Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Branding and Websites

It's easy to tell when a firm thinks of a website as a "necessary evil" or a "function" rather than an extension of the firm, and a representative of the brand. A great website lives the brand, is functional and user friendly and its information architecture reflects the intent of the user who is visiting the website.

When a large number of your most valuable customers visit your website, it becomes their secondary exposure to your brand (the primary being the product itself). It's very important that your brand is reflected correctly through your website, from visual presentation that is evocative of your products and/or packaging, to information architecture that gets your customers (and that your customers get). It's a very important part of your customers' connection with the company.

(Sorry, no screenshots, didn't want to run afoul of the Terms of Use, even though I'm pretty sure critique is covered under fair use)

The Good:
Apple: There are lots of things I admire about Apple, but their biggest accomplishment is that everything Apple does lives the brand. From creating a retail experience that's uniquely and recognizably Apple, to one of the most polished, functional, and brand-appropriate websites out there.

What's great about it? Here are a few things.
  • The design is very evocative of their products. From the brushed aluminium look that evokes the PowerBooks and MacOS X, to the rounded edges that Apple loves putting on everything. I could remove the products, and you'd still know it's Apple's website.
  • It's minimalist. They choose a very small number of messages to surface on the main page, and that's it. They resist the urge to make the website a link dump that contains a boatload of information that's irrelevant to most of the people visiting the site, but useful to a small minority.
  • It's pretty and friendly - basically what you'd think of when you think Apple. It lives the brand.
  • It's very functional, even with only 6 tabs and a search button. Again, classic Apple. It takes hard work to make something simple, and Apple loves simplicity.
While I like Apple's overall design better, the redesigned Microsoft corporate site is pretty good too. It's evocative of Vista, has clear navigation, and has only a few "loud" elements that catch your eye.

The Not-So-Good:
HP: HP's site design isn't terrible - I've seen much worse. However, it still illustrates a few common mistakes made by people who are actually serious about their website:
  • No clear brand association other than the logo (and possibly the blue color, although they also use orange and other colors when you hover, so - not really).
  • Visual overload. So many buttons and links and high-saturation graphics I don't know what to do next.
  • No clear information architecture. Information is broken down by product line (how the company thinks of their customers) rather than by user intent (how the user thinks of their products and what they want to do). When I visit a website, I'm not really interested in identifying myself as a "Home & Home Office" (vs "Small & Medium Business", "Large Enterprise", "Government, Health and Education" or "Graphic Arts"). That's how you think of your customers, but it doesn't reflect what your customers want to do. So, the top level navigation on the website reflects the company's information architecture, not the customer's. HP isn't alone in doing this - it's an antipattern that's quite prevalent. Until very recently, Dell did this too (they still have links for different "customer types", but they've de-emphasized it, and it's not the prominent website feature).

Do you have other examples that illustrate great and not-so-great brand experiences reflected on company websites?

(Slightly offtopic: A last word on simplicity/complexity - the engineering/design tradeoff. An engineer loves to build a feature-packed product with knobs and gizmos that do a million different things. Engineers also love command-line interfaces. Users, on the other hand, don't see complexity as a good thing. A simple tool that helps them get stuff done is way preferable to a complex tool that looks like it can do a million things, but they have to read the Encyclopedia Brittanica before they can begin to use it. It's terrible when you have a sneaking suspicion that you could actually get something done once you learn the interface, but the task of doing so seems daunting, and makes you feel like an idiot.

Some engineers, on the other hand, thrive on complexity - that's part of what makes them so good at their jobs. Most of us don't though, and it's a good bet that your users don't want to "learn" your website, they just want to find what they're looking for quickly and easily. That's why designers and information architects are invaluable. A good information/interaction architect will work with a design team to lay out your website with detailed user input. That allows the engineers to do what they do best - take the inherent complexity and build something simple that your users love).

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