Ad blockers and the myth of “good UX”

Consider a hammer. You don’t have to think about where to hold it or which part is supposed to strike the nail. It’s not a perfect device — you might still whack your thumb — but it’s pretty intuitive. When you use a hammer, the tool itself recedes into the background, and you think about your goal, the nail.

In most cases, the foundation of good user experience design for the web — or any software, really — is pretty much the same: allow people to focus on their goal, not on the tool they’re using to get there. Not surprisingly, one of the biggest complaints about news websites is that the ads detract from the content; one study attributes two-thirds of ad blocker usage to some form of this sentiment.

Ad security is the other main driver of ad blocker usage. It’s a serious issue, but one with technical solutions, such as (finally) killing Flash and Silverlight ads. Solving people’s general distaste for advertising and reluctance to pay for news on the internet is a much greater challenge.

If we focus on that task, it’s common to hear folks say they would turn off their blockers if the ads had “good UX”. Unfortunately, that’s impossible. Advertising violates UX design principles by definition. Here’s how.

Effective advertising diverts your attention away from your original goal and toward the advertiser’s. You might, quite understandably, consider that distracting, but it’s the advertiser’s desired outcome. If you’re distracted, the ad is working. Conversely, an unobtrusive ad that’s easy to ignore provides no benefit to the advertiser. In other words, the more an advertisement follows UX design principles, the less it’s worth paying for.

If we accept this principle – with reasonable limitations and exceptions, of course – what does it imply for the design process? The first step is to disentangle user experience design from product design. We can do this by comparing the constituencies served by each type of design.

While UX design seeks to optimize how users reach their goals (hammering a nail, reading an article, etc.), product design seeks to optimize how an organization reaches goals like revenue, membership, and so forth.

For instance, eye-tracking studies have suggested that readers have learned to skip over the most common ad placements, like a leaderboard unit at the very top of a page. Moving display ads to less typical positions, therefore, increases the chance that a reader might pay attention. In terms of product design, this is an improvement; it makes the ad more effective, which can help the sales team generate more revenue for the organization. Adding value to specific ad slots could even allow a publisher to reduce the number of ads on the page. But for the individual reader, the change would degrade user experience as they’ll now notice ads that they previously ignored.

Improving the fortunes of ad-supported news publishers will require incorporating effective ads that are neither repellent nor invisible to readers. As designers search for that balance, it’s important to understand the give-and-take between user experience and product design.