From ‘User Experience’ to ‘User Expectation’
September 28, 2017
The rise of ad blocking has placed new emphasis on creating ads which preserve the user experience. From the Google and Facebook-led Coalition for Better Ads, IAB’s LEAN initiative to Adblock Plus’s dubious definition of “Acceptable Ads,” there is now a broad consensus that something must be done to combat the poor ad experiences that lead users to download blockers.
And yet, even as the largest and most powerful players in our industry band together to protect the user experience (UX), there’s surprisingly little discussion about what an acceptable UX really looks like. For these efforts to succeed, we need more than a pledge to make ads “better.” Rather, we need a new and better understanding of the UX such ads are designed to protect.
The challenge in landing on a single standard for quality in advertising is that quality is fundamentally subjective. Even great ads can lead to bad experiences if the user isn’t prepared to see them; the well-produced video ad that might work great on TV could seem jarring if rendered as an audio-on autoplay video inside a serious article.
If our real objective is to make ads that don’t compel the users to block, we need to turn our attention not just to the creative itself but to the broader context in which that creative appears. It’s not so much the user experience which needs managing or improving — it’s the user’s expectations for different ad experiences and how prepared they are to receive them in that publisher context.
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User expectation is the new UX
Depending on what people’s expectations are, what constitutes an acceptable user experience can vary quite a lot. User expectation is the key to the user experience. User expectation is the new UX.
It’s worth noting here that there are multiple ad formats for which user expectations are going to be difficult, if not impossible, to manage. On the negative side, the evidence suggests that banner blindness is real and perhaps irreversible. But on the other hand, linear TV has been around for so long that most viewers are willing to sit through roughly 1 minute of sound-on autoplay commercials for every 4 minutes of content, or 15 minutes for every hour, per Nielsen (PDF).
The TV ad experience goes back generations and hardly surprises users when they see it. While these standards are changing as more ad-free distribution options come online, there is still a broad tolerance on TV for what would never fly in digital.
So the question of user expectations is really one for ad formats adapting to new (read: mobile and digital) publisher environments. It’s in these new channels where publishers and advertisers have the most reasonable chance of guiding user expectations to align with the ad formats which will, in turn, support them.
UX and native advertising
These concerns have played out in rather explicit terms amid the rapid growth of native advertising. Native has exploded in recent years, according to eMarketer, in large part because it is seen by both advertisers and publishers as a format (really a collection of formats) which is less interruptive to the user’s experience.
For that reason, native is a potentially sustainable solution to interruptive ad experiences, which are the primary underlying cause of ad blocking, according to PageFair research.
It’s hardly guaranteed that native will bring balance to the digital ecosystem. Rather than seeing it as a silver bullet, we must treat native as another new ad format which must grow in conformity with a user’s expectations — the new UX.
If users aren’t adequately prepared for the ad experience delivered by native formats, we risk content blindness and more ad blocking.
The Federal Trade Commission has issued guidelines designed to manage users’ expectations around the disclosure of which content is branded and which isn’t. That’s a start, but it doesn’t safeguard against the myriad ways in which a native ad can catch users by surprise.
For example, native executions which lead a person off a publisher’s site can be hugely interruptive if a user isn’t prepared for it. The FTC doesn’t have any rules governing that, meaning that it’s incumbent upon those designing and executing the units to find ways to prepare the user with clear written and visual cues.
Broadly, the responsibility for protecting user expectations (UX) falls with publishers, advertisers and the technology layer connecting the two. Unless these actors take concrete steps to ensure that native formats align with user expectations, there is a real risk that native becomes as bothersome to users as banners have already proven to be.