The Future of Embedded Advertising

Evolution of XD Principles

Challenging XD conventions

A column by Dashiel Neimark
December 18, 2017

What does the future hold for advertising embedded in digital experiences? Making advertising part of your digital product’s or property’s business model has always been a challenging balancing act. Creators of digital experiences need to make money. Selling ad space within a product or Web site helps you to earn money—and, generally speaking, the more traffic you get, the more you can leverage advertising as a business model. (Although high-quality traffic can be more important than just the amount of traffic, depending on the advertising model you choose.)

Of course, on the flip side, users rarely want to see advertising—for several key reasons:

  • Advertising often lacks originality or creativity.
  • Advertising often lacks relevance.
  • Advertising takes up space that users would generally prefer be dedicated to content and clutters up the visible digital canvas.
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If you value user satisfaction as you should, these are some fantastic reasons to carefully consider the extent to which you implement an advertising model for your digital product or Web site.

You should carefully consider these concerns and how they play into the balancing act between pursuing advertising revenues and designing for user satisfaction. Why? Because your users deserve a good experience. Or, if you prefer to look at this pragmatically: diminishing user satisfaction leads to diminishing traffic and less user interaction with your ads, ultimately affecting your earnings.

Striking the Right Balance

So what should you do to balance business concerns and user satisfaction? How much should you push a design that favors internal goals? That depends on a few things:

  • your personal and organizational philosophy
  • the power structure that exists between you and your users—that is, how much leverage you have
  • the context of use

Your personal philosophy is up to you, and your organization determines its own philosophy. The power structure between you and your users constantly shifts, depending on myriad factors. Like the power structure, the context of use also seems to be subject to change—albeit more predictable change.

On the Web, the large canvas makes it easier to present both very desirable and not so desirable content on the screen. While these two types of content exist in disharmony, users have come to accept this balance. Ultimately, if ads do not overwhelmingly detract from a product’s or site’s usability, putting up with advertising is better than actually having to pay for a product.

So, over time, through much user research, data analysis, and recognition of internal-to-external stakeholder power, we’ve identified an acceptable level of compromise: a state in which both parties are satisfied with a digital experience—or, at least, neither party is dissatisfied past the point of no return.

The Death of the Desktop Web

This balancing act and the compromises both users and business stakeholders must make is nothing new, but this reality forms a necessary preface to the point I’m leading up to: the desktop Web is dying.

Smaller devices are taking the place of the desktop Web and, as they do, deciding what screen elements we should allow to take up what is now precious screen real estate starts feeling like trying to find an empty lot in downtown Manhattan on which to erect a new building.

Small mobile and wearable screens exacerbate all the reasons advertising can negatively impact digital experiences on the Web. As a consequence, this shift to smaller screens should send advertisers back to the drawing board and drive internal product stakeholders to consider new models—or, at least, new ways of implementing advertising.

Moreover, as this shift from Web to mobile—and maybe wearables—progresses, users will likely rejoice as the implications for advertising start to manifest in more creative product designs that better meet users’ needs. At least initially, users will be absolutely psyched that advertisements on mobile devices have become more original, more relevant, and less in their face.

But mobile is now huge. Why don’t we already see this transition to better design solutions for digital advertising? Well, the answer is that we do and we don’t. In product spaces that are very competitive, we do see mobile experiences—and, to some extent, wearable experiences—that favor users more than advertisers. Advertising is more thoughtfully integrated into categories of applications for which their product creators are constantly seeking new ways to outdo the competition and, ultimately, win over more users.

However, in application categories that are less competitive, we’re not seeing such advances. It all comes back to the dynamic of the power balance that exists between your products, users, and the competitive products your users might choose instead of yours.

In principle, this is similar to analyzing internal versus external leverage on the Web. However, the main difference in practice is that, if internal goals overshadow user goals, this magnifies the implications for experiences on smaller devices.

Making the wrong choice in designing for this balance can have more punishing impacts on mobile apps—for which user reviews exist in isolation on the app store for each operating system—than for Web applications. A broad range of reviews exists for Web applications, in disparate locations, so the user’s voice has less power to motivate design changes. The decentralization of user feedback on the Web diminishes consensus on social disapproval and creates a more forgiving landscape for creators of Web experiences. Unfortunately, this also opens the door for favoring advertising over users. Product creators are more likely to act on user feedback on mobile apps because perception management becomes more critical.

Competitive Forces and the Power of Users

It is safe to say that technology isn’t going away. Over time, the landscape for digital experiences will only become more crowded. That competition should be good for users, forcing experience designers to ensure the right balance between an application or Web site’s primary content and the advertisements that satisfy business requirements. Those advertisements must be

  • timely
  • relevant
  • constitute a worthwhile tradeoff for benefiting from a product’s primary value proposition

Making your advertisements timely and relevant is largely an issue of data and personalization. On the other hand, the tradeoff between what the user gets and what the user must endure is open to interpretation and is where things get really interesting. Empathizing with your users, knowing the competitive landscape, and understanding your own product’s experiential value provides the proper framework for how you should design the visual hierarchy that serves as the glue for organizing wanted and unwanted elements within increasingly precious space.

Given enough competitive pressure, experience designers should solve these issues by creating designs that users find acceptable or perhaps even enjoyable—especially in cases where the competitive landscape is particularly active.

Final Thoughts

The danger—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—is innovation. Well, not exactly innovation. On its own, innovation is great. The danger arises when innovative products combine with legal and secret-sauce, algorithmic protections, creating the potential for monopolies on highly desirable digital experiences. This is a scenario that limits competition and also limits progress. I don’t foresee this as becoming the norm, but it is a less-than-happy path that is at times possible.

The evolution of advertising within digital experiences will be an interesting topic to follow. Experience designers must always consider context of use and the trend toward smaller displays. Competition will generally get steeper, increasing the difficulty of displaying ads and forcing the implementation of advertisements to become more creative. Truly amazing applications that already hold something of a monopoly on providing experiences targeting particular interests—at least for the present and perhaps the near-term future—are well positioned to profit from this trend. However, their creators should carefully consider the perception they might be creating in the long term, in case competition becomes steeper for them down the road. As markets shift, so do the contexts in which people use our applications and the ways we must design for them. 

UX Design Consultant at Slalom Consulting

Chicago, Illinois, USA

Dashiel NeimarkDash designs usable, enjoyable digital experiences that are driven by research and guided by the needs and desires of internal and external stakeholders. In his work, he draws upon his past experience in startups, UX consulting, internships, and freelancing, as well as the wealth of UX knowledge he gained through his journey to earn an MS in HCI. From concept to launch, Dash incorporates Lean and full-cycle UX tools and methods. He is always excited by future opportunities to play his part in delivering innovative digital solutions.  Read More

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