The Brand as A Self: Web Design as Impression Management

Brands have few opportunities to come alive, and the Web is one of those opportunities. Make sure the brand gives off the right impression. Researchers have found that a company’s Web site particularly shapes how a person views that company’s innovation and concern for its customers. In other words, the Web site is even more important in “giving off” the right impression.

Brands introduce themselves to people much in the same way that people introduce themselves to people. And just like for humans, brands often “give off” more information than they explicitly mean to provide. This is especially true for Web sites: the brand online is the same as a “self,” and must manage its impression just as people do.

We have all experienced this: you meet someone and develop an immediate sense of what they’re about. You have figured out that this person works in, say, finance, and he has money and children and likes nautical sports. You also find him curt, arrogant and a bit full of himself. Is it something he said specifically? No, not specifically. He did snap at the waitress. And he did mention something about a regatta. He also casually tossed his credit card down when the bill came, rudely brushing aside protestations from the most senior person at the table.

One of my favourite theorists, Erving Goffman, tells us there is an impression you GIVE, and then there is the impression you GIVE OFF. “Selves,” as Goffman puts it, engage in impression management using subtle symbolic signals.

Designers often implicitly think of their particular product — whether it be a kitchen product or a print ad — as something that “gives off” an impression. But this is much more important for immersive experiences like Web sites. A company’s Web site in particular is an immersive experience that gives off countless symbolic cues.

Some observers call this phenomenon “cross channel synchronicity,” or simply just “user experience.” The Web site is key to “giving off” the right impression for a company and its brand because it is the living embodiment of that company.

How should graphic and interaction designers create their products? Keep in mind the following:

  • The brand is a “self” on the Web. This is a great opportunity but designers also run the risk of “giving off” the wrong impression immediately through interactions that suggest a stand-offish, arrogant, or selfish brand.
  • Brand-critical interactions must be done right: I have had many clients who appear unconcerned about appear small interaction problems of their Web site. But if these interactions revolve around mission-critical symbols of your business, make sure they’re done right. If your brand identity if “fun,” ensure that interactions are full of fun, not hard work. If your brand identity is “trustworthy,” over-communicate that message in interactions.
  • Provide the expected “props”: In an earlier post, I showed how individuals use symbolic cues, or “props” to manage impressions. Doctors use stethoscopes, for example, despite the fact that fewer than 40% of them know how to use them properly, mostly because patients EXPECT them to carry them. Web site designers should remember what users expect in terms of “props.” Does your brand really need AJAX? Are visitors surprised to find their is no flash element? Are visitors expecting form fields to have in-line editing?

2 responses to “The Brand as A Self: Web Design as Impression Management

  1. Hi! I just discovered your blog – great content!

    Regarding “props”: this introduces an interesting tension between usability and impressions. The segment I’m targeting expects to see very dynamic, “Flash-y” sites. However they also have notoriously short attention spans and are just a click away from abandoning my site if they can’t accomplish what they want or are forced to wait too long. Does usability win out?

  2. Interesting problem, Nick. I think what you’re describing is a typical design conundrum. On the one hand, you need to use dynamic designs. On the other, you need usability.

    These two are not mutually exclusive; many flashy sites do actually have robust usability as well.

    Usability should “win out” if you put them head to head, if there is a mission-critical process, e.g., a checkout, registration, sign-up, or process.

    I would recommend reading some of the content on boxes and arrows on Flash.

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