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Making your mark: branding and the technical communicator

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2005. Making your mark: branding and the technical communicator.

It might seem illogical to rely on anything as simple as a symbol or a few words to represent your company to the world. Yet think of the range of responses to world-famous names:

A single word or visual symbol clearly communicates a vast spectrum of ideas and emotions. Let's not even mention the range of reactions to the otherwise innocent-seeming word "Microsoft".

These names, and the accompanying visual representations, form the tangible component of a company's brand. That brand represents the sum of a customer's perceptions of the company and its products. Where that brand symbolizes quality, economy, reliability, or other virtues, then preserving that brand’s value becomes a vital part of any communications strategy. Branding is usually seen exclusively as a marketing function, but technical communicators also play an important role in creating and protecting a brand. Here's how.

Where marketing dare not tread

Your company's marketing department handles the brass tacks of branding quite well. For example, it ensures that your company logo appears the same online (graphics, color, and typeface styling) as it does in print so that the logo is instantly recognizable to viewers. And if this is what you think about when you think branding, you've clearly been listening to some of the less-competent Marketing wonks out there.

Visual imagery and color represent only the surface of branding. They comprise nothing more than the "skin" of the user interface—and like physical beauty, this skin is only the visible aspect of something much more complex and interesting. The more important aspects of branding depend on what lies beneath the skin, and that's the part that Marketing rarely touches because they're too busy "positioning" a product and setting insane release schedules. As a result, many companies pay little attention to those things that technical communicators excel at: clarity, legibility, information architecture, accessibility (both indexing and availability to users with handicaps), usability, and interface design, among others. These things aren't always recognized as part of branding, yet they're clearly crucial aspects of a brand. Fine words and obscene Marketing budgets alone can't atone for a poor product, with some notable exceptions I won't mention here in case the company lawyers are watching. Interaction problems can easily become your responsibility, even if you're not formally acknowledged as part of the Marketing team. So long as you can persuade a product's developers to make the product more pleasant to use, you're playing a role in branding the product.

Branding the user experience

A whole new profession of "experience design" has sprung up to help designers shape user interactions with products (whether hardware, software, or a Web site) and thereby shape their perceptions of those interactions and create a pleasant experience when using the product. Experience design doesn't explicitly address branding, but helping to create a great experience clearly enhances a customer's perception of your brand. Fortunately, the moment you improve the documentation or interface, find a bug that can be fixed before a product ships, or spot an embarrassing problem before a Web site goes live, you've improved the user experience and your company's brand. Here are a few examples:

Providing a frustrating experience is one of the easiest ways to lose a customer: clunky interfaces, ineffective search engines, annoying animations, intrusive banner ads or popup windows, funkily illegible fonts on neon backgrounds, and other examples of using technology simply because you can will all diminish the customer's experience. As a user advocate, you encounter these problems before anyone else (while documenting a product) and can report the problems and propose solutions. Sure, the software development process is chaotic at the best of times; that doesn't mean you should let that chaos prevent you from trying to make things better. Perhaps this might even be one of those cases where you can enlist Marketing's aid to make your case; Marketing often seems to have near-divine powers when it comes to setting shipping schedules and whipping product developers into line, so perhaps it's time to harness some of that power by persuading them that a high-quality product would make their lives that much easier.

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and if that impression is a bad one, it'll be difficult to correct. I've often suspected that the reason so few people read our documentation is surprisingly simple: scare someone away from using online help or the printed user manual through one bad experience, and they'll never try again. What kind of brand is that?

Consistency is a virtue

We technical communicators love consistency, both within a single document and across document sets. Making the user experience and the information we present consistent helps our users learn what to expect and how to deal with what they encounter. Consistency between our online and printed materials is important for the same reason. Today, it's still possible that different communities use your company's online and off-line resources, and to the extent that this is true, you may be able to develop different brands for each presence. But people are coming to expect the same quality from your company, whether online or offline. Most likely, you can’t afford to dilute the value of your main brand by providing a lower-quality online experience.

That being the case, it makes sense to lavish equal attention on all aspects of a product that you're involved in: online vs. off-line, documentation vs. training vs. marketing, and so on. Single-sourcing is a great way to improve consistency, provided that you tailor the information to the needs of each medium. But blindly insisting on identical information, presented identically, is not single-sourcing—it's the "foolish consistency that is the hobgoblin of small minds”, in the words of Emerson. (Whether Emerson was sagely predicting the rise of Marketing is an exercise left to the student.) The meaning and content of that information must be consistent, but the presentation can and often should differ dramatically; the labeled screenshot that you would use in a printed manual could, for example, be replaced by an interactive wizard that highlights each part of the interface as the user completes a task. The content is consistent (the same series of steps), but the presentation changes to fit the medium.

Change is accelerating

The modern era is infamous for the speed at which technology evolves—the phrase "Internet time" reflects this "I want it now" pace. Even well-established brands face ongoing challenges from existing and new competitors, and there's little time to rest on your laurels. Any successful branding strategy must now include a focus on on creating a satisfying user experience. Fortunately, this doesn't require an advanced psychological or marketing degree. You can accomplish surprisingly good results simply by concentrating on communicating clearly and in a way that's appropriate to your audience, and acting as their advocate wherever possible. Taking strong measures to identify and respond to user needs remains, in the real world and the world of the technical communicator alike, a time-tested way to create a quality brand.

This article is a revised and expanded version of the following article: Hart, G.J. 2002. Brand new challenges for brands. Computerworld Canada, March 8/2002:11.

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