Media first? ADUX: When user experience met advertising

It may seem to the moderately trained eye that a bringing a discipline which puts the users emotional reactions first and foremost to focus on the digital advertising world would be as futile as marching on Moscow in the winter time (hint – it went badly).

After all, how many users would prefer digital content which didn’t carry any advertising at all. and who could blame them, in a digital landscape traditionally filled with flashing ‘buy now’ ads, openly goading people to shoot the ducks. Or perhaps the the ultimate advertising subterfuge of disguising ads as native website ‘Submit’ or ‘Download’ buttons.

In this post I want to look at the traditional experience of advertising, its psychology and analysis and compare that to digital creatives Informed from a user centric design / UX point of view. Specifically in relation to full page in app tablet based creatives.

So, what’s UX?

Broadly speaking User Experience (UX) – relates to an individuals perception and experience of any touch-point of a brand or product. That could encompass everything from Customer call centers, packaging, products or, key to this discussion, the marketing and advertising creatives relating to a product or service.

Traditional advertising psychology – how ads work.

Before playing two disciplines off against each other its worth a closer look at the paradigms and psychology at play.

In the ‘golden age’ of Print and TV advertising several key tenets were being exploited by the marketing industries.

Contrary to popular after dinner statements such as ‘Ads don’t work on me – I don’t need to buy toothpaste / washing powder / a speedboat’ (ok – niche case..) – this was not the key response the advertisers were generally trying to promote.

What’s really going on is the the cultivation of an emotional reaction, the creation of an air of familiarity with a brand identity. It’s this association of the familiar which plays on the human preference for environments we are more accustomed to. This is an easier more comfortable state of mind than having to process new or unfamiliar events, surroundings or environments. This effect often referred to as the ‘mere exposure’ phenomenon.

Self Justification

Imagine the scene – you’re finally required to pick up the ‘ toothpaste’ and amongst a gallery of brands with almost identical products you not only choose the brand you are most familiar with but when asked you make up a reason on the spot – any reason! – Q: “why did you choose that brand!” A: “It works better than the others” – This is especially true in the pharmaceutical industry – where products required to have the same ingredients by law in some countries – but are still subject to marketing techniques.

This is an example of another curious psychological phenomenon – Post-hoc rationalisation. This is when we crazy humans rationalise the reasoning after the fact. Self justifying our actions and – as we all know – self justification is a powerful tool. One for the road anyone? 😉

This kind of marketing may seem slightly underhanded in some ways – but it’s not a patch on some online practises.

In terms of being a touchpoint for brands and part of an overall User Experience television and Print were very much a monologue – a one way communication – cool ads and brand reinforcement were relatively easy to accomplish – all you needed was a wanna-be Don Draper at the helm.

Digital Deception

Fig 1: The Bad UX Fish

Fig 1: The Bad UX Fish

If traditional TV and print played on underlying subliminal human psychology Digital Interactive ads moved into a wholly new aggressive sphere.

Digital ads fought for attention not just with other ads but with editorial content and it’s own call to action as well – and with a gamut of animation, sound and video at their disposal creatives were (and still are) produced not only to shout loudest but to dupe the user into interaction. It’s a vicious cycle however and the phenomenon of ‘Banner blindness’ as described by Jakob Neilson: “Users almost never look at anything that looks like an advertisement” is the result.
Pop-ups, shoot the fish and phishing spam all betray a central tenet of delivering a good User Experience – The user must feel that they remain in control

So what about Good UX then?

Good design principles like legibility , good typography, well proportioned navigation items and classical layout conventions – combined with an intuitive ‘dont make me think’ approach to usability will always pay dividends.

Good digital UX design relies on more than that though and is an opportunity to take advantage of animation and even gamefication to aid the communication of function and progress to a user . Transitions and animations can breath life into the dullest of campaigns – and the attention to detail, particularly subtle animations when highlighting navigation or moving through galleries for example, can provide an opportunity to gratify the user and enhance their experience.

Recognising digital advertising for what it is – software development, we found ourselves at SXSW 2013, a kind of digital Woodstock to the uninitiated, where the geeks have already inherited the earth, or at least Austin Texas.

I attended a session where Helena Roeber Head of Android’s UX research and Rachel Garb who leads interaction design for Android apps at Google, discussed the 3 central pillars they created to guide their decisions whilst designing the Android 4.0 Operating System. These were useful lessons for any UX enthusiast.

Thier first pillar “Enchant me” (yes really, try to continue) included:

This was broken down further into key statements to adhere to in the design process. The first was:

An example here is the way the user is informed they have reached the end of the scrollable homescreens. They could have been presented with a dialogue box with a message: “No more home screens available” – but this would have been a bit patronising, imply it was the users fault and in no way a good experience. Instead the user experiences a 3D sheen effect which increases as they try to scroll without displaying any more screens. The user has been informed via a gratifying animation – a far better user experience.

The research and process in this digital arena is often labeled UXD (User Experience Design) and although the British aptitude for understatement had me shuddering at some of the language, I couldn’t help but admire the approach and philosophy at play.

How can UXD inform Digital Marketing

There are some valuable learnings to be had here, Not only in adhering to design principles in layout, animation and transitions but also in the processes behind UXD, Particularly ‘Lean UX’.

Lean UX strips down development processes to the bare minimum and places the main focus on the design phase – pushing towards quick prototypes from which measurements and observations can be taken, learned from and products quickly iterated.

In our production of full page interactive tablet ads this process is exactly what is required to meet the challenges of producing potentially content heavy, intuitive, interactive creatives on tight timelines.

UXD Pushing creative formats forward

Key in the the cycle of iterative LEAN UX is measurement. In advertising the relative success of creatives has long been about click-through-rates (CTR), but I believe this too is an outdated metric.

Two points overlap here, firstly, the low CTR seen on display advertising can be viewed as a result of bad UX – users want to be in control and feeling pushed and coerced into doing anything like “buy now” is a very negative experience – wresting control from the user – the digital equivalent of a foot in the door.

Secondly, Users are consuming content differently and, therefore, advertising on tablets Dwell times on websites are considerably higher on tablet devices, and even more so in native newspaper and magazine apps. In this context users are more likely to interact with full page ads if the User experience is a good one.

Using custom event based metrics can help both report back to the client as evidence of engagement, as well as being analogous to dwell time – which can be harder to measure.

It also feeds back into the LEAN UX loop to help us iterate in the future. For example, a recent creative we were developing involved using the tablets accelerometer to navigate through a 3D filed of objects but at what angle do we start the journey. We inserted custom metrics to inform at what angle the majority of users use the tablet and used this data to alter the creative and create a better, more intuitive experience.

Evolving ADS.

Advertising is often seen as a necessary evil and that an industry often associated with questionable ethics could not be seen to produce digital creative which has any value perceived or real value themselves.

However lines are blurred – We’ve produced a few campaigns with a distinct editorial benefit for the user as well as some pretty slick UI components (even if I do say so myself).

Advertising as resource

During the school summer holidays of 2013, partnering with Sainsburys, we produced an ad to promote their ‘Boredom Busters’ book – a collection of activities to keep the kids occupied during the endless summer months (lol). This incorporated some subtle animation and 3D transitions to reveal 6 sample activities and crucially the editorial part of the ad gave information and instructions, which could easily be referred to in the future. This represents ongoing intrinsic value, and from our metrics we can deduce engagement was good and, ergo, so was the user experience.

Ejector Seats and Coke cans (Stay with me here..)

Advertising, it strikes me, could be argued as being part of those unique set of products which has to work first time – think ejector seats or Coke cans. (ok – I’m pushing it a bit…).

This is a task made harder in the digital world by the User Experience of digital marketing techniques to date. However the lessons learned from the now mature User Experience industry can lead to a more intelligent, entertaining and informative generation of creatives.
These range from the editorial approach of Native advertising to the rich experiences full page tablet advertising can offer with UX design which complements that of the host apps.

The main reason I think the relationship between UX and Digital advertising seems an incongruous one due to a central idea behind UX: empathy for the end user. It’s this which seems alien conceptually but it shouldn’t – it should inform interaction design just as effectively.
The idea that TV adverts can be a good experience isn’t alien – after all more people tune into the Superbowl to see the ads rather than watch the game. Why not cultivate that attitude digitally?

Practicality to piss on the parade?

Ok, introducing a UX approach to advertising on tablets is a big drum to beat, and who doesn’t enjoy beating a big drum? There are, of course, some issues to contend with. I don’t think they’re insurmountable even with a big drum on ones back.

Firstly the platforms that these creatives are delivered in vary greatly and creatives need to function across the market. This is something we’ve dealt with well with core templates and elements we know work across the board and experience to know what needs to be tweaked and a workflow which accommodates this.

The on going challenge is the diversification of devices and their capacities. Android might be a fragmented market but there are 6 versions of ipad out there, and the latest iteration appears to be woefully underpowered on the RAM front for a 64bit operating system.

This can result in poor performance or even mean apps crashing due to the relative amount of processing power required first by app, and then by creative.

For publishers and agencies this is an issue. But in best salesperson translation, also an opportunity.

Publishers can gather device information via SDK and working with agencies such as Adnostic create an API approach which could offer device information in one direction and in exchange – better granularity in metrics in the other.

Collaboration is going to be key here and so far I’ve been impressed by the willingness, particularly of the national press, to want to be part of the solution.

Conclusion (AKA Closing rant..)

Advertising can and should be bedfellows with good user experience practises. Poorly thought out, almost maliciously executed and ultimately crap advertising has always been the bane of my digital experience and I’m not alone. Let’s put the end user back in the forefront of our minds – learn from and think like the software developers the online ad creation business ultimately is. Ultimately this change can only be solicited from within but it will take effort from agencies, publishers and clients alike to achieve.

Not so much a futile invasion, more a cultural revolution – we’re not marching on Moscow in the winter here, we’re The Beatles landing in America (hint: went rather well).

by Matt White, Creative Director, Adnostic,

Follow me: @formvsfunction