The Brand and UX Gap
What it means for conversion, and what you can do about it
Branding Beyond Storytelling illustrated that changing user behavior required looking beyond paid advertising content. It discussed how digital malleability offers a unique opportunity for brands to upgrade the product experience and bring it in line with the brand promise. While storytelling is important and will always be an important way for brands to attract people, only good experience can make them buy and recommend the brand.
Today, after learning more about digital prototyping, user experience research and user experience measurement, I’m sharing a case that puts some numbers against these concepts. What follows is an outline of how even the most iconic brands can also struggle to convert if it doesn't offer an experience that is in line with user expectations.
Mercedes-Benz is more than just a car; it is an icon. It is a global symbol of comfort, performance, luxury, and success. With a brand value of $48 billion, Interbrand has rated it among the top brands globally. The company also spends a lot of money on advertising every year. According to Statista, in 2017 alone it spent over 700 million in paid advertising.
Mercedes-Benz also makes ads that stand out. Like this one, it talks about how their cars listen to the driver.
But in spite of its strong brand, Mercedes-Benz website ranks #14227. Even within the auto category it ranks a low #15.
This made me curious about their digital user experience, and I decided to carry out a UX evaluation of one of their websites. I chose to evaluate their website for the ease of “building a car.”(A tool that helps users choose a car and equip it with features they need). I chose this function because various studies have shown that potential customers also go to car company websites to check offers, packages and build cars. Building a car on the website is often followed by asking the dealership for a quote, this makes the “build” function an important step in the customer decision process.
Mercedes-Benz has many great cars. One of them is the CLA. It is an important car in the Mercedes-Benz portfolio because being a smaller sedan it could be the first Mercedes-Benz for many customers. So, I decided to analyze CLA.
The UX evaluation process
This UX evaluation study had three components. The first stage involved quantitative unmoderated user testing to understand ‘what’ users were doing when they tried to build a car on the CLA website. This was followed by a qualitative, unmoderated test to understand why users were facing challenges on the website, if any. Finally, I also carried out a card sorting exercise to cross-examine findings from the quantitative and qualitative stages of the study. A quantitative analysis up front helped me in gathering feedback from many respondents before forming a hypothesis.
Comparing the CLA with Tesla Model 3
In order to have a comparative view of the user experience on the CLA website, and I analyzed the Tesla Model 3 website in parallel. I chose Tesla because it has become an important name in the auto business. It also has a unique direct-to-customer business and sells cars online. Thus, a seamless web experience is critical for the company's success. Also, in spite of being an upstart, the Tesla website ranks much higher. All this makes it a worthy reference point.
(Tesla’s Model 3, though not a gasoline car, is attracting buyers who have traditionally been buying premium compact sedans like Mercedes C Class and BMW 3 series and thus it is an important competitor to watch out for.)
In advertising we often say that the reason why people like or dislike a commercial is surprisingly simple and often has little to do with advertiser's grand plans. Findings from this User Testing have been similar. When I started, I was thinking that the CLA website was cluttered, and may be even "over-designed," but users struggled on the website for very different reasons.
The website is using actions words that are not standard to the car category. (E.g. Using “Configure a car" as an action word instead of “Building a car".)Some actions words confuse users. (For example, the confusion between “customizing” and “configuring”?)
These small labeling details have far-reaching impact on the overall user experience. Allow me to illustrate:
Low success rate: When asked to build a car, only 11% of the users on the CLA website succeeded in doing it. In comparison, 93% of the (same!) respondents were able to complete the task on the Model 3 website.
Long time to complete the task: Users on the CLA website viewed an average of sixteen pages and invested anything between four to nine and a half minutes doing this. In contrast, the same set of users were able to build the car in just two and a half minutes on the Model 3 website.
Users getting lost: Many users on the CLA website ended up clicking links like “Design” and “Search” in their pursuit of the build function. In contrast, not a single user resorted to ‘search’ on the Model 3 website. This indicates that, on the Model 3 website, most of the users were able to find what they were looking for.
Users abandoning the task: The challenge of building a car on the CLA website led to almost 20% of users abandoning the task. In contrast none of the respondents abandoned the task on the Model 3 website.
Perception of difficulty: 65% of the users described building a car on the CLA website as "difficult" or "very difficult." In contrast, only 20% of users found building a car on the Model 3 website "difficult".
Difficulty = Bad mood: After the task, 80% of visitors to the CLA website were not in a good mood. In contrast, less than 10% of respondents on the Model 3 website were in a bad mood.
Bad mood = Won’t recommend: As result of their experience on the CLA website, only 25% of the respondents said that they would recommend the car to others. On the other hand, 80% of the respondents on the Model 3 website said that they would recommend it.
However, when I changed the brief and asked users to ‘configure’ the car (as opposed to building it), they were able to do it in a breeze. All the respondents were not just able to find the ‘configure’ button but were able to do it in less than twenty seconds! Compare this with four and a half seconds to nine seconds they were taking before.
CLA’s choice of action words raised many questions. Why did they choose “configure” over “build”? Was the word unique to CLA or was it a category norm? What actions words were competitor websites using?
A quick analysis of leading premium car brand websites revealed that in the UK, five out of seven premium car brand websites were using “build”, and not “configure”. Things were even more skewed in favor of “build” in the US where nine out of ten premium car brand websites, including Mercedes-Benz, were using “build”. Thus, CLA seemed to be an outlier, deviating from category convention without any benefit.
The problem was deeper than one word
I also checked if there were other words and phrases on the CLA website that users didn’t understand. This revealed even more gaps. Users described many words as incomprehensible, including words like EQ, eMobility, Motability, Connectivity, and Equipment.
Some of these words are not self-explanatory and reflect advertising and marketing speak. Using layered marketing language, when users are trying to get something done, can frustrate them. Users visiting a website often indicates they are interested in the brand. However, once on the website, they are wanting to get something done (looking for information, comparing things, asking questions etc). Thus, the structure, layout and content of the website should be such that it helps users in accomplishing what they want.
"Layered marketing language can come in way of users who are trying to get something done."
In order to make it easier for users to get things done, the CLA website needs to use simpler and self-explanatory action words and lay out information in a way that follows consumer and category conventions.
At a broader level, these findings also illustrate how a seemingly small detail like the choice of action words can impact the user experience in a big way. There could be just one word standing between your customers trying and buying your product or leaving your website annoyed and not coming back.
There could be just one word standing between your customers trying and buying your product or leaving your website!
The Brand and UX gap is not unique to Mercedes-Benz
Millward Brown’s Digital Conversion and Optimization Report reveals that despite the amount of software available and awareness of testing as a proven optimization tactic, only 49% of marketers are currently A/B testing content on their websites and an even smaller segment of marketers (36%) are copy testing specifically. Further 70% of marketers are neither aware of their competitors "conversion rates", nor the average of their industry.
The way forward
Mercedes-Benz is a reputable brand and many people dream of owning one. Imagine how much more effective Mercedes-Benz marketing and advertising will be when their digital assets, like websites and apps, are easier to use. Using simpler and self-explanatory words could be the first step they take to make things simpler and more user-centric. To make this happen, CLA’s UX and marketing teams need to sit together and invest time and effort to understand what prospective car buyers want from a luxury car website. Once they know this, they need to start using simple words to describe common user actions and follow user expectations and category conventions in delivering these.
70% of marketers are neither aware of their competitors "conversion rates", nor the average of their industry.
A redesigned website that uses simple language and helps potential consumers in achieving their goals, also needs to benchmark its performance against the best-in-class web experience using metrics like:
a) Task completion rate.
b) Time to task completion.
c) User’s mood after completing the task.
d) User’s intention to recommend the brand/ website to others.
Together all this will help in upgrading the usefulness of the website and optimizing it for superior user experience.
The marketing and UX teams need to work together, with shared performance metrics. This ensures that all the teams are going after the same objectives.
A website is both a UX opportunity and a strategic business and marketing lever. However, when it is not optimized to help users in getting things done, it misses the opportunity to convert browsers into shoppers.
Designing a car website or any digital touch point, around user needs can help users in achieving what they want. As a result, more people will contact dealerships, book test drives and ask for a quote. Together all this can strengthen the sales and marketing funnel.
When we help users in accomplishing their goals, we increase the chances of turning them into customers, repeat customers and advocates. This is the surest way to grow our business and our brand.
1. The study used remote, unmoderated user-testing, leveraging a mix of quantitative, and qualitative research tools.
2. Rights to all brands, logos, photos and trademarks remain with their respective owners. No ownership is claimed. Views expressed here are personal.