Can You Please Verify The "Brand"?

You probably know the story.

A client has done the right thing and asked for a usability study to verify that the prototype is easy to use. You define the audience and write the recruitment screener, start recruiting and write the study protocol. Then, right before the study starts the (dreaded) request comes in: "While we're at it, can we make sure that people like the brand direction?"

<Insert big sigh here>

For clients who are new to user research this request is understandable. I mean, we have our target audience in the room so why not? It seems inefficient to conduct an entirely separate study to capture brand perception. What's the big deal?

Here's the big deal. Compared to usability recruits there are additional characteristics required of people who should evaluate the brand compared to usability recruits. For example, to get an accurate picture of brand perception, you should recruit people who have a mix of brand exposure. That is, include some people who are not familiar with the brand and some people who are very familiar. This requirement is less important for most usability studies as it usually has little impact on task completion rates.

Sample size is another reason why brand research cannot be wedged into a typical usability study. A typical study of 10 people will only give you high-level, directional guidance when it comes to brand, whereas 10 people will illuminate most of the usability issues in a prototype. So any findings regarding brand in a usability study would need to be verified with surveys and additional qualitative research to get statistical significance.

A third reason is time. A typical usability study takes at least an hour and investigating the brand is no small task. Brand research alone probably warrants an hour of time. So you've just doubled your in-lab time and most likely doubled your gratuity. If planned in advance, these additions are not an issue but they are very problematic when added to an existing study.

Ok, enough complaining. If you can't convince your client to conduct separate research what do you do? First, don't compromise your main deliverable. It is worse to do a sub-par job on both the usability study and the brand work. Instead, add a quick and dirty brand analysis and ensure the client understands its limitations. The best tool that I've found for this is a modified version of Microsoft's "Desirability Toolkit". The process is explained over at UserFocus as a way to measure satisfaction. However, it's also useful in our context.

In essence, users describe the brand using keywords and the results are displayed as a tag cloud in which a larger word indicates it was selected more often. Here are the results for a hypothetical example for Fake Company's brand:


If the users' tag cloud matches the client's expected adjectives you can't be certain that you have alignment because the sample is so small, but it's a useful indicator. Confirming these findings with more research is required but providing clients with something to start with helps. And because it can be done very quickly, the impact on your primary usability work is thankfully small.

Experts on brand research please weigh in. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this method and how you would tackle this challenge.


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