As the line between desktop applications and Web sites blurs, the interface consistency enforced by operating system standards and developer toolkits collides head-on with rich visual expressions of brand online. The result is Web applications with strong brand statements.
This is partially as result of the fact that some companies have only one touch point with their customers: online interactions. This places a heavy burden on the application interface. It becomes the primary expression of the company’s brand attributes. Customer service and any advertising the company chooses to do also play a role. But the bulk of consumer perceptions emerge through usage of the product (via its interface).
Of course, any interface solution needs to be designed with an understanding of the conventions established in its medium. On the Web, global navigation and actions are at the top, local navigation and actions are most commonly on the left, and so on. While conducive to usability, such conventions do limit the options a Web application has to “package itself”.
It turns out physical products face similar restrictions, and for potentially similar reasons.
“My experience was that clients are absolutely obsessed with wanting their packages to be stylistically consistent with all of their competitors. If you came up with a really unique and gorgeous design for an ice cream product, and it didn’t employ the same color treatments and typography styles as its shelf competition, then you were laughed out of the studio. The only way that these brands tend to differentiate (I’m talking American brands) is by name unless they were first to market in a new category.”
R. Bird’s series of professional observations about package design practices (thanks Steve) help to illustrate these conventions. It’s interesting to note how design patterns for both software and physical products emerge from proven solutions driven by learned behaviors. Consumers need to understand a product package contains ice cream as much as users need to know how to find the home page of a web site.