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How to design unique, branded digital experiences that avoid clichés

We live in the Golden Age of Design. There are countless ways to shape your customers’ digital experiences and endless opportunities to reimagine and reintroduce your brand’s unique narrative. Yet, we keep running into the same design themes and trends across the vast number of offerings that make up the digital ecosystem.  

Banking and financial apps look and function largely the same. As do most ride-hailing services, ecommerce/shopping platforms and wellness/mindfulness assistants. No matter which brand you choose in a particular market vertical, you end up with remarkably similar, and stylistically uninspired user experiences.  

Why are these digital solutions failing to differentiate themselves from each other?

Graphic design influencer Elizabeth Goodspeed places the blame on Pinterest and moodboards in a recent article for Eye on Design magazine, an online publication of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA):  

“The way in which images are selected and placed within the context of the moodboard is the driving force behind the aesthetic monotony seen in brand photography. Art directors, tasked with sourcing imagery quickly and precisely, are increasingly turning to collective inspiration websites like Pinterest and to locate reference images. On these sites, by design, creatives are encouraged to bucket out imagery into thematically consistent folders to be shared and mined by others.”  

Instead of relying on a diverse set of reference images for brainstorming and inspiration, product designers are being co-opted into using an increasingly curated and limited set of images as “a rigid road map.” It’s not surprising, then, that the resulting creative processes end up with extremely similar outcomes. 

If your goal is to design breakthrough digital solutions for mass adoption, however, you can’t afford to blend in with the crowd. You have to find a way to combine the familiar and the novel to create something new and truly authentic. 

How can you design unique, branded user experiences that effectively capture the significance of your product and differentiate it from your competitors? Here are 5 ways to make sure your digital experience design process elevates your product above the rest. 

1. Define how your brand will manifest in your product

Before you can present (and represent) your brand to your customers, you first must figure out what it is. Many established brands have well-defined brand concepts, replete with a detailed brand book and thorough brand guidelines. Using these source materials, it should be easy to draft a creative brief that outlines an innovative approach to user interface (UI) design for your product. 

For less mature brands still looking to make their impact on the marketplace, defining their brand narratives is a critical step in the product development journey. Do not attempt to write a creative brief for UI design without at least broadly outlining the contours of your brand story first. Moreover, if your goal is authenticity, this process — defining the style, tone and voice of your brand — needs to be open, personal, and creative.  

2. Explore the marketplace 

Before designing how your solutions will look and feel to your users, it is helpful to see what the competition is doing. While you don’t want to follow the herd blindly, you should be aware of what the herd is up to. 

Much can be learned from your peers. Your more established competitors will have already spent a considerable amount of time and money researching and developing their solutions. Analyzing your peers is a great way to get a baseline feel for the table stakes (price of entry to the marketplace) and general user expectations for your burgeoning solution. This goes for all stages of product development.  

Document your observations. Then, (somewhat) forget what you learned. You’ll use these observations later to compare and contrast your designs with the current market status quo, but it’s important to start your research and creative processes (the next steps) with a clean slate. 

Focus your attention on your customers, learning as much as you can about who they are (needs, wants, motivations), the problem they’re solving, and how this problem impacts them in the real world. (In typical product development cycles, much of this information is captured prior to starting the UX design phase of the product build.) 

3. Ladies and gentlemen, start your search engines 

With your audience firmly in mind, it’s time to start searching for inspiration. Avoid following your competitors’ footsteps. However, aiming for complete originality is a step too far. After all, no reference materials found online are going to be completely original. You want to strike an intentional balance between “new” and “familiar.” 

Look for design elements that compliment your brand (fit the brand narrative and brand guidelines) and vibe with what you know about the users.

“A splashy color isn’t going to make your product stand out — a cohesive, consistent and refreshing brand experience that exceeds your user’s expectations will.” 

To that end, be mindful in how you conduct your search. Remember, it’s important to avoid that “road map” mentality. If you plug in the same keywords as everyone else into Pinterest (or your inspiration site of choice), you’ll get the same results. 

Dig deeper. Break down what you’re looking for into smaller components and narrow the focus of your searches. It is also beneficial to look outside the typical reference points for your visual inspiration. 

For example, you could start brainstorming UI designs for a new financial app by casting your net widely, with a broad term like “cyber security.” Then you can reduce scope and refine your search with more targeted and/or peripheral queries, such as “data visualization” or “machine learning.” To ensure you’re not covering the same, old ground, shake things up by taking your search in a completely different and unexpected direction: travel imagery, the natural world below the ocean, space exploration, or anything fresh that can help you communicate your brand and product story.  

4. Establish your creative direction and provide options 

What should you do with the results that resonate with your brand, product and target audience? Here’s where Goodspeed’s villain, the moodboard, comes into play. 

It is important to point out that moodboarding is a terrific aid in the creative concepting stage. However, this resource, like your reference image search strategy, can be harnessed for good (authenticity) or for ill (running with the herd). The important thing is how you use the tools you are given.   

Moodboards remain a natural and effective method for piecing together a creative vision for your product’s UI design. They are the easiest way to experiment with your inspirational elements and set the creative parameters of your design process.  

Remember not to throw away those misfits, the references you like but don’t fit the theme or feel of your primary moodboard. Experienced product designers often create several moodboards to compare and contrast their different creative approaches and pull the best features out of each. 

5. Make it real: apply your design to the product UX

With your creative direction set, it is time to apply your creative vision to actual product features and user interfaces. Use what you’ve learned about your target audience (customers) to create and optimize a design to help users navigate the environment, accomplish their goals and establish a connection with your brand. A close, collaborative relationship with the UX team pays dividends at this stage, as design needs can place demands on development. 

An authentic brand experience, minus clichés 

Your digital products are a reflection of your brand. However, translating brand concepts into effective digital assets that convey and support your brand narrative is not simple. 

It’s easy to follow the herd and embrace catchy design trends, but this approach is no way to stand out. Creating an authentic brand and building extraordinary branded digital experiences requires that product teams ignore the outside noise and look inside first to find the defining elements that make your brand unique.