If you want a successful product, you have to look past the features. You need to focus on the stuff that will make people love using your software.
Products have to be functional, of course. Any SaaS company that wants to stay afloat needs to deliver software with consistently above-average features. Otherwise, your business will be dead on arrival once it hits the market.
Good features are table stakes these days. There are thousands of products in the martech industry alone — most with very decent functionality. But these companies all (probably) want to improve in two areas: product differentiation and customer loyalty.
Why? Because they know building products people truly enjoy using is the only sustainable way to annex more market share.
This is where your product’s brand aesthetic comes in. Brand aesthetic encompasses the visual identity of your product as well as the flourishes of brand personality that make their way into the user experience.
In this article, I’ll unpack why people love a good brand aesthetic and how you can create a stellar one for your product.
Why Brand Aesthetic Matters and How It Works
Look back at the history of the software industry, and you’ll find a long list of products that were strong on functionality but weak on brand aesthetic.
These applications all did what they said they could, but their customers didn’t have any emotional investment in the experience.
In contrast, today’s blue chip products not only bring powerful functionality to the party but also treat the user to a feast of stellar design and distinct interactions. Slack, Hubspot, Asana, and InVision aren’t just powerful; they’re enjoyable to use in a distinct way.
Their brand aesthetic is part of their differentiation strategy. Each company has used their product’s unique aesthetic to ascend from the pile of also-ran products and establish themselves at the mountaintop of their respective industries.
So how, exactly, does the connection between product aesthetic and user work? There are a few psychological principles that can illuminate this phenomenon. I’ll focus on two.
First, there’s the aesthetic usability effect. This principle states people often perceive things they find aesthetically pleasing as easier to use. The prettier a product’s user interface is, the simpler people will think it is to navigate — whether that’s actually the reality or not.
In this modern age, people crave simplicity. It’s a precious currency that Google (among others) has trained everyone to expect. The aesthetic usability effect tells us that simplicity and beauty are in fact linked, at least where technology is concerned.
Second, there’s Hick’s Law, which asserts that the time it takes to make a decision increases with the amount and complexity of choices. In essence, the more choices someone has, the harder it is to make a decision.
The simplicity or complexity of your product’s user interface is fundamentally connected to your product’s aesthetic. Under the right circumstances, complexity isn’t a bad thing, but it needs to be integrated into the larger context of your application to make sense.
Either way, matching your design strategy to the needs and emotions of your customers is a winning formula.
Which brings us to the practical side of this article: how to develop a great aesthetic for your software.
Finding Your Aesthetic
Your brand aesthetic reaches beyond the borders of your product. It lives in the copy you write for your website, the content you share on social, and the YouTube royalty free music you use in your videos.
So you can’t just slap a color palette together, update some screens in your application, and call it a day. A successful product aesthetic matches the broader identity of your entire brand. Here are three steps to unearthing a compelling visual direction for your product.
1. Polish (or carve out) your brand identity
You’ve got to know what you stand for as an organization before you start making decisions about design. Even if you’ve done some brand work in the past, if you’re worried about the look and feel of your product, it’s probably time to revisit your brand identity.
This might seem like a massive undertaking, but it doesn’t have to be that bad.
Start at the beginning by assessing your company culture and narrative. The people who work at your organization and the origin story of the company inform who you are as a brand. You can’t fake this stuff (or you shouldn’t, at least) because these stories help shape the design, content, and overall aesthetic of your product.
Next, consider your position in the market. Are you a challenger brand, an upstart, or the undisputed heavyweight champion? What does this position say about your messaging? Again, you’ve got to have these things locked down before you move on to the visual side of things.
2. Hire a good designer and create a mood board
Once you’ve got your brand identity squared away, you can move on to the aesthetics. If you’re serious about this, don’t try to do it yourself. Hire a designer, preferably a good one with experience.
It’s an all too common mistake for executives to balk at actually investing in design. They perceive it as a sunk cost with little return. But as we’ve seen from the aesthetic-usability effect and Hick’s Law, aesthetics matter a lot.
Anyway, the designer will want to create a mood board to come up with the visual identity for your product. This exercise defines the emotions you want to prioritize in your design based on your company’s story and the experience you want to deliver to customers.
Talking about emotions can seem abstract — and it is — but that’s the raw materials a designer needs to craft a visually engaging design. Just go with it.
3. Get some feedback
Here’s the great thing about living in the digital age: you don’t have to guess about whether a particular creative direction will work or not. You can test it.
The designer you hired to come up with your visual identity probably doesn’t have the right skillset to do the test, so I would recommend working with a UX designer. (You’re going to need one anyway to implement the aesthetic into the product.)
By conducting some UX tests, this designer should be able to gauge how much people like your product’s new look. If the results aren’t quite what you’re looking for, make some adjustments and try again.
But aesthetics are really subjective, so at some point you’ll probably need to just pull the trigger and push the new visuals live.
This all might sound like a lot of work, but the brand aesthetic for your product is just as important as its functionality. You need a blend of utility and beauty to really make it.
Thankfully, the road to achieving a winning aesthetic has already been paved. You simply need to walk it to have a product that creates a real, lasting connection with your customers.
Zach is the content specialist at Soundstripe, a music licensing company that supplies creators with tools like storyboard templates to help with YouTube monetization.