UI Matters: How an Interface-Lift Can Make or Break a Brand
Can a brand exist by user interface alone? When it comes to internet search, Yahoo is about to find out.
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Yahoo's recent announcement that it would cede its infrastructure for web search to Microsoft was met with a healthy dose of industry skepticism. Carol Bartz, Yahoo's new CEO, justified the deal by outlining a strategy that allows the company to succeed by focusing on its user interface. Innovating there, she reasons, will enable Yahoo to compete with Google and Bing, while harnessing the technical might and infrastructure of Microsoft.
Critics, foremost among them Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land, openly challenged the strategy, loudly proclaiming: "User Interface Changes Won't Let Yahoo Compete In Search."
But Bartz's plan may not be all that outrageous. Today a range of brands in varied industries craft innovative UIs that not only differentiate, but also help them gain share in a competitive marketplace. Some, like Virgin America, use their UIs to extend core brand attributes to transactional tasks (such as booking a flight). While others, such as the celebrity gossip sites Wonderwall or Yahoo's OMG, create distinctive UIs to differentiate a fairly commoditized offering.
NYTimes R&D Lab: Google Labs may be one of the best-known research and development outfits in the tech space, but the NYTimes R&D Lab, at a fraction of the size, certainly delivers in terms of UI innovation. The group has released an Adobe Air application, Times Reader, that smartly mimics the paper-reading experience digitally. It recently released Custom Times Feeds, which is an interface that allows users to personalize NYTimes content through RSS feeds. And the group is working on a host of ways to better integrate advertising, the bread and butter for media companies, into its UIs -- on any device.
All of these companies understand that a differentiated UI, and thereby a differentiated experience, provide a tangible competitive advantage. More forward-thinking brands also realize that a great UI is like a conversation with a consumer -- one typically made up of interactions, rather than words.
Given all of that, Yahoo's user-interface strategy may not be so outrageous after all. The real trick, as any designer knows, will be pulling it off. No small task, but one with tremendous upside if done right. Just look at Apple's iPod for proof.
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