What to Do When Your Boss Insists That You Use Pop-Up Banner Advertising?

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A column by Janet M. Six
June 23, 2014

In this edition of Ask UXmatters, our experts discuss what to do when your boss insists that you use pop-up banner advertising. If your boss insists that you add a bad element to your good design: Ack! What do you do? Try to convince your boss that there is a better solution? Show him data that proves this particular bad design element would cause your target audience to flee in droves? Quietly say, “Okay,” then remove this project from your portfolio of design work? As UX designers, not only must we deal with the complexity of creating a strong design for users, we must also make our design work for the business—in both financial and political terms. Let’s hear what our UXmatters experts have to say about this situation that many of us have faced or will face at some point in our careers.

In our monthly column Ask UXmatters, our experts provide answers to our readers’ questions about a broad range of user experience matters. To get answers to your own questions about UX strategy, design, user research, or any other topic of interest to UX professionals in an upcoming edition of Ask UXmatters, please send your questions to: [email protected].

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The following experts have contributed answers to this edition of Ask UXmatters:

  • Steve Baty—Principal of Meld Studios; Past President of IxDA; UXmatters columnist
  • Riley Graham—User Experience Designer at Fuzzy Math
  • Jordan Julien—Independent Experience Strategy Consultant
  • Cory Lebson—Principal UX Consultant at Lebsontech; President, User Experience Professionals’ Association (UXPA)

Q: How would you handle a situation in which a business leader insists on your using pop-up banner advertising even though you know it’s detrimental to a site’s design?—from a UXmatters reader

“The first thing you need to do is reconsider your definition of the site’s purpose and key audiences,” replies Steve. “Look at the design from the perspective of the business leaders? What does success look like to them? (Hint: It’s not pop-up ads.) Are there ways to balance those two sets of needs? Is it possible to facilitate success for both? That’s the real design challenge and, frankly, one you have to resolve, because a site that isn’t paying its way—one way or another—won’t last, and that’s a lot more detrimental to its future than the ads.

“Another line of thought for you to pursue: Can you demonstrate that pop-up advertising will actively damage the site’s chances of delivering value to either customers or the business? Will it drive customers away—thereby rendering the ads themselves meaningless? That’s another way of meeting your design objectives.”

Do What Your Boss Wants, But Recommend Research

“Taking this question more generally, as a consultant,” answers Cory, “I am sometimes in the position of making a recommendation that a stakeholder overrides—because of either his personal preference or other political or organizational considerations. In such a case, my approach is to explain the value of the more usable design and address any objections that the stakeholder might have. However, if the stakeholder insists, I do not raise additional objections, but suggest that after the design gets implemented, we do usability testing and try the design out on representative users. Admittedly, when I have done this, I’ve sometimes seen that the stakeholder recommendation, even though far from best practice, had less of a negative impact on the user experience than I had imagined it would.”

“I love these kinds of challenges!” exclaims Riley. “Don’t get me wrong. Having too many of these would make me reconsider the business leaders’ interest in our UX recommendations, but I always have a response to comments that are backed only by a gut feeling or emotion. I would ask the leader to justify his opinion. Assuming it is grounded just in a feeling, I would explain that we need more objective data to make a sound decision. Then, I would take him through an exercise, explaining who our users are, their painpoints, and their goals. I would discuss why the users’ goals are important to us, as UX designers, and how the results of user research should impact design.

If the results from research and analysis did not invalidate the use of the pop-up banner ad, my argument would be null and void, and the leader would move forward with the design, even though clearly backed only by emotion, without further resistance from me. However, more often than not research and analysis will direct design appropriately.”

Advertising on Web Sites Is a Dying Model

“I’m guessing,” responds Jordan, “that the revenue model of the Web site relies on advertising. Larger, more disruptive ad units often equate to an increased click-through rate (CTR). Generally, advertisers find larger, interactive, more disruptive ad units more appealing, so it may be difficult to argue for the design benefits of not having them. I like to sit down with site owners and really talk about how they make money online. I don’t make it too formal, and I don’t have this conversation during another meeting. Let me share a secret with you: no organization can rely on their audience’s visiting their Web site. Therefore, no organization should rely on on-site advertising as their sole revenue stream.

“It’s only a matter of time before people stop visiting Web sites altogether. Content is free and available, no matter how hard we try to copyright and protect it. In fact, many content models rely on content sharing to increase audience size. If you’re going to argue against disruptive ads, you’ll need to move your argument away from short-term revenue to long-term audience size. Eventually, all content-driven revenue will be based on impressions, attention, or recall. The dark patterns that are associated with obtaining short-term revenue by sacrificing Web site usability will eventually bite site owners on the ass.

“On the Web, your audience doesn’t have to visit your site to consume your content. Google’s knowledge graph is evolving in a direction where many ad-based sites—like movie theaters and travel Web sites—are simply losing visitors because people can consume their desired content directly on Google’s search results pages. Mobile and other applications allow users to subscribe to content, so they consume content only through Pluse, Feedly, Flipboard, Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, and similar apps.

“I’d recommend identifying key performance indicators that would translate into increased audience size—regardless of whether it translates into site visits. Think about why people would read, share, discuss, and comment on the content that is available on your site. Is it more pleasurable? Is it fun? Does the experience foster content discovery? Does the experience make the user feel listened to?

Develop theories that you can test. What would increase readership? What would increase revenue? Ideally, any long-term adoption of your theories should be based on testing. If you can get 10X more revenue by utilizing an advertising technique that would cost you 5% of your readership, would it be worth it? If so, I’d find a new job because the site will eventually lose its audience and its best content producers and, ultimately, its advertisers, too. Why waste time helping an organization to die when there are so many others that are on a winning path.” 

Product Manager at Tom Sawyer Software

Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, USA

Janet M. SixDr. Janet M. Six helps companies design easier-to-use products within their financial, time, and technical constraints. For her research in information visualization, Janet was awarded the University of Texas at Dallas Jonsson School of Engineering Computer Science Dissertation of the Year Award. She was also awarded the prestigious IEEE Dallas Section 2003 Outstanding Young Engineer Award. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Graph Algorithms and Applications and the Kluwer International Series in Engineering and Computer Science. The proceedings of conferences on Graph Drawing, Information Visualization, and Algorithm Engineering and Experiments have also included the results of her research.  Read More

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