Connecting brand, design and user experience

Gus Desbarats, Chairman of Alloy Total Product Design, has written this article about the importance of connections between brand, design and user experience in response to our 18th January 2008 piece entitled ‘Have you had an egg moment recently?‘. Alloy will also be unveiling its latest handset concept design – Couple IT – at the Mobile World Congress next week and has provided the first pictures for the MEX newsletter. Read on for Gus’ views and images of the Couple IT design.

The MEX article on ‘egg moments’ will have resonated hugely with many in the mobile industry, especially those with responsibility for delivering a brand experience. Why? Because 2008 will, I believe, prove to be a watershed in the maturing of the mobile industry, when the user experience comes to the fore as a key differentiator in the battle for customer loyalty.

It is becoming harder and harder to differentiate products by technology and feature set alone. New functionality does come onto the market but competitive advantage does not last long. And mobile users will not remain blindly loyal to a brand that does not deliver an experience that resonates with them. And resonate it will need to, from purchasing the product to opening the box and getting up and running, through to using it routinely to consume network services. All of this delivers the brand experience and it is all an important part of delivering a customer experience.

Couple-IT, a new concept design from Alloy

Alloy’s new concept for the delivery of modern mobile services is called Couple-IT. Couple-IT consists of two different devices, linked over the mobile network to deliver the right content and services to a customer whatever the need or circumstances.

What is missing from much of the mobile phone industry is context. As head of a product design consultancy, my colleagues and I spend our working days observing people and applying what we learn to make products and experiences more intuitive and human friendly – to enhance the user experience and build brand loyalty through good design.

I read review after review of mobile devices that talk about a device ‘only’ having a 3.2 megapixel camera, without any reference to the user case for a better resolution. The phones get better cameras but no manufacturer has yet made the experience of downloading pictures from a phone as easy as doing so from a digital camera.

This is the difference between a product and a user experience – the product simply delivers a higher specification, higher numbers if you like. The user experience delivers something more tangible – it solves a human need, touches an emotion, puts a smile on the face of the user.

The user experience resonates most powerfully when it delivers at every stage of the process of buying and owning a product. This is why companies like Apple and Sony put so much thought into retail space, after sales care, packaging.

Consider the example of the car industry. A good deal of thought has gone into the design of both the car and the retail space it is sold in. Someone about to spend £25,000 on a car does not want to wait in a Post Office style queue – it feels counter intuitive. Despite a sales process that can take hours, effort is made to ensure customers do not feel ignored or rushed.

Buying and owning a car has to feel like a special experience. After all, the car is an important personal purchase. It reflects your personality. It is something you will need to live with for some time.

You get to take your time when you buy a car. You sit in the car and adjust the seat, you open and close the doors (and experience the satisfying noise that the doors make). You admire the exterior and touch the interior. It is a tactile experience.

Before a test drive, customers are given a demonstration of the car’s functionality. This is not just a safety issue – after all the brake is in the same place on every car – it is part of the sales process. Customers who go to flick the indicator on, and instead start the wipers, feel silly. And silly is not what a retailer wants a customer to feel when they are buying a car.

Now think about the modern mobile. It is tactile, well designed, smooth. Thought has gone into the look and feel. Detail has been considered. Yet the customer experience means that the user is unlikely to get close to a real phone in store.

Dummy phones on display do not demonstrate the positive attributes of the real device. Where is the ‘test drive’ equivalent? Where is the try before you buy? This is all part of the brand experience. Who is there to help you copy over your numbers? Make sure the phone works in your car and your home? That you can download your photos? Ensure GPS actually works? If human help is impractical, what is being done to minimise the need for help?

No one is pretending that people spend as much money on a mobile as they do on a car (apart from perhaps a few Vertu users!). However, we spend as much, if not more time, with our phones as we do with our cars.

The mobile is as personal as a car, if not more so. It is for this reason that the brand experience needs to be personal and intimate. Car brands understand this and as the mobile industry matures this will become increasingly important. Successful mobile brands will be those that really do the best job building deep understanding of their customer’s life context and converting that insight into device and service specifications that will achieve the attention to detail needed to create an experience where the experience fits the customer and not the other way round.

Gus Desbarats, Chairman of Alloy Total Product Design.

The Couple-IT concept is available to view at Mobile World Congress in the UK Pavilion – AV 26. More images can also be found below…

Couple-IT, a new concept design from Alloy

Couple-IT, a new concept design from Alloy


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  1. 1
    Abhi Naha

    Very thought provoking and interesting designs.

    I don’t believe the mobile handset industry is going to reach maturity for a long time yet. I agree that if you have a handset with two large displays and touchscreens the only other way to differentiate is via the usability and user design elements. The challenge is that at the end of the day there is only so much you can do in the area of usability where by the end consumer may not value the extra icon or lack of it on another touchscreen.
    Consumers are still buying watches and the price ranges vary from $1 to $100,000’s
    Watches are very simple to use, very personable and so far haven’t been changed too much by digital technology yet can still be very innovative mechanically. The prestigious luxury watches have a story to tell and are very cleverly marketed. I see a time where some consumers will get bored of carrying around flat touchscreen displays and want something individually crafted and highly personalised and decorated or even to the other extreme transparent so that you can have a wireless communication pod embedded in fabric or your jewellery or even a foldable display wrapped around your wrist showing only two or three basic applications. If you want your mobile communication device to do something else you change your wearable device and transfer your wireless insertable pod from one to the other.

    Lastly, I think a very exciting area to look at in the mobile industry is not so much how to communicate but why we communicate via mobile devices.

    Abhi Naha

  2. 2
    Mike Evans

    I agree that it’s hard for mobile device manufacturers to differentiate their products based on feature set alone. Once one new feature emerges from one company, it soon appears on every other phone.

    As a mobile phone blogger, I often write “…and the usual features you’d expect, such as MP3 player, camera, video player…” In other words, features so common place, it’s not even worth writing about!

    Last year, the latest feature was mobile TV phones, but that singularly failed to inspire the market. This year, it’ll be GPS phones, and after Nokia’s success with its N95, every manufacturer and his dog is now jumping on the bandwagon and launching their own GPS phones. Soon, I’ll be adding “GPS” to the list of features you expect to find on every new phone, and is no longer worth writing about!

    However, I see GPS as being a fundamentally different feature from previous ones, simply because of the breadth of new location-based services it enables. GPS is not just a new feature, it offers a whole new way of interacting with your device and the world around you.

    I also take issue with Gus’s comment that “The phones get better cameras but no manufacturer has yet made the experience of downloading pictures from a phone as easy as doing so from a digital camera.”

    In my experience, downloading pictures to your PC is exactly the same as it is from a digital camera – simply hook your phone or your camera up to your PC via USB, and copy the pictures over via Windows Explorer. The experience is exactly the same.

    In addition, some phones let you post your pictures to web sites such as Flickr or your own blog with the push of a button. Surely this is an example of improving the user experience?

    I’d be interested in seeing how the Couple-IT design brings a richer user experience. I’m not saying that mobile phones don’t need to bring a richer experience – they do – but what exactly does the Couple-IT concept offer as an experience that existing phones don’t already provide?

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