Why User Experience Design Is So Hard for Brands to Get Right

Most of them suck at UX, as important as it is

Customer expectations have never been greater. Getty Images

At Nike’s new concept store in West Los Angeles, the digital and the physical converge.

Nike by Melrose’s 4,557 square feet of retail space is designed to create an experience that blends mobile app convenience with high-touch human connections.

As shoppers enter the store, they receive personalized offers via Nike App at Retail. If they see a shoe or shirt they like, they can scan a QR code to summon a salesperson (Nike calls them “athletes”) to bring it in a different size or color.

Customers can book a 15- or 30-minute consult with an athlete, get recommendations, then try out their new kicks on a treadmill in the Trial Zone. Or they can skip the store entirely and order gear via Swoosh Text SMS, then have it stored in a secure locker or waiting for them curbside the next time they drive by.

A quarter of the store’s inventory will be refreshed every two weeks, determined by data about the kinds of gear Angeleno Nike hipsters tend to buy.

Nike: From its communications to its connected product lines and concept stores, Nike has set a high bar for user experience, says Valtech's Jonathan Goldmacher. "They've really thought about their promise and their premise, and brought it to life in ways that are incredibly admirable and astonishing."

Nike by Melrose is an experiment, but the $36 billion sportswear giant hopes to extend what it learns to new stores in New York, Shanghai, Tokyo and beyond, says Heidi O’Neill, president of Nike Direct.

“By harnessing the power of digital, we’re able to make customers’ shopping experiences easier and better,” she says. “By leveraging data, we can glean what consumers in a particular neighborhood want. The core purpose is to deliver the best possible Nike consumer experience.”

Putting the you in UX

Companies like Nike have realized that they’re no longer just making and marketing products; they’re really in the business of crafting user experiences.

As Dan Maccarone, CEO and co-founder of product design firm Charming Robot, puts it, “The experience is the brand.”

In an omnichannel world, the user experience starts long before customers put their hands on the product or download the app. It encompasses everything from advertising and website design to social media, retail displays, packaging, the Muzak that’s playing as shoppers enter the store, the help they receive from a salesperson or a chatbot and the subject line on the emailed receipt.

“When people think about Adidas, they don’t think, ‘Here’s Adidas the shoe, here’s Adidas the box, here’s Adidas the app, here’s Adidas the retail experience,'” says Dan Gardner, co-founder and CEO of Code and Theory, a digital-first creative agency. “They’re just thinking, ‘This is Adidas.'”

Managing all of that is an enormous challenge, and few brands are doing a consistently good job of it, says Kevin Kearney, vp of product for global design firm Elephant.

“Part of the reason is that brands have never had to manage so many touch points before, which often involves multiple internal teams and external agencies that, let’s be honest, aren’t always talking to each other,” Kearney says. “We’re constantly coordinating across business units and asking questions like, ‘Is the team running the Facebook account handling support? Who’s determining the hashtag strategy on Instagram and what does that tie to? Why are the point-of-purchase screens in channel not aligned with what’s on the website’s product page, and why is that messaging completely disconnected from the current advertising campaign?'”

Uber and Lyft: The ride-sharing services have changed how we navigate cities, says Adobe's Khoi Vinh. "It used to be when you landed in a city you had to get a map and figure out everything on your own," he says. "These apps have become entry ways to new urban experiences."

Another common problem with UX design is that brands put too much emphasis on visual elements and not enough on the experience they’re actually providing, says Andrew Hogan, senior analyst on experience design and interfaces for Forrester Research.

“They get really focused on user interface design, like what color the buttons on the mobile app should be,” Hogan says. “They don’t actually get at the deeper stuff, like whether this product is good or useful in any real way.”

In addition to all of that, keeping up with the frenetic pace of technological change is a challenge for everyone, says Jonathan Goldmacher, managing director of the New York office for business transformation firm Valtech.

“So much of the space is continuing to evolve with things like voice, augmented and virtual reality, it’s difficult to say anybody is doing it amazingly,” he says. “But they’re doing good jobs in parts of it.”

Relevant, snackable and fast

Meanwhile, customer expectations have never been greater, driven ever higher by the mobile app revolution and digital upstarts like Airbnb, Amazon and Netflix.

“Over the last 10 years expectations for user experience have gotten higher, because the level of software design has gotten much, much better,” says Khoi Vinh, principal designer for Adobe. “People have grown accustomed to software conforming to their habits.”

For example, besides being consistent across channels, experiences also need to be relevant to who users are, where they are and what device they’re using, says Maccarone.

“Everything we do starts from strategy: ‘Why does this product exist? Who’s going to be using it? Where are they going to be using it?'” he says. “You’re going to design something differently for boomers than for millennials, and different on mobile than you would on desktop.”

Today’s consumers are also unlikely to read 20-page articles on their mobile devices. That’s why snack-ability and skim-ability are more important than ever, says Linda Holliday, CEO of Citia, maker of a publishing platform that carves long-form content into bite-size “cards” that can be served up on a website or in messaging, mobile apps or social media channels.

Cards can contain any digital media, explains Holliday. Text, images, audio or video can be combined and rearranged at will. The goal is to grab readers’ attention and draw them in for a more extended experience later, or divert them to another long-form experience such as a TV show or white paper.

“We sometimes call these ‘particles’ instead of articles,” Holliday says. “The challenge is how to tell big stories in small pieces, then translate that interest into longer extended attention, because that’s where everything good happens.”

Full-service design

As user experience design engulfs everything from advertising and apps to product and packaging, the role of creative agencies is evolving, morphing from product design houses to full-service consultancies. (At the same time, old-school consultancies have been rapidly gobbling up creative agencies and launching their own product design and marketing divisions.)

Good Eggs: The San Francisco-based organic grocery delivery service is improving on the Amazon Pantry and Instacart experience by offering locally sourced ingredients that are "well curated, simple to order, and delivered in a package that's easy to open and can be reused," notes Forrester's Andrew Hogan. "They've really thought about everything."

“It almost cheapens it to call it ‘interface design,’ because what we’re often doing is recreating a business,” says Maccarone. “It really starts with strategic thinking about the business goals. What do people really want from this?”

Code and Theory, which has worked with dozens of major media companies over the years, including CNN and NBC News, consults on everything from how newsrooms are organized to the publishing systems they use and the kinds of people they need to recruit, says Gardner.

“When we work with our marketing clients and think about that brand as a publisher, we’re also thinking about the organizational impact,” he says. “We’re looking at the ROI of the content they’re publishing and the humans they’re putting around it. We’re helping them hire people who can execute in more modern and effective ways.”

Designing modern user experiences also requires a wide breadth of knowledge, not only within product categories but also across industries, says Kearney.

“I’m always working with my teams to make sure they’re not just creating a design solution for a screen in a vacuum,” he says. “That screen, wherever it lives, needs to consider not only the larger landscape of that business but also the experiences that people expect outside the category, which are being driven by more nimble companies.”

Driven by digital

For the first three decades of the digital revolution, designers struggled to make devices and software as easy and intuitive to use as their physical analogs. Now the reverse is true—physical experiences are struggling to catch up to digital.

“Many of the day-to-day retail or physical experiences people have with brands have become less and less enjoyable, while digital experiences have become easier and more personal,” notes Goldmacher.

For example, when Goldmacher orders vitamins, he just tells Alexa to do it, and two days later they show up at his door.

“I would love to be able to walk into any kind of physical experience and do the same,” he adds. “The ability to reduce friction is clearly a boundary that brands and businesses need to cross.”

Aside from being nearly frictionless, a positive user experience is also an emotional one. UX is not only about how things look but how they feel—and, more important, how they make customers feel.

“We spend a lot of time on how the small details of an experience work and feel, because that’s where you get to what the brand is really about,” says Kearney. “We’re looking for those crucial moments that make customers decide, ‘This is absolutely the kind of brand I want to have a relationship with.'”

This story first appeared in the July 23, 2018, issue of Adweek magazine. Click here to subscribe.