How Usability Can Lead to a More Engaging Brand Experience Online

How Usability Can Lead to a More Engaging Brand Experience Online

The biggest challenge in designing websites is to balance pure aesthetics, the result of strong art direction, and usability, the intuitiveness of the interface.

As brands we always seek a differentiated visual online brand experience using the brand color palette, typography, visual language and more, to set us apart from the competition. Differentiation is a core marketing concept taught to the many and established as a goal across the majority of boardrooms.

In the glorious years of flash websites we therefore experimented with atypical layouts, creating the first full screen experiences that allowed for rich-media integration, extensive smooth animations and unconventional navigation. The technology allowed us to create completely different websites, but, aside from the “wow factor”, did they really pay-off?

As the internet matures and we gain insights on what makes a website successful, it seems we are returning to some sort of standardization and consistency across websites in order to make them usable. But we need to understand that this doesn’t mean we are to implement best practices, rather it means we gained a thorough understanding of the fundamentals of user interaction that underlie a successful website that is necessary to ascertain what is important for our business and brand.

The brand experience starts with a user’s ability to use it, obviously. (Otherwise they won’t experience anything at all). Therefore, usability and intuitiveness should be considered prior to the visual implementation of the brand. Visual implementation requires a creative mind and strong guidelines (whether abstract or concrete), and represents a powerful distinctive layer on an intuitive interface. Creating an intuitive interface however, is a requisite to enable users to experience your brand digitally and one that needs an understanding of fundamental principles.

The most interesting of these principles are metaphors and mental models as developed by Apple (Mac OS X Human Interface Guidelines).


“Take advantage of people’s knowledge of the world by using metaphors to convey concepts and features of your website”.

Mental Models:

We have to understand that, without even having used our website, users have a mental model that describes the tasks or the experience that our website is offering. These mental models are, for the time being, mainly based on offline concepts that the person is familiar with, such as going to a store.

Users have extensive offline real-world experience going to fashion/luxury stores. This experience sets one’s expectations of a digital flagship. It is both an important and fun task to discover our audience’s mental model (i.e. the offline boutique) and familiar metaphors (i.e. Dressing rooms, price labels, etc.) to understand the expectations and desires of the experience that our website provides.

Example, Digital Flagship:

Take for example our brand’s digital flagship. By understanding the principles outlined above we can state that users approach a digital flagship as an offline branded fashion store (mental model). With real-world experience, the user therefore expects certain elements and functionalities.

So then:

Why do we use the word cart if in the real-world carts are a concept used in supermarkets and we’ve never seen a shopping cart in a fashion store?

Why do we even call it a bag, if the bag is something we get after having paid for the goods and the dressing room is most of the time the place where we keep the items we wish to purchase?

A digital form of this intimate space can be explored creatively in many different ways.

Why aren’t we provided with a Spotify playlist to listen to, while music is an essential part of the offline shopping experience and helps reinforce brand identity? is using music to strengthen their brand.

Why are items still predominantly categorized by product type, while offline fashion and luxury stores are predominantly categorized by (color) themes and (sub) collections to encourage discovery? is cleverly using the concept of themes and looks.

In fashion and luxury, products normally spark the fantasy of an image of ourselves. Price often destroys that fantasy. Therefore, why should we dominantly display prices across our product presentations, while the customer’s perceived value of our brand (product) is created in that fantasy? is creating a true experience around their product presentation with rich-media content sparking our fantasies, while price is a minor detail to be discovered.

These are a few critical questions to illustrate how understanding fundamental principles of user interaction can help us assess our experience and decide what is best for our business, brand, and online customer experience. Do aim for understanding instead of what seems to be best practice across the industry.


Photo credits: Andrew Bret Wallis


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