Accessibility vs Branding

The other day I came a cross a pretty strange discussion, at least from my point of view, in a web related forum. Some people were arguing that accessibility and web standards advocates do not take branding into account when they make a site accessible to all, regardless of what they use to access the site.

The argument was that users of old browsers like Netscape 4 or IE 4 should not be allowed to enter sites that don’t display well in those browsers. They claim that people viewing a site under less than perfect conditions will damage the site owner’s brand and image more than any badwill caused by banning users of “unsupported” browsers from the site.

To me, this kind of reasoning seems very strange. But then, I am no marketing or branding expert. Still, it would seem that preventing people from accessing your site because they are using the “wrong” browsing device is a really bad idea, for several reasons.

  • Reducing your number of potential customers. By denying access to people using older browsers, screen readers, text-based browsers, mobile phones, handheld computers, and other browsing devices, you will get fewer customers.
  • Risking accessibility lawsuits. In more and more countries around the world, it is mandatory for websites to be made accessible. If your site is not accessible, like when you deny access to all but the user agents you approve of, you open yourself up to lawsuits that could get expensive.
  • Insulting potential customers. Telling people who have come to learn about your products or services, and potentially do business with you, that they are not wanted unless they come back on your terms will be a great insult to many. The vast majority of them will not come back, and they will tell their friends about their experience.

Is the visual impression really that important? Should people that use a browser that cannot display a site exactly as the graphic designer intended not be allowed to access that site at all? Will the good impressions made on all visitors that have perfect eyesight and use a “supported” browser make up for the bad impression and publicity that can be caused by banning users in the name of “branding”? What do you think?

Posted on September 22, 2004 in Accessibility, Web Standards

Comments

  1. Hy Roger!

    Again, a great write-down. I have to admit the discussion you were to experience, was weird.

    Reducing your number of potential customers.

    ACK

    Risking accessibility lawsuits.

    Well, that’s a reason, but surely not the main point to keep an eye on, because there also many countries where no such laws exists or are in the making. Anyway, doing something to at least be conforming to a law, isn’t always the best strategy in one’s life.

    Insulting potential customers.

    FULL ACK. That’s like insulting, because a digital TV program looks shitty on his b/w TV set, when you are the manufacturer, or worse, the head of the TV station. You deliver content for your customers/visitors. They are the reason, why “you do in the Web”. We in Germany have a say, “The customer is King”. What do you think, where that comes from?

    Is the visual impression really that important?

    It is important, no doubt about that. But the lesson in web-design everyone should have to learn first: Print is NOT Web! What’s possible or easy in print, can likely only be hardly achieved in web. Print designer can influence their media until the smallest end, but a web-designer should know that not all people, entering his store, will wear the same shoes.

    Should people that use a browser that cannot display a site exactly as the graphic designer intended not be allowed to access that site at all?

    No! Never! Under no circumstances!

    Will the good impressions made on all visitors that have perfect eyesight and use a “supported” browser make up for the bad impression and publicity that can be caused by banning users in the name of “branding”?

    Spock: “The welfare of many is weighs more than the welfare of one.” Kirk: “The welfare of one is equally important than the welfare of many.” (from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock)

  2. I believe I was active in the forum discussion you mention. As you mentioned, one side argued that in order to prevent “looking bad” in an old browser, most prominently Netscape 4.x, one should block access for visitors using that browser, specifically.

    My counter argument was that a) there are lots and lots of browsers with similar or worse visual rendering capabilities than Netscape 4.x, so blocking specific browsers isn’t a particularly effective way of preventing looking “bad” (that is, for one’s website to “look like it was designed by a 12-year-old” because of lack of visual rendering capabilities in the browser).

    But, more importantly; b) “looking bad” isn’t skin deep, there is more than visuals to “looking bad”. For instance, refusing to let a potential customer to enter the website will invariably disappoint them, or worse. Especially if you’re being wrongly denied entrance because of imprecise browser sniffing.

    I’ve been denied entrance to websites many times using Firefox, because they think I’m using Netscape 4.x, or because I’m simply not using Internet Explorer, specifically. Not exactly a great way to avoid “looking bad”. In my opinion, refusing to let a visitor enter the site because they’re (seemingly) “browser impaired” is like refusing to let a customer to enter the store because they don’t have perfect vision, or hearing, and for that reason might not experience the “brand” as intended.

  3. September 22, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Tomas: yep, that’s the discussion I was reading. With you already being there I didn’t see the need for me to add my arguments, which are the same as yours ;)

  4. I am in total agreement with all of the above.

    Reducing your number of potential customers.

    This is the key to it all really. Blocking access to public information is, IMO, tantamount to Internet heresy. I can’t understand how this damages image whatsoever.
    I don’t know why any website should look bad from one browser to another. It is down to money. They can’t be bothered looking for someone who is going to do them a good job because they don’t see the WWW as a front to a business and so don’t invest good money in it. If you bought a shop in a seedy area around some back-street, you wouldn’t expect many people to walk in and look around. It’s a terrible analogy but its the best I’ve got.

    Risking accessibility lawsuits.

    This is the most difficult concept to get across to a client, I’ve found. Most aren’t interested one bit. And they have a point. Most UK citizens aren’t likely to go around to their solicitors because some small business in a town centre has completely ignored the Disability Discrimination Act. I’m not too worried though. They’ve all had letters from me and, as soon as one person gets sued, they’ll all be phoning my company.

  5. Banning users simply because of their user agent is possibly the most preposterous thing I have ever heard of. Anyone following this practice should seriously reconsider their line of work.

  6. Excellent post. This debate continues, it seems, because there are a lot of ‘brand managers’ and ‘graphic designers’ who forget that the corporate brand is not how the logo looks rendered on top of a pixel-perfect stock-photo collage.

    YES, looks are important. But if I can’t get in to your damn store, what do I care? I’ll just go down the street to support a competing brand that has their doors wide open with a greeter to shake my hand.

  7. It would seem to me that a users inability to access a site would harm the company’s image just as much as, if not more than, a lack of branding due to use of particular user agents.

    Firstly, users using certain user agents have a certain expectancy relative to other sites. Users of Netscape 4, for example, have probably been getting used to a ‘less attractive’ (load up microsoft.com in N4) and often inaccessible web (try go.com). Therefore, a company’s brand would remain on par with other companies or better, if they can offer services that other companies can’t.

    Now, it’s certainly possible that a company can develop something to look ‘good’ in N4. But what of other user agents? It’s quite impractical to develop special designs for each browser or user agent. Companies don’t usually have cash to just throw at their web site to develop for every scenario. Luckily, we have web standards to help define a baseline that a developer can use and expect to work well in any user agent.

    Finally, on the web, the content is your brand. Not the logo or colours or layout…because the web isn’t print. A company’s goal in any web presence is how to get the customer to the content. Simple as that.

    (now, let’s see if any of that made sense…)

  8. Hehe, these kind of discussion are quite common for me. I work in a large company as a inhouse webdesigner. I work in the Comunication and branding department.

    As an example, why do we use left floated images on our site, well it´s a branding issue. That kind of discussions. It will be fun to hear the discusion when we will go tableless and no design support for older browsers. :)

    Well, good article. It is nice to hear that there is more people have the same problems.

  9. September 23, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    It looks like I’m not totally out of line in believing that accessibility is a very important part of online branding.

    When this kind of discussion comes up, it is my opinion that more often than not, the “branding” person does not understand the web, and how people use it.

  10. Finally, on the web, the content is your brand.

    clap, clap!

    And let’s not forget the single most devastating thing a company can do to destroy their brand image…not responding to emails. No amount of flash intros, spinning logos, or witty copywriting will salvage your brand if you don’t answer customer inquiries via email in an intelligent, respectful, timely manner. In the past week Carsoup.com and Buy.com have both been written off as decent brands by me due to their abysmal email response habits.

  11. They claim that people viewing a site under less than perfect conditions will damage the site owner’s brand and image more than any badwill caused by banning users of “unsupported” browsers from the site.

    Thats just totally effing stupid. Narrow minded and stupid.

    Luckily our marketing department don’t feel the same way.

  12. September 23, 2004 by John B

    Branding is a valid concern, but it sounds like “those other people” (graphic designers and marketing types, I guess) are treating Branding and Accessibility as mutually exclusive, and ostensibly favoring the former over the latter. While a site may not look exactly the same in NS4 and Firefox, if branding is really that important then it’s time to fall back on the technique of serving up different pages and/or stylesheets to different user agents. It takes a bit more time and effort, but if branding is the priority then there’s still a solution. You don’t have to abandon anyone.

  13. Well contrary to popular belief (as expressed here), it seems to me that it is conceivable that a particular site/brand/product could be better off to exclude users with antiquated browsers (assuming it’s done in the right way, which probably includes a polite and informative explanation as to why the content is limited, nonexistent, or severely muddled).

    Think about sites that are exclusively Flash. In my estimation, this is exactly the same principle. If a user does not have the plug-in, they either have to download it or head on over to another site.

    It seems to me that there are many good possible explanations for this behavior. Perhaps this company does Flash development and deems it more cost effective to further develop their Flash site than to spend the time to mirror that in HTML. Perhaps another company’s site layout and CSS downgrades horribly in version 4 browsers; it may be SO bad that they feel they will present an unprofessional image by delivering such chaos to users. I can think of quite a few more similar examples.

    The point is, branding is all about targeting customers and doing the most you can to appeal to those customers. Others may partake in your product, but that is often incidental and not worth devoting the time or resources to pursue. The fact of the matter is that resources are finite and therefore, must be allocated appropriately. It is quite conceivable that a given company with a given product may not consider the ROI great enough to ensure that its site meets its branding standards in older browsers.

    Overall, to try to group all businesses, all consumers, or all products together is futile (at best).

    But that’s just my opinion. ;)

  14. September 24, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Nathan: thanks for sharing your opinion. I’m not posting stuff here just to hear people agree with me, so opposing views are welcome ;)

  15. I agree to Roger and although I am with Nathan, I am not, at least not entirely.

  16. it may be SO bad that they feel they will present an unprofessional image by delivering such chaos to users. I can think of quite a few more similar examples.

    True, but those examples are simply examples of poorly developed web sites. If a company’s site is so poorly thought out or so poorly implemented that it doesn’t work in my browser, you can either give me the ugly site, or no site. Either way, my impression of that brand has just dropped.

  17. Brand recognition and strength is one of those deliciously unquantifiable benefits from which lots of people make lots of money. Whereas you can check server logs to see just how much business/how many page impressions you’ll lose by excluding browsers.

    Screw brand. People with actual money want good service and good products. If someone’s swayed a lot by branding, next year they’ll be swayed by someone else’s branding once you’re old hat. Feel free to make your icing nice, but make sure your cake’s worth eating.

    (I’ll be copyrighting that last little pithy analogy, by the way.)

  18. September 28, 2004 by Roger Johansson (Author comment)

    Christian: Right. If you insist on blocking some users, you owe them a really good and polite explanation of why.

    Darrel:

    Either way, my impression of that brand has just dropped.

    I fully agree. There is no way around the fact that a site that is not open to all will damage the brand in one way or another.

    Small Paul:

    Feel free to make your icing nice, but make sure your cakes worth eating.

    Nice one :)

  19. I would cite craigslist.org as a website which shows how accessibility and browser independance is more important than brand. Of course, I’d like to see them adopt web standards, kill the tables etc, but it is a good example of how unimportant branding is compared to enabling a simple user experience.

  20. but it is a good example of how unimportant branding is compared to enabling a simple user experience.

    It helps to define ‘brand’ when we talk about this. Often, ‘brand’ is simply a term used to represent the color pallet and the logo. Othertimes, it refers to the complete user-experience package a customer has with the company…from the logo, to the support calls, to the ordering system, to the packaging, etc.

    In the case of craigslist, I think it has a very strong brand…both visually and in terms of the user interaction. It’s not the prettiest brand identity, but it’s very recognizable and generates plenty of good will with the users…which is ultimately what a brand should do.

Comments are disabled for this post (read why), but if you have spotted an error or have additional info that you think should be in this post, feel free to contact me.