Branding and Usability

by Jared M. Spool

Many web sites exist primarily to create or strengthen the brand for a product or service. We’re finding that a site’s usability can dramatically affect branding. And the graphical aspects of the site—such as logos or evocative pictures—have much less effect on branding than we expected.

Ford vs. Edmund’s

Try this experiment: go to the Ford site ( and try to determine the estimated miles per gallon for a Ford Windstar van. Then go to the Edmund’s site ( and look for the same information.

Most people quickly find the information on Edmund’s and have a tough time finding it on the Ford site. But here’s the surprise: Edmund’s does a better job of strengthening Ford’s brand than Ford does. We’ve found that users have a better impression of Ford and the Windstar after using the Edmund’s site than they do after using the Ford site.

What’s going on here? The two sites convey information quite differently. Edmund’s has long pages of textual information about specific vehicles and few graphics other than pictures of the vehicles and a couple of banner ads. The Ford site has lots of images of smiling people, beautiful scenery—along with many Ford logos and slogans. But the site doesn’t make it easy to get concrete information, such as vehicle specifications.

Based on our experiments, we believe that the Edmund’s site is more successful at branding because it gives users a more successful experience.

A Bit of Marketing Theory

Branding is more than just ensuring that customers recognize a logo or product name. Branding means creating an emotional association (such as the feeling of success, happiness, or relief) that customers forms with the product, service, or company. There are two basic techniques for branding: direct experience and indirect messaging.

With direct-experience branding, users attribute emotions directly. For example, when customers test drive a car or eat a restaurant meal, their direct experience influences their feelings toward that vehicle or establishment.

However, marketers can’t give users a direct experience for most products and services, so they need to use indirect messaging for their branding. For example, Nike sponsors sporting events to encourage the attendees to associate Nike products with the fun and excitement of the sport. Companies also create slogans (“Avis: We Try Harder,” or “Built Ford Tough”) and use them everywhere. TV commercials, magazine ads, and billboards are all indirect messaging. But this form of branding needs repeated exposure—conventional advertising wisdom says that a message isn’t effective until the customer has received it at least 10 times.

Direct Trumps Indirect

The key to understanding branding on web sites is that web sites are interactive, not passive. There is always a direct experience. Because this direct experience is so powerful, the effects of indirect messaging can disappear. With indirect message branding, the user is passive and may not even be paying attention to the message.

Assuming that users visit web sites for a specific purpose, the better the site fulfills that purpose, the better the direct experience. In the Ford and Edmund’s example, users want to gather information before making a purchase decision, and the Edmund’s site does this better. Ironically, the indirect messages on the Ford site (all those feel-good images) actually get in the way of the users’ purpose: they take up space that could be used to display information users want to see.

Fun = Success

We have some solid evidence that users consider a site “fun” if it lets them find what they’re looking for. In our research, we asked users to find specific information on web sites. We measured many objective variables about each site, such as the number of graphics, the colors used, and the length of links. We also measured subjective variables, including the user’s scaled ranking of how much “fun” the site was.

When we analyzed our data, we discovered that the strongest correlation with success (that is, finding information) was the users’ perception of how much fun the site was. In other words, the more successful they were at finding information, the more likely users would call the site “fun.”

Interestingly, we found no significant correlation between fun and any of the graphical variables we measured (such as number of images). We think that the users’ direct experience with the site played a greater role in shaping their impressions than the indirect messaging did.

Some Examples

In trying to understand what it takes to design for branding in a web site or product, we found one other good example of successful branding.

Now Everybody Knows eBay

You may not have heard of eBay ( We never had. Not until we went to a regional antiques fair and interviewed more than 90 antique collectors and dealers.

The eBay site provides an online auction. At first glance, it’s not very sophisticated. In fact, it’s effectively a modified message board, where each thread is an item for sale and each reply is a bid. Other than the site logo, it uses few decorative graphics and consists mostly of user-supplied text, often all in uppercase. What graphics are on the site are images of the items the users have provided—mostly amateur-taken snapshots.

Many of the people we interviewed already knew about eBay—including some who’d never used the Internet before. Users told us story after story about friends who’d made or saved bundles of money by using eBay. Most told us they knew about eBay through word of mouth from a fellow dealer or collector.

When we showed eBay to collectors and dealers who had never seen it, they got excited when they saw all the great stuff they’d been looking for. This initial positive experience created the eBay brand for these people. In fact, users new to computing told us that eBay will be their first Internet destination when they get their own computers—showing us that eBay has developed the emotional ties that make branding successful.

We think eBay’s most important aspect was the fact that users consistently found interesting stuff quickly and easily. Its presentation is far less important to user success.

The eBay site contrasts significantly with the Ford site, which relies heavily on lots of logos and slogans, such as messages from recent marketing campaigns: “Built Ford Tough,” “Go Anywhere,” and “Every picture has a story and every story has a Ford in it.” These messages themselves seemed to prevent users from finding the information they were seeking and thus from having a positive experience on the site.

If our theory is correct, eBay’s direct-experience branding works better than Ford’s indirect-message branding at giving users a positive opinion of the brand. Therefore, we believe that usability is essential for effective branding. It appears that any obstacles users face will directly (and negatively) affect how they perceive the brand.

What Can Designers Do?

Designers have a choice: build a site that uses direct-experience branding or build one that uses indirect-message branding. It’s theoretically possible to develop a site that does both, but we’ve never seen that done successfully.

About the Author

Jared M. Spool is a co-founder of Center Centre and the founder of UIE. In 2016, with Dr. Leslie Jensen-Inman, he opened Center Centre, a new design school in Chattanooga, TN to create the next generation of industry-ready UX Designers. They created a revolutionary approach to vocational training, infusing Jared’s decades of UX experience with Leslie’s mastery of experience-based learning methodologies.

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