UI Matters: How an Interface-Lift Can Make or Break a Brand

As Yahoo Revamps Look of Search, Here's Some Places to Look for Guidance

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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.

Mint.com: Mint provides the best example of a brand that employed an innovative UI to gain competitive advantage. The company built out a service that banked on a differentiated interface, primarily through data visualization and its hallmark candy-colored graphs, to distinguish it from a host of more established and significantly larger competitors. The result: Mint's recent $170 million sale to Intuit, the start-up's primary competition.

Google Fast Flip: The media industry continues to suffer economically, but it has also realized that the key to its future success won't be through content alone. Experience matters, and, as a result, we are seeing a flurry of activity as companies like Google, NYTimes.com and CNN.com race to innovate. Google's Fast Flip, a web application that allows users to literally "flip" web pages like they would flip pages in a magazine, is one of the more interesting entrants in the UI space recently. Better yet, it's as good on a PC as it is on a mobile phone.

VMA Tweet Tracker: It was almost impossible to top Kanye West's outburst at this year's MTV Music Video Awards, but the VMA "Tweet Tracker" created by Stamen Design and Radian 6, almost did. The UI for the site, which was a real-time visualization of Twitter activity and social news surrounding the awards show (complete with scrolling timeline), took the notion of a "mash-up" to a new level -- becoming a living, breathing window onto what was mostly a scripted event.

UNIQLO: Whether through e-commerce, stylebooks, microsites or even an iPhone App, Uniqlo sets the standard for brands looking to differentiate via digital. The Japanese retailer creates strikingly visual interfaces that enable users to look at the company's fashions in a completely unique, yet intuitive manner.

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.

Skittles: Giving new meaning to the term "mash-up," Skittles made waves this year by creating an interface that grafted the UI for Skittles.com to the social web. Taking a page from Modernista, the brand created a floating navigational element, an overlay really, instead of a website, that sends users to Skittle-themed destinations on social sites like Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Wikipedia and the like. Controversial? Yes. Effective? Definitely.

Yelp.com: The battle for a differentiated UI extends to mobile as well. Yelp.com recently made waves -- and leapfrogged the competition -- by releasing an augmented reality browser for the iPhone. The browser and "transparent" UI take advantage of the phone's camera, built-in GPS and Yelp's own listings to create a mashed-up UI for our physical world.

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.

Garrick Schmitt is group VP-experience planning at Razorfish and the agency's global lead for user experience. He publishes FEED, Razorfish's annual consumer experience report, and in his spare time flails about on Twitter @gschmitt.
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