Is responsive design the end of differentiating online brand experiences?

I’m sure I am neither the first nor the last to comment on this topic. So it’s not just me.

But in looking at not only a number of well-established organizations, as well as virtually every startup on the planet, it seems that virtually every responsive website looks identical in look, feel, content and navigation. Most dramatically fail the “cover the logo test” big time.  And it’s not just in general across the web, but more importantly within their own category.

The question is: Does it really matter?

Should User Experience trump Customer Experience (because they are different in subtle and not-so-subtle ways)? As a staunch believer in user-centered design when it comes to products, services, interfaces and communication in general, it throws up some interesting challenges.

Conventional brand building would suggest that while certain standards should apply to ensure the optimum user experience, of comparable importance is the experience created. Is the online experience delivering on the brand’s promise? Is the content aligned to the brand’s messaging, personality, tone of voice? Is it different and distinctive from direct and (increasingly today) indirect competitors and substitutes?

My view is that many of these sites are failing to do this, particularly in the startup, rapid growth and entrepreneurial space. In a couple of sectors – most notably in emerging sectors such as health care analytics and any of a range of cloud and mobile business solutions – not only are the sites the same, the “insider jargon-loaded” content itself is often gobbledygook filling a defined space in the template with little regard given to the information architecture, user journey, customer benefits and indeed the brand story itself.

Basecamp CEO Jason Fried seems to agree: http://www.inc.com/magazine/201404/jason-fried/do-not-overdesign-your-website.html

“Most of these designs can be described like this: First, you see a huge photo with some text over it. Then, as you scroll down, the background slides away and another big photo with more text on it pops up. And so on…. Maybe you’ve seen this style—it’s starting to crop up everywhere. To a designer’s eye, it looks good, and it’stechnically impressive, but I’m not sure it says anything meaningful about the companies using it. Worse (for those companies), it’s created a new kind of clutter: Too many companies look the same—all style and not enough substance.”

Three observations:

First, responsive web design is a requirement that needs to be addressed, not a destination.  According to Wikipedia, Responsive Design means that “Users across a broad range of devices and browsers will have access to a single source of content, laid out so as to be easy to read and navigate with a minimum of resizing, panning, and scrolling.”

So grabbing a template and populating it, with the confidence that it works across mobile platforms, is not a substitute for a considered approach to a site that effectively expresses the brand and the desired experience.

There is certainly a case to be made for the expedience of this idea: http://www.designyourway.net/blog/inspiration/the-case-against-using-bootstrap-to-design-websites/.   Let’s face it, an organization with limited resources to allocate to talent, product and service development, sales and marketing and operational expenses is going to want cost-effective shortcuts wherever and whenever they can be found.  The challenge is regarding the discipline and decision-making at work when it comes to following this path.  Bootstrap and templates can make it almost too easy to make something look good that works without thinking about the impact on the distinctiveness, clarity, credibility and relevance of what’s on offer – both visually and in terms of messages.

Second, Steven Bradley makes a compelling case for letting it evolve: Give it more time … but don’t just grab a template, populate it and think the job’s done.http://www.vanseodesign.com/web-design/responsive-sites-look-the-same/

“Give it more time: Responsive design hasn’t matured to the point where we can shift focus away from the underlying structure and back to aesthetics and originality.”

Third, your brand experience still trumps everything else – there are less than brilliant websites for many leading brands when it comes to their performance and mobile UX.  But as Greg Storey notes http://cognition.happycog.com/article/and-they-all-look-just-the-same :

It does nobody any good to have a web that all looks the same. Be mindful of the user’s needs and business requirements, but for the sake of success, go a different route.

Your online experience remains an increasingly important customer experience touchpoint. Don’t mistake a cool responsive site with a responsive, branded, exceptional and distinct customer experience.

Let’s continue the conversation.

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