Sophie Jurkiewicz, Senior Creative, UK

For an increasing number of services, we no longer interact directly with people; we engage with an interface.

Knowing that brands represent the intellectual and emotional connections that people make with companies, their products and people, the facilitation of meaningful interactions can become more difficult when the face of an organisation is made of pixels.

For these tech-led organisations, the business strategy, design and customer experience need to form their DNA, to become a cohesive and deeply integrated whole.

Alongside small screens and even smaller attention spans have come increasingly demanding audiences, seeking instant gratification and convenience.

So how can these companies meet these expectations, express their brand, its values and personality and instil loyalty in their audience, all without a tangible human presence?

Know your user

Customers do not equal users. Yes, a customer and a user may be one and the same in a given moment. However, while customer needs and – of course – demographics will vary, users (i.e. people interacting with an interface) generally share common behaviours that should be accounted for throughout design.

Strong design requirements include functionality, reliability and usability; these will help to drive more compelling connections and they can be met more easily by knowing more about users:

– They’re busy. The goal of most users arriving on an interface is to get off it again, ASAP. If an interface is slow, intrusive or time-intensive, it’s dead in the water. Saving users mere seconds using targeting, clear task paths and curated content can create a correspondingly enduring positive brand perception.

– They’re smarter than you think. A lot of the time, people only need just enough detail to get by, so that’s what they learn. They may even use an interface in a way that it wasn’t intended. It doesn’t matter to the user and they will ignore digital handholding, as long as they get what they need. This is called ‘satisficing’, and it’s exactly what it sounds like (a portmanteau of the words “satisfy” and “sacrifice”). A clever interface behaves like a human, and humans j-walk, cut corners and often take a chance on the easy way round.

– They’re not reading, they’re doing. Generally, any number of things will compete for their attention in their daily lives. When focused on a task, say, a purchase, they cut out the noise. A clear and concise task flow is essential in an effective interface.

Powerful brands are busy channeling resources into customer connections so that they can better understand their lives and interactions, and thus their priorities. User understanding and personalisation can help to craft emotionally engaging experiences; if a brand makes a user’s life easier, they will keep coming back.

This is where an interface can offer brands the highest leg-up. These online behaviours tell a tale of consumer desire that is far more difficult to extract from a physical interaction. When surveyed, people tend to lie but their actions don’t. The ability to wield data in a way that is personal, delightful and helpful to users is a potent skill.

Keep it simple, keep it clear

Disregarding known user behaviours is both common and detrimental. So is poor design! The e-commerce relationship is, by its nature, hypertransactional; design plays an important intermediary role. If users don’t like an interface, or if it’s hard to use, they’ll go elsewhere.

The design of an interface and its alignment with an organisation’s brand expression is crucial for a brand’s authenticity. Every click, swipe, tap and transaction is an opportunity for a deep alignment to a brand’s heritage and ambitions, to the traits for which it is known. The application of the visual identity and tone of voice are essential, but it is these components embedded in an overall experience that should make sense for a user.

Amazon is one of the largest businesses to exist almost entirely as an interface. Its immense e-commerce volume is based on the expectation of its customers that it will be faster, easier and cheaper than other retailers. This is coupled with the stated intention of Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos, to make it the most customer-centric organisation in operation. With these defining factors accounted for within its strategy, design is both the binding agent and the face of the company. Though its web presence isn’t necessarily aesthetically pleasing, the customer experience on the platform is focused, intuitive and concise… or in other words, fast and easy! If the user journey on Amazon were slow, convoluted or confusing, it would be at complete odds with their speedy, consumer-centric brand positioning.

Be distinct, sort of

Users tend to be creatures of habit – they’re human, after all. They recognise patterns and these are useful in teaching them how to interact with an interface. Once they’ve bought a product on one e-tail website, they will understand how most others work. These experiences are deliberately similar because they help users form expectations and behaviours so that they can easily navigate a platform.

This capacity for recognising and using patterns can be flipped on its head, and used to the brand’s advantage where they want to draw attention. When users can see patterns, they easily see what breaks those patterns. This is the foundation for important elements requiring standout such as buttons that operate as a call to action – think “sign up”, “save to basket” or “check out”.

These breaks in patterns are the opportunity for a brand’s personality to manifest in an interface through visual design, copy and interactions. These engagement methods – a cheeky copy line, a surprise gift or a friendly greeting – exist to surprise and delight, and thus to differentiate. Importantly, they don’t provide information; they are a unique layer that never interferes with the functionality or usability of the interface.

These digital hallmarks or memorable interactions are a significant opportunity to garner user attention and loyalty, which can help drive an advantage over competitors.

Make it nice, make it yours

An aligned user experience does not necessarily (and indeed, should not) mean sacrificing a visual identity and its aesthetics. The fine art of interfaces lies in the ability to balance style, beauty and emotion with utility, efficiency and impact.

As the digital presence of brands grows, so does the risk of a universal user experience. While a user focus is crucial, it is not singular. A brand’s visual identity is a significant part of its equity. When logos become the only digital point of differentiation between competitors, those brands will suffer. Carefully crafted experiences may be lost on users who are operating in a streamlined, optimised abyss.

This shouldn’t mean an overwhelming branded experience for consumers. Function and best practice have their place in the user journey, but part of the role of a strong brand is identifying the best approach for the digital application of its identity without succumbing to ubiquity. This is both an art and a science and the holy grail is getting the balance between emotion and function just right.

Farfetch (fashion e-tail)

A brand we’ve been watching with interest at BrandCap is the fashion e-tailer Farfetch. As an online retailer, Farfetch transcends basic e-commerce and operates as a company that is revered as much for its platform as its proposition. Their success can be attributed to that important and seamless blend of strategy, design and user focus.

The Farfetch website is a reflection of the brand’s focus on the consumer and their user experience. The purchase path adheres to patterns that are used across other e-commerce platforms; it is also clear, concise and functional. At various points along the user journey there are opportunities to interact with the brand to ask questions or provide feedback, a feature that instills trust and confidence in the brand (we hear time and time again that building trust is one of the biggest challenges facing online retailers, especially those offering high ticket items). Additionally, the website uses animated GIFs to draw the eye and maximize the amount of content reaching users, a small twist that is not common amongst its competitors and which is a simple but elegant point of differentiation.

The visual identity of Farfetch as well as the general front-end and user experience across the website is restrained but also modern and current. This may be a deliberately flexible role; one that is perhaps partially due to the forward-facing approach of the brand’s founder and CEO Jose Neves whose thinking focuses on the question “how will people shop for luxury fashion in 5 to 10 years?” This dedication to agile adaptability is evident in the restrained execution of the website, though not to the detriment of brand engagement and delight – Farfetch pleases its large and loyal customer base with its speed, high quality service and thoughtful packaging. Indeed, despite its reputation for its powerful e-commerce infrastructure, Neves has made a point of stating “we very much see ourselves as a brand and not purely a platform.”

Further to this, in response to Neves’ focus on the future of luxury retail, Farfetch are deploying technical expertise and running retail experiments via their acquisition of the iconic London fashion store Browns. The creation of an entirely new business unit labeled ‘Store of the Future’ allows the team to try out new innovations in retail technology and omnichannel at Browns, before rolling these out across the FarFetch community of 300 boutiques. We’re excited to see what’s next!