Interaction design: the new key to brands

If we ask ourselves to identify the current movers and shakers in the world of brands, we would probably end up with a short list of design firms, ad agencies, brand consultants, celebrated product designers—such as Jonathan Ive at Apple—and a handful of top-tier corporate brand wizards.

Interaction designers: the new rock stars of brands?

They will soon have company. The emerging rock stars of brands may well be interaction designers. As brands move to digital platforms to help create customers, interaction designers will play a key role in determining which brands thrive, and which fall by the wayside. This will be especially true as more companies migrate to multi-threaded brands.

Brands are interfaces and interactions

The ascent of interaction design to a critical role in brands is largely due to the changing nature of brands themselves. The new reality of brands is that they’re programs to deliver value through customer interfaces and interactions. They’re no longer the realm of top-down symbols, slogans and promises. In their new mode, brands are more social and cultural than “corporate.” They’re collaborative expressions of companies and their customers, formed in a structured process that builds the brand from the customer up.

Some definitions:

  1. A brand interface is where the brand works with customers
  2. A brand interaction is how the brand works with customers

Yes, brands work with customers. The brands that count are working brands, not display brands. They’re brands that roll up their sleeves and team with customers to get things done.

Four principal brand interfaces

As I see it, there are four principal brand interfaces that every brand must address:

  1. Between company and customer
  2. Between product and customer
  3. Between customer and customer
  4. Between the customer today, and what he or she wishes to become tomorrow.

Across each interface, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of potential brand interactions.

The brand challenge for interaction design

Interaction designers will be asked to help companies craft effective digital platforms to build their brands across the four brand interfaces noted above. This is no small challenge. These digital platforms will be expected to drive the interactions that grow the customer, grow the brand, and grow the business.

The task is complex, too. Not only are different types of interfaces involved at the digital level, there are also different customer contexts at each interface, multiple technologies at play, and many forms of brand interaction. Brand vision, roadmaps and deliverables are central to the mix.

From monolithic brands to distributed brands

Interaction designers are entering the brand scene at a propitious time. The monolithic brands of the industrial age are giving way to the distributed, participative and democratized brands of the digital age. The forward strength of brands will be free-flowing from the bottom-up, rather than dictated and manipulated from the top down.

Using digital platforms, these new brands will be collaborations in context and in value creation. Customers will be partners in brand innovation, rather than passive recipients of one-way brand messages. In other words, companies will be creating and re-creating their brands through customers, in an ongoing process.

This paradigm shift creates fertile ground for digital interfaces and rich interaction design.

Interaction designers and the brand team

A company will need interaction designers on the brand team. Without them it will struggle to develop the digital brand interfaces and interactions to produce its desired brand outcomes. While a company may wish to build brand relationships via certain digital platforms (such as widgets, blogs, groups, social software, etc.), the digital interfaces it deploys must exhibit a unity, focus, utility and efficiency that works both for the customer and the brand, while also carrying the design load of the brand identity. This requires a high level of interaction expertise. It can’t be accomplished ad hoc. There is really “one” integrated brand interface instantiated along many brand threads.

Brand interface between company and customer

In the traditional company/customer brand interface, companies usually locked the doors and tossed brand messages over the transom, telling customers what to think and feel. Or—in more enlightened situations—they fluffed up artificial “touchpoints” in hopes they would keep customers passively pleased.

We’re beyond that now. In the new brand interface, companies throw open their doors and pay customers a visit—to discuss the cool things they can do together.

Through the use of digital brand platforms, interaction designers will play a pivotal role in helping companies master the new company/customer interface. The digital platforms designed to bridge this interface must be:

  1. Unique to the brand
  2. Highly interactive
  3. Emotionally rewarding
  4. Personal
  5. Portable
  6. Persistent
  7. Value generating
  8. Simple to access and use
  9. Cultural, rather than corporate
  10. Programmatic, rather than promotional

Brand interface between product and customer

In reality, your product is not what you ship, but what the customer does with it. Your “real” product is a customer result. A company’s brand should enable its customers to accomplish more with its product, and thus (strategically) to advance the company vs. competitors.

At the product level, the brand interface begins with product design, functionality and usability. It then extends into the customer sphere in such elements as the user’s manual, customer support, warranties and associated programs that can make the product a greater (effective) part of the customer’s life.

Interaction designers are already heavily involved in product design and usability. In a brand context, their role would be expanded to address the following issues:

  1. What digital platforms (and applications) can deepen product/customer interactions?
  2. How can customer support be integrated (digitally) into the product? How can it help build the brand?
  3. How can a (digital) product/customer interface yield rich customer participation that contributes useful feedback to ongoing product development?
  4. What (digital) brand interfaces will help create high-performance customers—who can add more value back to the brand?

Brand interface between customer and customer

This is where a brand brings customers together, helping to create brand communities and value networks. The brand interface between customer and customer should help forge new brand contexts enlivened by customer intelligence and initiative, extending the brand into new context domains at the grass-roots level.

The insights of interaction design are valuable here, as this interface is the source of many innovative brand interactions that are customer-driven and open-ended. A loose/tight balance is required. You want your brand HOG’ed, not chavved.

For interaction designers, key challenges include:

  1. Develop the digital platforms and programs that enable customers to easily connect with one another in the context of the brand, sparking network effects where possible
  2. Design the interfaces and interactions to grow a brand community (and/or value net) that also grows the brand
  3. Make these platforms and programs flexible enough to adapt to (and encourage) customer initiative and imagination
  4. Enable the brand team to participate in and learn from these connections
  5. Create the interfaces and interactions that will transform the brand community into a strategic strength.

Brand interface to transform the customer

A customer often buys a brand because he or she believes the brand will change their life for the better, in some capacity. This reflects an aspirational brand interface inside the customer, a transformative interface between the customer today and what he or she wishes to become tomorrow—through the brand.

This may be the most powerful brand interface of all. It is where the brand becomes company potential X customer potential. The customer allies himself or herself with some portion of the brand vision. When a brand becomes a personal transformation engine it acts in the enviable position of virtual sidekick, mentor, confidant and guide.

What kind of digital brand program/interface/interaction might this be? It will be some form of digital “sidekick, mentor, confidant and guide” that—in the name of the brand—has the customer’s back, 24/7. Developing such a brand tool will be a major challenge for interaction design.

Brand Interactions

Designing brand interactions in the digital domain is where things get interesting. There are different types and levels of interactions for every brand interface. They need to be strategic, tactical, engaging, rewarding, true to the brand, and highly personalized.

At this point, as I see it, the design of brand interactions will need to address the following issues:

  1. How to maximize customer autonomy and freedom, through the brand
  2. How to make the brand a “second skin” to customers, one that is also personal, portable and persistent.
  3. How to foster customer participation and collaboration in building the brand, on an equal level with the company
  4. How to create strategic brand communities, value nets and “creation nets.”
  5. How to source brand innovation at the edge
  6. How to ensure that the brand delivers value the customer can use
  7. How to intensify and enrich the brand engagement

I’ll discuss these interaction criteria in future posts.