This is entirely anecdotal. I am writing this from my own observations on how I feel, plus in discussing these matters over the last few years with my friends and peers. There is likely several studies that prove I’m foolish and wrong.
Brand identity is a big business. Large companies routinely spend hundreds of thousands of dollars in maintaining their brand. This is because of consumer trust. When I walk into a Starbucks I know exactly what to expect. Starbucks protects their identity and I trust Starbucks to deliver what Starbucks has delivered in the past.
Sometimes branding is larger than a single corporation. People buy American, German or Japanese cars just by the virtue of what country hosts the headquarters. Even when the cars may be made in Mexico, Kentucky or Canada.
More important than specific brands (or nationalism) is the associations of products. Certain classifications of products have certain attributes, just by being in that category. Some have significantly more trust, purely because of their neighbors. The example that seems so obvious is newspapers and magazines.
Which do you trust more? I’d be willing to bet it’s a newspaper. Newspapers have journalistic integrity and reporters dying to break a story. They deliver the truth! Magazines don’t. Magazines have current but attention-grabbing stories. Magazines are for entertainment, newspapers are for knowledge.
Why this matters.
If I am building a product, which I am, do I want to be seen as trust worthy? Everybody should say yes. The associations we chose have trade-offs; increasing trust can decrease the fun. Some products do well to be serious and somber and others do not.
It’s very important to match. If you make a serious product with loads of informal glitz, the end result is a clash of sensibilities. The amount and style of glitz and glamour must match the tone being set.
I had to make a decision early on what tone I wanted to set. I opted for a more serious tone. A utilitarian tone that would evoke the spirit and sense of a librarian. A librarian can have effects that enhance usability, but they should always have a purpose. Sparkling and shining is not a purpose, certainly not in a serious application.
Matching the tone.
Recently I was adding a feature and I wanted to be able to provide the user with feedback. The feedback was very specific and direct, however I didn’t want it to be seen as superficial. This is not some Coney Island game. The librarian is always on watch, ready to shush anything too noisy.
If I put in some accoutrement with too much appeal, it throws the balance of the product out.
I think the obvious example of what happens is the slicked-hair sales guy. Sure, he may be wearing the same suit a respectable business person is wearing but the other things stand out. The general feeling is one that it doesn’t match. When things don’t match, they aren’t trusted.
Trusted and serious can still be fun.
A lot of current software products have a great deal of fun baked right into them. Google is a good example of this. They’re trustworthy and very fun. How serious is Google? Well, now they’re getting more serious. When I look at Google+ I’m not thinking of the old amusingly and light hearted Google of 2001. It’s rigid, and dare I say cold.
However, it wasn’t an abrupt change. They slowly transitioned from a fun and light-hearted entity to a serious entity. They did it very subtly and they still kept all the individual pieces of fun (gmail and iGoogle themes) in tact. Except they got a bit more sterile.
This sterile joy must come secondary and the reason why so many complaints were lodged over Gmail changes and Google+ is because it was replacing light-heartedness with seriousness. That was the real complaint. The products were still equally fun, but people had different expectations.
Expectations matter more than anything else.
You should never judge a book by its cover, but damnit, if the cover doesn’t match the book someone should be fired. It’s the job of the cover to set the tone for the book.
Failed expectations create user frustration. Frustration detracts from the joy of using a product; even if that product is a book, enjoyment can be diminished by something so insignificant as the cover. Tone matters.
If I have a serious, librarian-helmed product the type of fun must match the tone. It isn’t bright colors and informal language. Instead it’s ease of use. It’s clicking intuitively and having the sensation that someone, behind the screen, is guiding your experience and making it what you want before you know it’s there.
I’m not at that point, but that’s the direction I’m going. It’s a lot of work but it’s a tremendous amount of fun. Just not the type of fun most people want to have on a Saturday night.