Sunday, November 06, 2005

Whither competitive differentiation?

OK, so it took me a little longer than two days to get my head back together after a strenuous few days last week. I would still like to carry on with the theme of the discussion at the last IA-peers meeting, at which we argued the legitimacy of the notion that a two Web sites with superficially similar user audiences would be designed differently in some meaningful respect.

My proposition to the group was that two businesses with similar business models, attacting similar customers, should be designed differently regardless of the needs of the users, and that these differences will be in ways other than simply visual representation of the corporate identity. As well you may imagine, to an audience predominantly consisting of user-centred design practitioners, this proposition was well argued. First, let me present my reasoning:

  • Companies compete in the marketplace by creating and maintaining a competitive advantage over the rest of the industry
  • Competitive advantage comes in many different forms - a low cost base; superior product or service quality; the ability to innovate and commercialise new technologies; geographical reach; and others;
  • Competitive positioning will affect all strategic decisions, including the balance between visual, functional, technical & content elements of a Web project - i.e. where the business focuses its efforts.
  • Companies also differentiate themselves through their brand (not just the corporate identity), which encompasses the 'whole' product or service- the sum total of interactions a customer has with the organisation.
  • The companies 'target' brand is represented and communicated through the brand essence and value proposition.
These are all company-centric ways in which one organisation differentiates itself from its competitors, and directs the efforts of the organisation towards communicating that difference to the market-at-large.

To give an example, Telstra's brand tagline has for some time been 'Making life easier'. It has only been recently that the corporate Web site has started to actualise this brand value through a focus on usability and user-centredness. Similarly, Mitsubishi Australia has recently been running a TV ad campaign promoting the company's commitment to manufacturing quality. A visitor to the company Web site should not encounter any errors or performance issues (site not available etc) when using the site if Mitsubishi wishes to reinforce, rather than contradict, that message.

Some have argued that these internal 'values' are unimportant in the context of a Web site's design parameters, but I believe it is the integrated interplay between these business characteristics and the characteristics of the user audience, and their needs, that will produce the best results for all site stakeholders.

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