Products are like people. There are some products you like, some you don’t, and some you simply fall in love with. Because, just like people, products have personalities.
The bad news is that some personalities are just ugly. The good news is that a product isn’t born, but made. This means we can always shape a product’s personality to support both our business and users’ needs.
In this and the following articles on this subject, we’ll look at what precisely a product’s personality is and how you can build the right one for your product.
Personality: from branding to experience
The concept of product personality isn’t new under the sun. Since the dawn of marketing, designers and marketers have used text and visuals to create brand identities. But that’s pretty much where their efforts stopped. Personality was branding, and branding was a one-way message, from business to consumer. No communication, no interaction, no experience.
Over time, there was a shift from branding, in its traditional marketing meaning, to Brand, in a broader approach. After the Second World War, there was a boom in the production of goods. Consumerism was on the rise; people had more brands and products to choose from and also more money to spend. Designers and marketers had to put in extra effort to make their products stand out.
And although there were many creative (but mostly sexist) marketing campaigns in the 50s and 60s, branding was still a one-way message. It was a way to represent a product to the consumer in commercials, billboards, and magazines. The goal was to anchor the brand name in the customers’ minds so that they’d mindlessly buy the product.
Then came the digital era, with the boom of the internet and social media. Branding shifted from a one-way message (from business to consumer) to two-way communication.
Now we have more channels to interact with and talk about brands. We can like, unlike, subscribe, review, and share our experience with a brand with the whole world. A Brand is now defined by its ability to deliver on its promise and by the entire set of experiences associated with it. Branding has become a dialogue, rather than a message. The brand has become a reputation, rather than a representation.
Let’s think about Airbnb. What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear that name?
You’ll probably answer something like holidays, local experiences, or exploring the world. Your answer will mainly be about the experiences you associate with the product, and very little about the representation of the brand, in the form of logos and colors.
This isn’t to say that these aren’t important. Airbnb is the pink coral color, the infinity-A logo, and the sans-serif Cereal typeface. Airbnb is also its brand promise: to “transform the way people travel, enabling them to explore the world, not as a tourist, but to truly ‘Belong Anywhere’.”.
But if Airbnb hadn’t lived up to that promise, if it hadn’t offered its users the best online and offline experiences, today it would only be a brand book gathering dust in some design studio.
Airbnb and other brands alike are successful because they’ve aligned their representation with their reputation. Flipping a brand from one-way to two-way communication meant flipping from a message to an experience.
Aligning representation and reputation for a cohesive product experience
There are two important areas that make up a product’s personality: Representation and Reputation. Representation helps make the product recognizable: what it looks like (visuals), what it feels like (interactions), and what it sounds like (tone of voice). But people don’t perceive these elements in isolation. They interpret them based on their own experiences and expectations of the product. And that’s what makes up a product’s Reputation.
Bridging representation and reputation is crucial for a coherent product experience. And ultimately, for the success of a product. This can only be done when all teams involved in the development of the product are in harmony with each other and with the product’s goals.
There are many roles involved in defining and developing products. Each of these roles is responsible for giving the product the right personality traits and communicating them:
- A company owns the product. This company defines the vision and core values of the product. In the development cycle of the product, there can sometimes be setbacks and compromises to be made. All business decisions taken by the company must follow and support the core values.
- Designers reinforce the personality of the product throughout the customer journey. They do this by using the core values as the foundation for the entire experience: branding, marketing, visuals, copy, motion, and all other areas.
- Customers then project their own expectations onto the product. If their experience of the product doesn’t match their expectations, the product is likely to fail. To avoid this, the product must provide a consistently great experience across all elements and interaction channels.
But just as no human is perfect, no product is perfect either. At some point in the customer journey, there may appear friction or unmet expectations. Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate bad experiences and make room for positive ones.
In his book “Don’t make me think!”, Steve Krug developed the concept of the “reservoir of goodwill”. The idea behind this is that every user starts with a certain level of goodwill or tolerance. Every time there’s friction or an expectation isn’t met, the reservoir decreases. And every time something is pleasant, the amount of goodwill increases.
“The reservoir is limited, and if you treat users badly enough and exhaust it there’s a good chance that they’ll leave. But leaving isn’t the only possible negative outcome; they may just not be as eager to use your site in the future, or they may think less of your organization.”
The bottom line is: bad things happen to everyone and not all expectations can be met. So to build a good reputation for your product, you need to make sure the reservoir of goodwill stays full. And how? By consistently taking positive actions that support both the personality of your product and the needs of your customers.
The four elements of a product’s personality
There are 4 main elements that make up the personality of a product and, for each of these elements, there are a lot of factors and disciplines involved: business stakeholders, marketers, designers – to name just a few. Aligning all these elements in order to build a well-rounded, cohesive personality is what will make your product a memorable experience for your customers.
#1. Core values. Why does your product exist?
Core values are the fundamental reason a product exists and all the guiding principles that help shape its personality. Business stakeholders are responsible for defining these values and turning them into concrete, specific, and actionable principles that guide all product-related decisions, in terms of features, design, customer interaction, and business goals.
#2. Tone of voice. What does your product sound like?
Every piece of writing in a product communicates two things: the information itself and the way that piece of information is communicated. The latter forms the tone. Out of the 4 elements of personality, tone of voice has the most impact on a product’s desirability – which can make or break its success. So it is vital for copy- and UX-writers to tailor the tone of voice for the best fit, depending on the industry and type of product.
#3. Visuals. What does your product look like?
We might not want to admit this, but, most often, we make our first impression of a person or product based on visuals alone. The colors, typography, icons, illustrations, and all other visual elements in a product’s interface communicate the product’s visual identity. This is the area where visual designers come to shine, and their job is much more than making everything look pretty. Every visual-related choice in the design of a product can have a meaningful influence not only on users’ perception of the product or brand, but can also impact business goals and outcomes.
#4. Interactions. What does your product feel like?
Our most significant and lasting impression of a product is shaped by the way it feels when we use it. If done right, the product will be easy to learn and use and will support its users in accomplishing their goals. Interaction and UX designers use knowledge from different disciplines, such as human-computer interaction, psychology, and ergonomics, to design the right interactions and behavior for the product, supporting both the business and the users.
We will discuss each of these elements in more detail in future articles.
Multiple channels, one personality
Nowadays, customers have almost infinite ways to interact with brands. We have physical locations, websites, apps, phone lines, ads, TV commercials, and so on. And while the company may be divided into departments based on these channels, customers perceive all these touchpoints as one company and one experience.
“To every single customer, a journey is one holistic interaction with your organization, one experience rather than a collection of individual experiences. Users don’t think in terms of channels and devices, so they will not understand or tolerate experiences that are fragmented across channels.” Source
The personality of a product needs to remain consistent not only across the different elements, but also across the different channels through which people interact with it. Support and reinforce the personality of your product by creating a consistent and seamless omnichannel experience.
Consistency in the omnichannel ecosystem not only benefits your product’s personality by building credibility and trust in your brand, but also helps users build familiarity with the product, supports learning interactions, and improves users’ overall efficiency in completing tasks.
The most obvious area where omnichannel consistency should be applied is in visual and interaction design. The look and feel of a product should tell a consistent story that aligns with the brand identity across all channels. But consistency is also important at deeper levels, such as core functionality and customer data: users expect to be able to complete their tasks and access their data regardless of the interaction channel.
Depending on their needs and context, users will move from channel to channel over time to complete one or more tasks. Allowing them to do this is good, but enabling them to change channels seamlessly is great.
“Seamlessness is a quality of any crosschannel customer journey where the transitions (or handoffs) from one channel to the next involve zero or minimal overhead for the users. Basically, if you can pick up where you left off, the user experience will be seamless. But if users have to reestablish their contexts and/or redo work when switching to a new channel, then the experience will feel bumpy.” Source
There are several reasons why users may need to switch channels or devices when interacting with digital services. Sometimes, there’s an interruption in the middle of an activity that will need to be resumed. For example, if you’re writing emails, you may start the task in the office, on a desktop device. But, soon you’ll need to go to a meeting and continue the task on the go, on a mobile device. In other cases, you might switch channels because the task at hand is better suited to a particular channel.
An example of this is casually browsing flights in a mobile app and switching to a desktop website for the booking and payment process. And sometimes, you might switch devices simply because you need a bigger screen, a more comfortable place, or a different environment. Watching Netflix on the living room TV and then going to the bedroom to continue the movie where you left off is such an example.
Whatever the reason, users expect their information to be available on all devices and channels and to be able to continue their tasks seamlessly without having to repeat their work, remember where they left off, and relearn the interface. Consistent and seamless interaction across multiple channels not only reinforces the personality of the product, but also improves the overall experience of using it.
There are a lot of factors that shape our personality, from the day we are born to the day we die. The people we meet, the experiences we have and the values we follow, are just a few. Personality is not a one-stop ride. Or a thing you pick up from the shelf, put on, and wear till it gets shabby.
Personality is the very core of us, just like it is the very core of the products we build. Yet, there isn’t a personality designer you can hire to make your product fun or friendly or any other adjective you can think of. But there are experts in their own niches, who can shape small parts of your product into a consistent, functional, and beautiful whole.
Your company will give your product meaning, direction, and support. Branding experts will introduce your product to the world. Copy- or UX-writers will give your product the right words, voice, and tone. UI designers will dress your product in the most appropriate – and beautiful – clothes. Interaction designers will teach your product the right manners to fit any situation. And, also, how to help and support your users. And there are many more disciplines that contribute to the whole of your product.
But only when all these disciplines work together, when all teams are aligned with each other and with the core values, will your product become a consistent, well-rounded, and desirable experience for your clients.
Article written by Ilinca Mitu