Usability vs. Advertising

Is good design compatible with advertising? A quick jaunt through some of the Internet’s most popular web and mobile properties would suggest the answer is mostly no.

At best, ads are relevant, tasteful and relegated to an easy-to-ignore location such as the right-hand gutter or a banner above the content. Too often, though, the web ads result in pages that look like this:

As product designers, we obsess over crafting great UX flows and pixel-perfect designs while ignoring incoherent blinking mess that will soon populate those innocuous-looking gray placeholder boxes on our mockups. There are no “user stories” that read: “As a Celtics fan, I want to read a summary of tonight’s game, so I should be able to see a banner ad for auto insurance.”

Instead, we trust that our users are complicit in our bargain: a free service in exchange for the subpar user experience. However, three trends threaten to shake up this bargain in ways that should concern any company that depends on trading usability for revenue.

1. There is Nowhere to Hide a Belly Fat Ad on a 4” Screen

On a smartphone, every pixel is a valuable asset. On the best mobile applications, the density of useful information is extremely high. Put another way, the “usability cost” of each ad is much greater on a mobile device than in a desktop browser.

2. Users Expect More

As the Internet has evolved from a series of mostly static content pages to a collection of interconnected dynamic apps, users have been trained to expect better, more thoughtful design and fewer mindless advertisements. The whole community has supported this trend by heaping praise and/or VC funding into consumer web/mobile companies without a sustainable business model.

3. Facebook’s IPO Will Change the Users > Revenue Equation

Conventional wisdom dictates a consumer web startup should “focus on users first, monetization second.” Once a service has millions of users with great engagement, the logic goes, there will be many opportunities to monetize these users. To bridge the gap between users and business model, venture capital steps in to pay the salaries of the awesome designers and programmers that make these cool apps possible.

This equation has been great for users and for design talent, because it allows visionary product people to hire great teams and implement awesome apps without worrying how to pay for it all (see Path, Instagram).

For investors, this equation has worked out OK, insofar as great design teams and/or engaged users make attractive acquisition targets for the gatekeepers of consumer-technology’s four proven cash machines: Google (search advertising), Apple (devices), Microsoft (desktop software), and Zynga/Facebook (naive stock market speculators).

However, if Facebook’s attempts to monetize its users continues to fall short (which seems inevitable due to the incredibly lofty expectations set by its opening price), it’s probable that this gravy train will dry up.

In short, users don’t want ads and are being trained to expect great user experiences for free, especially on mobile devices. This unsustainable trend has so far been supported by acquisition and speculation, but Facebook’s failure to meet expectations will reduce investor appetite for funding products with no business model.

In my next post, I’ll explore several potential ways out of this trap.


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