A few months ago, a friend was planning to catch a plane to visit London. We were on the phone, discussing her arrival as she tried to check-in online.
“The airline redesigned its website, it’s beautiful, but I can’t find where to do the check-in online”, she complained.
Flat design, nice typography, gorgeous pictures, interesting offers to travel to faraway places… but the call to action to check in was buried at the bottom of the page.
The company had obviously put a lot of thought into the visuals of their website, but because she couldn’t find the information she needed we both ended up with a negative brand impression.
Image 1: Items used during the check in process.
A logo doesn’t make a brand
The success of a brand is not about creating an association between a logo and a company: it’s about creating a positive emotional association with it.
Apple doesn’t want customers to think of a smartphone or a computer when they see their logo. They want them to think of modernity, coolness, success or other pleasant characteristics. As Kate Williamson from Norman Nielsen explains, it's true that both the visuals and the tone of the messages employed by a company play a role in creating a positive perception of a brand.
However, ultimately it’s the experience provided by a company which will shape the emotional reaction of customers and what they think about the brand.
In an increasingly digital world, this relies heavily on the online experience and how it seamlessly integrates with the offline experience.
Conducting research to get customers’ needs right
The key to creating good user experiences across different channels is uncovering and understanding the needs of customers. For instance, checking in online was an essential task for my friend (and so it is for those thousands of travellers who only take hand luggage and want to avoid queues). Therefore, it should be easy to locate where to do it in the website.
Many airlines feature a check-in option on the top navigation, as that is a key task for customers.
Image 2: Easyjet top navigation illustrating an easy to use check-in option.
As part of their efforts to improve online experiences, companies often put excessive focus on usability testing, but user research is about much more than creating a usable product. Although removing barriers is important, successful websites are aligned with user needs.
An airline website could include a very well designed and tested feature to buy travel books, but it is unlikely that many customers will actually use it. Users will not engage with features that do not address their needs, regardless of how well these perform in usability testing. Testing tells you what someone can do, not what they will do.
Robust user research also provides insights into customers’ attitudes and their context of use. Continuing with the airline example, there is often a limited time frame to check in online. The failure to do so could result in having to queue on the day of the journey, something that people prefer to avoid.
If designers bear this in mind, they can design an experience that overcomes this issue – perhaps by texting a reminder to check-in ahead of time with an embedded link to click to complete the process.
The user experience is not the website
A company with a great website -designed with users’ needs in mind and without usability issues- can still provide a negative brand impression. Brand experience goes beyond digital, even for those businesses that conduct most of their activities online.
Don Norman defines user experience as “everything that touches upon the experience with the product”, which can range from how it’s packaged to how problems are handled. What happens when a customer’s suitcase is lost, or when their smartphone –which contains the boarding pass- dies before arriving at the gate?
A great online experience will impact customers’ expectations: they will be disappointed if the offline interactions do not hold up to the same standards, and vice-versa.
Buying a plane ticket, checking in and arriving at the desired destination may feel quite straightforward to customers, but a lot goes into turning the process into a good brand experience.
Knowing about their expectations and context, offering them the solution they require, ensuring their interactions with the company are satisfactory and consistent across online and offline channels and aligning the visuals and tone of the messages with the company values is hard work but the benefits are clear with design led companies leading the markets.
Developing a design led business is not easy but conducting research to get customers’ needs right is a very good place to start.