If every interface looked the same

James Reeve defines experience design identity and not just the brand.

It’s important to define the Experience Design Identity (XDI) and not just “the brand.”

In a bootstrap world, we need to work hard to craft more unique, not generic, experiences. This is because it has become very easy to create well laid out designs, that align to a baseline grid, with a solid type hierarchy and responsive layouts due to the plethora of frameworks that can be used.

I am not opposing frameworks such as bootstrap, but rather the all too frequent and frankly lazy approach to design and development that is leading to the creation of generic and soulless designs.

Creative expression in design is needed to push and develop new ideas and interactions. If an interface is usable but lacks personality, how will it:

The experience is the brand

We must remember that now that people’s UX maturity has increased and that individuals also have an increased appreciation for the design aesthetic, we will no longer accept a brand dictating to us what we should feel.

The brand has become the experience and the experience needs to work well and be usable. But, more importantly, it needs to convey the key traits of what it’s like to interact with or consume the product or service both pre-and post-purchase. Brands are a collection of experiences, touchpoints and emotions evoked through the interactions with each.

This is why we must think about defining the Experience Design Identity (XDI) rather than guidelines that document subjective and arbitrary rules, which have failed to consider the whole of the brand's world and its many touchpoints.

The dilemma for experience designers is the battle between Usable (Conventional) vs. Bespoke (Personality) brand identities

Using common “conventions” or “best practice” is a good place to start but this can mean that we create generic interface designs. Over-saturating the web with these interfaces would make it a very boring place whilst removing any uniqueness or original expression of brand identity.

Ask yourself, “if I was to strip back the content, could you still tell which brand it is”? If the answer is no, then you have a problem. You have removed all visual references to the brand and what sets it apart.

Congratulations, you have made another generic, conventional and boring interface. Of course, it might “work” but will it work long term if it offers a diminished brand experience?

But be careful, sometimes using “the brand” without thinking about the execution can hinder the experience you deliver.

The arrogance of brand

How much influence should a brand have over the experience?

Consider forcing a logo to have an x-height padding - this makes sense for a print ad but for a user interface where space can be at a premium, is it really needed?

If the core brand colour is red, is making a positive interface action red and the subsequent perception as a negative action, a good idea?

Forcing brand colours into spaces and mediums in which they don’t have a place is counter-intuitive.

Choosing the right typography is also key to ensure legibility and guard against instances where decorative fonts which work in print but fail on digital creep in.

Those who create logos/iconography often do not consider scale when defining them for digital. The iconic Saul Bass Pitch in the Bell Systems video demonstrates such things as this and much more in this outstanding branding masterclass.

Many “rules” defined in brand guidelines are arbitrary and have been created subjectively or independently from the medium in which they will be used.

Branding that is defined in isolation of the medium which frames the experience is simply not fit for purpose. We need to be careful that predefined brand elements don’t hinder or jeopardise the overall experience.

Brands should be looking beyond aesthetics and arbitrary guidelines. As designers, we should be focussed on defining design systems which are consistent with the product first and then derive the evidenced guidelines for other more traditional channels such as print.

The bottom line is: designing for digital is harder and requires deeper consideration.

Why is it hard?

Take an A4 print ad for example. It does not have to fit in other size containers, it does not need to be responsive, you cannot interact with it, it doesn’t even need to be accessibility compliant. Established and prescriptive mediums such as print simply do not need to consider the same number of factors as we do when defining brands for digital.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love beautifully crafted guidelines/style guides and I relish getting my hands on any to read and obsess over, my personal favourite being The British Rail Corporate Identity Manual.

Unfortunately, I am frequently left disappointed when receiving guidelines from clients that are in the most part not fit for purpose especially when they put the definition as such things as business cards ahead of digital!

This is why experience design agencies are best placed to define brands to make sure they truly resonate with audiences by involving them in the process. We avoid the imposition of rigid brand guidelines designed for improper mediums in favour of customer led brand insight. This helps us to bring brands to digital.

The Experience Design Identity (XDI)

Brands are totalities of the experiences that people have with them. This means that relying on a hero image with beautiful typography that encompasses the tone of voice, with suitable accompanying imagery that aligns to the brand values is not enough!

The experience of a brand is defined by all of the possible touchpoints both pre-and post-purchase/subscription/interaction. Often, the experience can be let down when one of the touchpoints does not present itself in the desired manner.

The digital experience provides the ideal platform to stress test, flesh out and define a design language that can be utilised elsewhere. And with this definition, it is now more important than ever to distinguish the experience of a brand opposed to the brand itself. Digital is the ideal medium to facilitate this approach and to allow for XDIs to replace brand guidelines.

This is my cry out to all designers out there to not settle for run of the mill, conventional, design. We need to push and establish new ways of bringing personality and uniqueness to any product or service by ensuring we consider and document in the form of the Experience Design Identity (XDI).

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