The Key To A Unified Brand: A Consistent UI

Whether it’s an iPad app or a website, each part of a digital ecosystem should speak a similar language. That entails a fundamental organizational shift, argues EffectiveUI’s Peyton Lindley.

I recently went online to pay a credit card bill with a well-known financial institution. Upon logging in, I was presented with a promotional advertisement for the company’s iPad application. As a designer, I was naturally curious as to how the app differed from the Web experience, assuming it might just surpass my expectations. And why not? The iPad presents a blank slate on which many organizations can create a unique experience free from legacy constraints inherent in a long-standing Web application. With this in mind, I quickly abandoned my bill-paying task to download the application on the iPad. A few minutes later, I was happily logged in and navigating the iPad application.

The interface was slick. But there was one major issue: I couldn’t do what I originally set out to do—I couldn’t pay my bill. Not only that, but the iPad app had a completely different look and feel from the Web application. Ultimately, it was a confusing and disappointing experience and convinced me to stick with the bank’s old-school Web interface for the foreseeable future.

How does this happen? My hunch is that this design fail was the result of designing in a vacuum. This generally happens in one of two ways:

  1. "Expert" design: When the design of a product (or service) is considered without understanding the needs of those who will be using it. While there are cases where expert design may be appropriate, it’s also quite risky. Without user insight and feedback, you have little way of knowing whether your new product will resonate with its intended audience, yet it happens all the time.
  2. Siloed design: When the design of a product (or service) occurs without a truly cross-functional and collaborative team effort—that is, when design happens in its own functional silo within an organization. Not surprisingly, the finished product doesn’t necessarily mirror what the designer had intended.

At EffectiveUI, we see examples of this all the time. Aside from the fact that large organizations struggle to understand their customers’ needs as they relate to a changing digital ecosystem, these organizations also create (or inherit) false internal structures that prevent great design work from happening in the first place. It’s all too common to see an organization where the Web team is a completely distinct unit from the mobile team.

Here’s the problem: The end user doesn’t care how your company is structured. Customers view brands as a unified entity, and they expect that brand’s value to be delivered across all channels with an equal degree of integrity. The good news is that the digital landscape is forcing all of us to re-think how we work. The bad news is that we’re trying to crawl out of a work style that was better designed for Ford’s assembly line than for digital ecosystem consistency.

Personally, I’m excited. While there’s certainly a ton of disruption (and serious failure) happening across many industries that long thought they were invincible, there are some incredibly bright spots across the businesses that are reconsidering a new way of working so that design’s true values can be brought forward. In a world full of sameness, design can act as a key differentiator. Organizations that never had a design department are now hiring designers at a rapid clip. That said, there’s a ton of work to be done. Adding designers to your staff won’t make much of a difference if the organization can’t understand its customer needs or create a brand-consistent digital ecosystem that serves those needs.

We’re trying to crawl out of a work style designed for assembly lines.

So, how do we move forward? At a fundamental level, we need to resist the way we’ve been taught work happens: Departmental and functional silos are working models of a past era. Obviously, some of the issues addressed here occur at a very deep organizational level. While outside consultants have been brought into large organizations for years to diagnose certain organizational challenges, I believe that designers are in a prime position to observe, interpret, and model back a different way of working.

If we can agree that consumers see a brand as having one "voice," I’d argue that the internal organization’s infrastructure should be set up to reflect that singular voice: No more Web team, separate from the mobile team, separate from the development team. The unifying principles that guide these teams should center around what customers actually need, not what new technologies we want to throw at them. These needs exist regardless of platform, and they act as a sounding board in conjunction with the core business objectives.

Telling designers to "create organizational change" is like saying "we put our customers first." Both things are easier said than done. What I’m advocating is simply changing the conversation at a grassroots level by modeling different behaviors.

Your challenge? Re-think the way you’ve been working. Break your old habits. For example, rather than generating a 50-slide PowerPoint to sell your new digital concept, facilitate a conversation with your team in a workshop. Rather than presenting a fully baked concept, sketch something out for early feedback. Present a prototype for user feedback instead of launching a fully functional application. Get out of the design vacuum, bring other perspectives to the table, and ideally, get others to reconsider how they’ve been working to date.

Generating space for design is challenging amidst the general pace of business, but with the right mindset, dedicated team members, proper cross-functional collaboration, and a clear focus on the voice of the customer, digital products and services can be conceived with a fresh perspective.

[Images: echo3005 and ChipPix via Shutterstock]

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  • Elizabeth Arnold

    Great article, Peyton.  

    I'm curious if you've thought about this from the citizen regarding the government.  The federal government has a disjointed brand driven by many different agencies.  Is the problem the design or the products? 

  • lukasz lysakowski

    Peyton, thank you for stating  "The end user doesn’t care how your company is structured", it's an important fact that I often highlight.

    I also agree that users expect an unified brand across all channels.  But at this point, Ibelieve you might be arguing for a brand owner, an individual or team who guides the brand story through a diverse range of touchpoints.

    The interface design of the brand story should be unique to each medium, such as iPad, iPhone, browser, and direct marketing but the core story / connection should be consistent. Since all these channels require specialized skills they quickly become sioled into functional teams. As a result it's key to have a brand owner to oversee and guide all individuals across their products to create a consistent brand.

  • nobody22

    Preach on, breathless visionaries! May your design philosophy protect you from rising seas and angry armed poor people.

  • Peyton Lindley

    @BP I appreciate the feedback, and acknowledge that the piece wasn't specifically focused through an anthropological lens; there are plenty of well-written articles that have already addressed the issues you state below from a management or an organizational perspective.  My interest was in illustrating a groundswell of activity happening in large organizations where design thinking is facilitating new and different ways of looking at organizational challenges.  It's not an either/or proposal.  That is, I'm not stating that either "design" or "management" should be charged with breaking down organizational silos.  You'll note that in other responses I've given, I've referred to "designers" _and_ "organizational leadership" needing to work in conjunction to solve the problem.  For this to happen, traditional management philosophies need to be reconsidered, and designers need to view their role as living far beyond that of designing a user interface.

  • BP

    I think you missed the opportunity to genuinely
    drive home the message of consistency across mediums and tried to assign too
    much importance to design across an entire organization as a solution to a more
    anthropological issue.  I believe that corporate silos are not born out of an
    established “old school” way of doing business but rather come from the way
    people interact.  Silos are typically fiefdoms that get built to establish power
    centers by those that seek the power.  A mixed external message is typically a
    sign of internal combativeness and reflects a lack of control by management.  A
    Designer is not going to fix this issue, a strong management team is.

  • Peyton Lindley

    Good question.  In the scenario you paint below, there's certainly a benefit to providing user-driven filters or preferences, and this can be done in a way that doesn't break the overall brand experience.  The scenario I described in the article illustrates a larger functional disconnect between a transactional site and an alternate platform (in this case, the iPad) that failed to accommodate a core experience.  As such, the break in (brand) experience leaves much to be desired.

  • Peyton Lindley

    Thanks for your comment.  I generally agree with your point that organizations are designing with user input, but there's still a ton of room for improvement.  Broadly speaking, I still see organizations saying that they desire customer input, but the budget dollars don't match the intent.  Understanding true customer need requires time and a thoughtful approach. 

    Additionally, I see organizations that are willing to do "small bits" of customer insight work, but these small bits are not holistically integrated into the product development life cycle and are often seen as a "nice to have."  I'd argue that there's still a need for user-centered designers and organizational leaders to advocate for the end-user throughout the entire design and development life cycle, not just during usability testing or an up-front research phase.

  • Anon

    You're right, the problem solving, creativity and systems thinking is missing from the leadership of the organization, not the upfront phase of an isolated web project. As someone who's worked in a user-centered design company with a well known financial institute to redesign their website UI, I know for a fact that what you're unifying is the people in the company, not the UI. No matter how many interviews, videos and transcripts you have of customers saying 'this is confusing,' it's hard for a large company to know where to start to make it right. Siloed doesn't begin to cover it: there are teams devoted to maintaining every horrible banner add you see, so when a designer suggests simplicity, and unification he or she may be suggesting that an entire team of people be re-organized or worse, laid off. So when you're looking for a company to be more unified and customer-centric, don't look at their website. Look at their leaders: what questions are they not asking that they should be?

  • Regisforsuckas

    This may have been the case in the 90s. but in general it is #2 above, Sioled design.  most corporations dont have effective cross team communication or politics prevent that or external skills are needed for mobile development or whatever and there is no person even at the highest levels who can do more than hire an agency to give the company a 50 page PDF of brand guidelines which noone fully enforces or is (despite the high cost to the agency to make it) useless as the agencies tend to have it stuck in pantone print ideas and not think about the brand as it encompasses interaction design.

    It is rarely ever designing apps in a vacuum anymore without user input.  It is the corporate challenge of achieving that with legacy processes and executives that are all talk and not enough action in a large corporation

  • David Bradley

     What about creating a UI with multiple options to allow the user to to establish their own preferences? For example, a mobile platform with filters for the information that the user is looking for.

    Does this not break the consistent UI experience? Or is it more of a style of function question?

  • max

    it would be better if you could curate the amount of information for the user before he even gets to interact with it on a smaller device and therefore had to filter it. so offering filters could be a lazy solution, it wouldnt be a break to the experience though.

  • Soren Nielsen

    Hi Peyton, great piece that really speaks to the heart of the challenges you will face as a designer in any position to change all or part of the pathway to the customer.

    Brands and organizations are like people, they grow and change over time.
    If you stop and look across the combined user experience of most brands; from product, packaging, instore, website/mobil sites, social media platforms, events and tradeshow etc., they are rarely products of a unified strategy and will likely provide a wealth of opportunities for improvement, evolution and downright innovation.

    However, the expressions mentioned above (including the historical expressions of the same) are also reflections of the brands voice, mirroring the silos that shaped them (the false internal structures;), with inconsistency and disconnection showing the distance between them.
    Reviewing, discussing and developing the user experience in a cross departmental setting provide significant (brandunique) understanding, insight and organizational direction.

    Mandate and influence are keywords as resistance is inevitable.

  • Peyton Lindley

    Thanks for the question Pablo.  While this may appear to be a contradiction, I was suggesting that end users shouldn't have to worry about how a company is structured in order to benefit from a great user experience.  However, organizational leaders and those charged with designing elegant products and services certainly do.

  • Jeremy DiPaolo

    The real challenge is getting upstream of the design process to ensure the brand even knows what that singular "voice" is. Once that is clearly established, it can help inform the organizational strategy as well as interactions that live within and even beyond the digital space. 

  • Pablo Roux

    How you can say Departmental and functional silos are working models of a past era whenever you defend the point that END USERS DON’T CARE HOW A COMPANY IS ORGANIZED? It sounds contradictory. Right?

  • monirom

    On a different point, sometimes deviation from consistent UI is often
    necessary when you're designing for mobile web and you need to
    accommodate for the device's inherit limits — and that is where
    designing for device degradation comes in. iOS vs Android vs Blackberry
    vs feature phone. Many institutions are targeting only one or two
    platforms, effectively ignoring 30% of their market. (smartphones are
    selling like hotcakes but not everyone has/wants a smartphone.)

  • Star of the East

    Great article, but in my experience as a digital creative director in marketing, the two roles which have lowest status in media and advertising agencies are 'digital' and 'design'.

  • monirom

    Peyton, the key is in this quote from your post: "Adding designers to your staff won’t make much of a difference if the
    organization can’t understand its customer needs or create a
    brand-consistent digital ecosystem that serves those needs." Banks are notoriously guilty of not understanding their customers even outside the realm of mobile apps/web.