The brand power of experience pillars

Output

We're excited to have been engaged by the incredible team at Output, the rapidly-growing music software company based in LA. Output was founded by a group of professional musicians and sound designers who have a mission to make music creation more accessible, exciting and inspiring. We can't wait to see and play with what they do in future.

The Challenge

Output already knew they needed to define clearer design principles for their flagship product Arcade. In talking with the team, we recognized that there was also a desire to align all Output's customer-facing touchpoints through a consistent, holistic experience. This is precisely the sort of challenge that Supermoon loves tackling, and one that in truth, most digital product companies still wrestle with. A deeper strategic approach, starting with creating meaningful experience pillars, would ensure the brand's purpose would be at the heart of all future design work.

Output software instrument

Why design principles may not be enough

The primary purpose for design principles is to give the team a structure for design and experience-related decision making, ensuring quality and consistency in delivery. They are critical to achieve and maintain a great experience with a digital product–they help everyone understand what "good" looks like. Depending on how a company articulates them, they can be quite high level and directional, with sub-principles getting more tactical. In other formulations, they are very specific and prescriptive. Likewise in the brand world, when elaborating visual identities, designers often develop a set of principles to guide the extension of the brand idea through all touchpoints and allow for future scaling.

However, because they are inherently practical and process-oriented, when it comes to unifying a brand beyond a product or identity to all digital and customer experience touchpoints, they can be limited. In internal teams, they're often devised by a product design team with a specific focus, so are typically not intended to scale to the entire range of brand touchpoints. Some of them will often be quite generic best practices all digital products should aim to achieve, meaning they aren't always deployed intentionally as a differentiator or aligned with the brand's core values and purpose.

This is where strategic experience thinking comes in.

Introducing experience pillars to strategic brand practice

For UX, CX, environmental and service design specialists, the concept of experience pillars (aka experience values or experience principles) is not all that new. Experience pillars define the broader set of interactions everyone has with the brand. They are different to "brand values", and closer to "brand behaviors", in that they are more explicitly outcome-oriented, rather than broad statements of principle.

As a brand boutique with deep digital expertise, we see two challenges companies in the 2020s face that experience pillars can help resolve.

Firstly, in aligning the brand, marketing and product design teams in service to the same overall experience goals, no matter whether they're designing a digital interface, a physical product, or a series of in-person customer interactions.

Secondly, and critically, in ensuring that what makes the brand unique and powerful is revealed in the audience experience. A good example of this is Shopify's Experience Values. For Shopify, a great customer experience is their brand. Some of their stated experience values help define what makes Shopify different: "Shopify experiences should feel like they were created with the highest level of craftsmanship" is not a value you'd necessarily expect to see with Amazon, for instance. "High levels of craftsmanship" is one way to help differentiate Shopify from a major competitor, and also help the team recognize when an experience feels true to Shopify's overall brand purpose.

Looking over the horizon

With a persistent drive to remove friction in digital experiences in the service of quick returns, different organizations with entirely different purposes and positioning have often ended up with brand experiences feeling essentially the same. In something highly utilitarian like a purchase journey, that can make a lot of sense to stakeholders. A "standardized", no-frills experience when buying a product feels comfortable, secure and easy. The problem is that for many digital-first companies, the incentives to copy other successful brands, and emulate best practices in their digital product experience has crept into the overall brand experience, giving us a plethora of generic startups, illustration styles like "Corporate Memphis" and websites where, stripped of the company logo, you could really be dealing with anyone.

It should sound like common sense, but emulating others at the high brand level has never been the way the best brands operate or succeed. A century of successful new companies as diverse as Disney, Lego and Nike has taught us that organizations are strengthened both internally and externally by authentically purpose-inspired, differentiated brand experiences. It's just as essential now for ambitious digital-first organizations to embrace this truth as it ever was for the "old guard".