Notes for (Elevate Your Product Design by Unifying UX and Brand Strategies)

Presenter(s):  Bill Flora, Geoff Harrison

Date-Time:  August 16, 2019 @ 9:10 AM

Key Takeaways

The design of a product is influenced by a variety of perspectives, and it is not unusual for product management, UX design, and brand strategy to have conflicting agendas.  Geoff Harrison and Bill Flora describe how you can bring stakeholders together and develop products that are functional, beautiful, and meet user needs.


Bill Flora and Geoff Harrison both work for Blink UX.  They discussed their experiences aligning stakeholders, developing product vision, and elevating brand to build a deeper connection between user and product.

How we form a product is the primary basis for brand and how it touches the market.  The experience people have is much the brand itself.  Brand is not just local feel; it is also features and experiences that speak to brand.

To illustrate, Flora discussed his work on a Microsoft design language called Metro, which was a primary touch point for the brand, so much so that it influenced marketing.  And what they did with Metro led Microsoft to change its logo.  Flora is a big proponent of software as fertile domain for designer influence.  Product features and the user experience are the brand itself.  This notion is applicable across a wide range of design disciplines.

As designers and researchers, we have a real opportunity to elevate our approach to brand.  And as a result, create a deeper connection with customers.  Flora and Harrison consider themselves evangelists for creating that deeper connection.

A lot of companies want to differentiate from their competition.  The question is how to go about it?   In short, differentiate in a way that is you; that speaks to your company values and brand value.  This is a great place for design to be thinking.

What are the needs of design to deliver on product designs that embody brands and user experience with the brand?

They framed the answer in terms of layers within a pyramid, and often referred to this framework as moving an organization “up the ladder” or “up the pyramid.”

Level one (bottom) of the pyramid is the basic goal, creating designs that are effective in achieving what you set out to do.

Level two (middle) of the pyramid is the emotional goal, creating a bridge to a better experience.  It is about how users feel about their experience and how design responds to that.

Level three (top) of the pyramid is the expression goal, connecting user experience to brand.  This is the expression of “who we are as a company.”  This goal embodies company brand.

Companies often offer a lot of features but with no clear expression of brand.  In contrast, competitors coming into market embrace the emotional element, they know who they are (i.e., organizational values, personality), and they’re making a lot of headway competing in market.

However, with respect to the framework above, a lot of companies still aim low – somewhere between levels one and two in the pyramid and not at the top (expressive level).  While companies want to aim up the ladder, they tend to cast design in terms of payoff or ROI or timeliness of product to market, which often curtails organizational support for design.

InVision published a study last year on the design maturity of organizations (the relationship between design practices and business performance).  They surveyed more than 2,200 organizations to explore the relationship between design practices and business performance.  They came up with five levels of design maturity.

At the 1st level (bottom), they found 41% of respondents implementing design were focused on things like wire framing, prototyping, and screen level design.  They were getting design done, but more at the feature level.

At the 2nd level, they saw companies implementing things like workshops, talking to stakeholders, and conducting usability testing.

At the 3rd level, they observed more integration with development teams in the end-to-end process.

At the 4th level, organizations began measuring design effectiveness and folding their findings back into the process.

At the 5th level (top), only 5% of companies were considered visionary.  These companies were doing the following:  1) Studying product-market fit; 2) Creating design vision; 3) Creating strategies for how these efforts work across platforms and across the company; and 4) fusing design with how the company thinks.

In a comparison of company performance, InVision saw increasing benefits to design as companies moved up the maturity ladder.  Level 5 companies, the top 5%, significantly outperformed the rest:  4x the revenue, 5x the cost savings, 6x times better in time-to-market, and valuations rose substantially.

As designers we need to start talking about this – moving organizations toward the top level of design maturity.  Of course, this is easier said than done.

Flora and Harrison find real benefit in creating engaging products, design teams, and integration and see themselves as pitching ways to get companies into your [design] process to move them incrementally up the design pyramid.

They shared their approach; what they consider to be best practices.

As a best practice, start the design process earlier and “get in front of the ball.”  This will be different for each organization given their culture and design teams.  Find what motivates them.  For example, competition is a key motivator in the Microsoft culture.  Accordingly, competition is the center of gravity in terms of motivating their design process.

At the highest level in the pyramid, the expressive level, we think a lot about science – user insights through surveys, evidence, tests, and smart questions.  In addition, it is important to consider trends in the market and innovative technologies.  So, it is more than just customer insights; it is a combination of several factors to consider in the design process.  Flora and Harrison also recognize that people are not just “automatons” – there is a powerful emotional element we can factor into the process.  They advocate blending emerging science with software and a sense of beauty and inspiration to achieve better design solutions.

They talked about how their process compares with the traditional process.

The traditional (familiar) process starts with understanding your audience; gathering insights and understanding how they work through the service or system.  Then it builds content strategy and an information architecture, wire frames, finally  incorporates a visual design layer on top of the product.  This tends to regulate the impact visual design can have toward “window dressing” in the end.

By comparison, Flora and Harrison present other processes (techniques) they use to better understand brand personality and brand personality keywords.  This is all done concurrently with the traditional process, which helps informs each other and yields better concepts and questions to ask.  They don’t just rely on the waterfall method.

Flora also talked about motion – one of his favorite aspects of bringing emotion into design.  What are the features or signature experiences that will make a difference and move the needle in terms of user experience.

It is especially important to get clear with teams on goals to ensure they are and clearly articulated.  As designers we can use some of the techniques discussed – like voting on along a continuum of contrasting brand personality goals or direction – (e.g., youthful vs. mature, retro vs. futuristic) – to gauge alignment across stakeholders before putting in a lot of effort.  Design framework helps filter out things that do not support priorities as a company moves up the pyramid.

Concept cards are another technique they use to develop a lot of concepts.

Their design process incorporates different layers.  Standard concepts like problems space and solution space still exists.  However, the twist is that the processes and activities Flora and Harrison advocate work concurrently, and operating in the solution space helps inform the problem space.

How do we move a company up the pyramid?

Think about the emotion.  From set up, Flora and Harrison think about the emotional journey of users.  This is different depending on a user’s role.  For example, a teacher is concerned with developing educational material while an enthusiast is simply digging for information or knowledge.  There are different triggers and goals for each user type in terms of how they search for content.

In a project for NASA, Flora and Harrison looked at two things with respect to user online searches for content located on the NASA website:  1) how people with different goals arrive at the NASA content, and 2) on the emotional side, both positive and negative reactions during the search.  For example, on the positive side the experience is easy and friction free; on the negative side, something is “broken” and ending an experience for the user or confusing them as to where they go next.  The negative experiences suggest opportunities for design improvement.

At the outset, this emotional experience is where they look to see how they might improve the user journey.

When an audience member asked about their study method, they reported doing a survey of four-to-five people in different user roles and watched them perform searches.  They aggregated their findings to better understand various user type experiences.

In another example, they discussed a video project for an insurance company.  For user experience research, they brought in about 20 people to their lab and observed users sign up for car insurance on both client and competitor sites.  The saw how users interact with online information and the associated emotional components of that experience, such as a user deciding whether to share personal information.  By mapping these responses, they better understand the emotional component of a user experience.

They talked about “signature experience” and bringing brand personality to life.

For example, eBay’s brand personality comes from its marketing team, but when you go to their product, you find no obvious relationship (connection) to the eBay brand.  There is a lot we can do as designers to create that connection.

They use a process involving brand personality keywords to help develop mood boards and apply that to different visual designs and sketches for look and feel.

Motion design is also a critical tool to help stakeholders understand context and how modules behave.

They merge these elements into what Flora considers the most effective tool for design in moving an organization – a high-fidelity vision piece with motion and visual elements to holistically show how a design can be applied across a system or optimized within a different context.

It is helpful to think about interaction, motion, and visual design together as a holistic gesture.  They serve to inform one another.  When a project moves sequentially from interaction design to visual design simply to make it look nice, you are  missing a lot of opportunities.

They showed a successful example of finding and expressing brand personality with Atari, as the company develops a new console.  The company has a huge legacy, and the challenge was how to make the Atari brand feel like it did back then?  They considered keywords on a continuum, like retro, exciting, youthful, mature, experimental, and futuristic, to help synchronize the team on project direction.  They embraced the amazing artwork at Atari and developed mood boards for inspiration to develop a “rooms” concept with a tile board to offer a sense of space and dimension – and a way to incorporate emotion.  From a signature experience perspective, they considered elements like size (console sits comfortably in a room) and a mood wheel that maps music to mood, and mood to color …examples that speak to the Atari brand.

In the project they did for NASA, Flora and Harrison focused on what the organizational brand was trying to express – something scientific, clear, direct, and emotional.  The project focused on bringing a 3D solar system to life – a feature designed by engineers for engineers …not very engaging to the average user.  As designers, what can we do?  At NASA, the goal was to increase knowledge and emotional connection.  They focused on story driven design, broadening scale for the audience, which led them to the concept of scrollytelling.  They also incorporated more motion.  For instance, in the Voyager story users can select a related story and manipulate the on-screen center space.  These are signature experiences – the essence of what NASA communication is trying to achieve.

To wrap up, they underscored that where a company directs their aim in the design pyramid is important – e.g., basic level vs. expression level.  Business often tries to get the basics in the way they deliver on user experience.  The aim should be much higher.  At higher levels, visionary exercises really pay off, driving more revenue with products quicker to market and greater connection to users.

One last point is that the emotional piece really connects the user and inspires design teams in creating and delivering real expressions of brand.

Flora and Harrison offered the following comments in Q&A.

In developing the Atari continuum, deciding factors on concepts used were based on input by all stakeholders.  And everyone had a dot they could place on the continuum.  This helped Flora and Harrison visualize just how well aligned stakeholders were.  If they saw misalignment, that would signal an area to work on before going forward.

In building a team, it can be a combination of internal teams and outside experts.  You can start in-house to get ideas rolling as you bring in outside help for work on specialty areas you may not have covered, such as the emotional piece.  In addition, a lot of organizations (especially those that have gone through a successful design process and reaped the benefits) have set up innovation teams to create vision pieces – incredibly valuable during the consulting process.