The study of Human-Computer Interaction is, largely, focused on human behavior as it relates to computing systems. The field of HCI research is voluminous; with studies bearing the results of mouse-click efficiency, cognitive processing and various design principles. However, relatively little study has been conducted on the perception of brands and the effect it has on usability testing outcomes. More specifically, does a user’s pre-conceived notions about a brand or company effect the experience (either positively or negatively) with the product?
This is intended to be an empirical study, surveying research from many disciplines, to understand the effects of brand relationships on usability outcomes. The desire is to gain insight into how positive or negative relationships with companies, and their brands, can cloud or obscure true usability research feedback.
Through better understanding of these complex relationships, we can mitigate their effect or influence on usability research.
What’s in a Brand?
In 1998, Dr. Susan Fournier published a rather controversial study titled: Consumers and Their Brands: Developing Relationship Theory in Consumer Research. In it, she describes that consumers’ brand loyalty is more significant than “narrowly cognitive utilitarian decision-making.”(Fournier, 1998, p. 343)
Up to this point, it was largely believed that brand loyalty could be measured on sequence, proportion, or repeat purchasing behavior (Fournier, 1998, p. 343). In her research, Dr. Fournier suggested that consumers actually formed complex relationships with brands. Psychologists of the time believed that this was not possible; as one could not form a relationship with an inanimate object.
Through her study, Dr. Fournier completed intimate case studies of three women named Jean, Karen and Vicki. In each study, she provided a comprehensive Life Story and connected those formative experiences to emotional relationships in their preferred brand portfolio.
What’s immediately understood, throughout this study, is that these women have more of a connection to the brand than a simple preference. Furthermore, these preferences lead to strong rejections of competing products:
Jean develops deeply held convictions about product performance to support her perceptions of surviving “best brands”. Oftentimes beliefs in utilitarian functioning are bolstered by myths that evolve over the course of the usage experience. These ancillary beliefs mark the brand as superior and irreplaceable, affording resistance to competitive attack
(Fournier, 1998, p. 351).
Furthermore, these women adopt brands as a way of identifying one’s self. Karen, a recently divorced, 40 year old, amateur tennis player has adopted brands like Reebok and Gatorade because they define an identity she is trying to discover:
Running has acquired a very special meaning in Karen’s life. [Reebok shoes] symbolize the first conscious step taken away from [her divorce].
Gatorade is another product that makes Karen feel good about herself. In exchange for these ego benefits, the brand is rewarded with strong feelings of attachment and commitment. (Fournier, 1998, p. 355)
Human beings are relational creatures with rich imaginations and desires. We identify ourselves and our aspirational goals through the brands we purchase and use.
MUJI, a popular Japanese retail brand, has become successful due to its embrace of simple design and disdain for waste. MUJI products are made with recycled materials and are kept as close to their natural form as possible (Fan, 2009, p. 341). One cannot help but see the parallels of consumer preference for the Japanese MUJI brand and the American brand Apple, Inc.
When a consumer purchases at MUJI, they do not just purchase the product itself but in addition, all the simple, natural and basic lifestyle the product presents. Once they discover that such simple products can also provide high quality and aesthetics to their lifestyles, it fulfills their longing for a simple life (Fan, 2009, p. 341).
Through these studies, we come to an understanding that brand loyalty is an emotional connection. It’s a trust that consumers form, predicated on an expected outcome or quality. These bonds can be emotionally strong and they set the stage for aggressive protection from competing brands or ideals.
Therefore, it’s quite possible that these emotional connections for brand preference and familiarity interject bias when the subject is questioned about a competing product’s usefulness or design.
Brand Perception in the Virtual Realm
In the ever expanding world of virtual commerce one could make the argument that brands are becoming less important. After all, consumers are nomads online; switching shopping experiences and loyalties as quickly as they can click their mouse. It’s possible that brand connections are not as valuable to online consumers as they are to their non-online counterparts.
A study completed by Hong-Youl Ha & Perks (2005) dispels these assumptions. In fact, while examining the shopping behaviors for web consumers, they were able to conclude that brand experience (online) significantly affects customer satisfaction (Hong-Youl Ha & Perks, 2005, p. 448).
Furthermore, 90% of all online shoppers consider good customer experience to be a critical factor when choosing a favorable website from which to make purchases (Hong-Youl Ha & Perks, 2005, p. 447).
Therefore, it can be assumed that great online experiences lead to brand familiarity, preference and, eventually loyalty. And because consumers exhibit preference for a particular object [brand] they , therefore, must equally exhibit discrimination of competing objects [brands] (Irwin, 1958, p. 152).
This appears to hold true online as well as the traditional “brick-and-mortar” experience.
Do Brand Preferences Effect Usability Research Outcomes?
We’ve established that consumers make strong emotional connections with brands. This is the case regardless if the brand connection is made physically or virtually. And because brand preferences exist, it can be assumed that discrimination will also be present as well.
By their very nature, usability studies are conducted in a way that examines user behavior and response to a proposed design or interface. It encourages the user to provide feedback about the completion of tasks and expand upon the experience when interacting with the tested product.
So how do these preferences and discriminations affect usability studies?
In 2007, Shinyoung Park, Akira Harada and Hiroya Igarashi completed an extensive study titled: Influences of Personal Preference on Product Usability and set out to demonstrate, experimentally, that user trust or affection for a brand affects the results of usability tests (Park, Harada, & Igarashi, 2006, p. 87).
Essentially, their theory was that if a user has a favorable perception of a brand, he or she will feel less tired after operating the product of that brand” (Park et al., 2006, p. 89).
Throughout the study, users were asked to complete a series of five tasks (alarm setup, address entry, picture taking, background screen setup, and emailing) using two different smartphones. The participants were divided into 2 groups. One group had a preference for brand N and the other group had a preference for brand S.
Even though the participants had a preference for a particular brand, it did not mean that they owned a smartphone or were more familiar with the preferred brand. In other words, the participants did not have a preference for a particular brand simply because they were more familiar with its operation (Park et al., 2006, p. 89).
The study concluded that, even though the participants performed the same tasks, they had decreased mental and physical demands operating products with brands they preferred (Park et al., 2006, p. 87).
Most telling, they concluded that the existence or nonexistence of a preference for a company could, in fact, affect the result of a usability test (Park et al., 2006, p. 92).
In other words, the consumer’s brand perception influenced the user’s experience in operating the product. Ultimately, the user’s image of the product’s brand was an important variable (Park et al., 2006, p. 87).
A new phenomenon that is becoming more prevalent in product and software development is the notion of “ecosystems”. More and more, consumers are making choices, not only on a specific product, but how it relates with a family of products and services.
The Apple iPad, for example, not only provides the features of a tablet computer device – it also provides access to a rich ecosystem of apps, music, videos, books and periodicals. The Apple App Store has delivered over 25 billion apps to its customers (“Apple’s app store reaches 25 billion downloads,” 2012). These are proprietary applications that can only run on select Apple devices.
As consumers purchase more content for their devices they, effectively, become more entrenched in the ecosystem and it becomes less desirable (and costly) to switch to a competing product where their content will no longer work. Effectively, switching to an alternative product becomes less desirable over time.
This type of customer lock-in further strengthens the brand relationship between the consumer and the perceived value of the product. Additionally, the consumer becomes vested in the success of the product – much like owning stock or a personal stake in the company.
A 2011 study completed by Jae You, Jae Lee, and Cheol Park, studied the “relationship investment” and “emotional attachment” that participants made with the initial adoption of a smartphone and the behaviors after adoption (You, Lee, & Park, 2011, p. 108).
They concluded that factors in the “pre-adoption” phase of selecting a smartphone are different than “post-adoption” factors (You et al., 2011, p. 111).
Essentially, after a consumer has purchased a smartphone, the factors in which they evaluate all other smartphones change.
In the “post-adoption” phase (the phase after the consumer purchases a smartphone), the consumer considers “relationship investment”, “switching costs”, and “emotional attachment” when evaluating alternative products. These factors are simply not present in the “pre-adoption” phase (the phase before a consumer purchases a smartphone) (You et al., 2011, p. 111).
To put it another way, when consumers purchase a smartphone, they establish an emotional attachment; making it more difficult for them to consider a competing product. Therefore, it is vitally important for smartphone manufacturers to capture consumers before they make their first smartphone purchase.
As consumers we are inundated with brands and brand stories. Companies vie for our attention; trying to establish a relationship of trust and, hopefully, preference. Some companies strike gold by injecting their brands into our vernacular. We see evidence of this when consumers say “I’ll just Google it” or “Grab me a Kleenex”. Effectively, the brand relationship is so strong that it becomes synonymous with its function.
So how does this affect usability research? If consumers are under the impression that Google, for instance, is how you search the Internet – what perceived value would they place on an alternative search engine they were unfamiliar with?
In a study titled The Effect of Brand Awareness on the Evaluation of Search Engine Results, Bernard Jansen, Mimi Zhang and Ying Zhang explored the relationships and assumptions users have with search engine brands and how that correlates to their rating of the product.
The study was conducted in a controlled laboratory environment. Each of the 32 participants was given identical search results; however, each collection of results had a different brand associated with it (Google, Yahoo, MSN, etc.).
The findings were that, even though the search results were exactly the same (including format, layout, and functionality), there was a 25% difference between the most highly rated search engine and the lowest (Jansen, Zhang, & Zhang, 2007, p. 2471).
In other words, users reported more favorable ratings based on their associations to the value of the search engine brand.
The researchers concluded that there were significant connections between brand and the user’s perception of quality search results. Therefore, product brand is an important usability variable in system design and evaluations (Jansen et al., 2007, p. 2476).
Through the exploration of various studies, it appears that there is a correlation between the preference of brands and the perceived usability of products. It’s clear that consumers make deep emotional relationships with brands and it affects their perceptions of alternative products and services.
Additionally, it’s proven that brands have a physiological effect on the use of a product. Put simply, users are able to operate products more effectively when it is associated with a brand they prefer.
With this knowledge, it becomes apparent that it may be necessary to remove branding and brand associations while completing usability studies of a product. Obviously, in some cases, this may be unavoidable. Therefore, it may also be worth noting the subject’s pre-conceived notions or perceptions of the brand before conducting a usability study.
Although this study is not exhaustive, it opens up the discussion for further exploration of brands and their affects amongst HCI research.
Research Paper – Brands Matter (190K PDF) (Full document including references and bibliography)