-up area within a pop-up. Pop-ups don't inspire confidence. They don't "feel" secure (even if they use SSL encryption). Never use a pop-up when security is a concern.
Another brand-detracting interface choice is a variant on the pop-up: the system message box (an actual message box from the operating system). CitiBank uses a message box to announce you've been idle too long. Other sites use yes/no message boxes to confirm decisions, much the way a pop-up box is used. The difference is instead of a smaller browser window being displayed (in the case of a pop-up), these message boxes appear to come from the system, not the site. I don't know about your experience, but the only time Windows generates a message box like that for me is when there's a catastrophic error. In addition, Windows tends to generate an "error" sound when one of these boxes appears. This frightens users in much the same way hearing a police siren while driving does. There are negative aural and visual associations with Windows's error sounds and small OK/cancel message boxes. You don't want your brand associated with them.
Sound on Web sites is a brand-detracting "extra." I'll get a ton of e-mail disagreeing, but in my opinion overuse of sound makes a site seem amateurish. People who just read a book promising you can "Learn HTML in Five Hours" love to use sound. This includes MIDI background files, mouse-over and button click sounds, and MP3 backgrounds. Maybe in a Flash presentation it works, but not on your average HTML page.
Aside from my personal feeling these sites "feel" amateurish, there's a practical reason to shun sound. If you appeal to business people or to the majority of Internet users who access the Web from work, there's a good chance you're catching them in their cubical. People don't want to suddenly blare sound through their work areas. If suddenly bombarded with unexpected sound, they'll associate your brand with unwelcome surprises.
Your site's production quality is a major brand enhancer. My latest peeve is sites still using animated GIFs instead of Flash. For something simple, by all means use animated GIFs. But if you need to get across a complicated, multi-image message that takes several seconds to play out and has moving components, use Flash. You can make the motion smooth and pleasing to the eye, not choppy and incongruous. People notice a poorly executed marketing campaign and disregard the animation's content. A well-programmed Flash file can be much smaller than an animated GIF version of the same campaign while enhancing your brand image.
The last item in my tirade against details that damage a brand is consistency. If you use "OK" and "cancel" buttons, make sure they're in the same order. On several major sites, you really need to look and see which button is the correct one to choose.
CitiBusiness is a prime example. A new (and terrible) report generator allows you to generate a report (as the name would imply) by selecting several different criterion in a fairly complicated form. At the bottom of the page, there are two options: "reset options" and "generate report" -- in that order. Because I'm used to "OK" coming before "cancel," my instinct is always to press the first button, which resets the form. It seems strange to press the right-hand button. That's because I'm a Windows user. Mac users wouldn't find it strange, because Mac has always been to put "cancel" before "OK." I suppose a Mac designer designed that page. The solution is to simply get rid of the "reset selections" button. No one will ever use it anyway, and it's confusing.
I often talk about how a brand is carried through all customer-facing employees, such as call center staff and the sales force. Another customer-facing entity is your Web site. The interaction you have with your customers on your site is dictated in large part by graphic designers and interactive architects. Unfortunately, they're usually not indoctrinated into understanding your brand messaging and don't realize little design decisions greatly affect how a brand comes across online.
Look at the details. You'll discover weak links that don't support your brand that you never imagined. Brand is beyond marketing e-mail, brand messaging, or expensive mass-marketing campaigns. It's in ebb and flow of how a site interacts with users. Spend as much time perfecting that interaction as you do perfecting your human-based customer interactions. That's how to achieve a successful online transition for your brand.
Do you agree or disagree? Let me know!
Until next time...