Spoiler: These aren’t the hoodies you’re looking for.

Can User Experience Design Save Digital Advertising?

Let’s face it: the user journey associated with digital ads sucks. It’s time to call in User Experience Designers to help where data and programmatic are failing marketers.

Remember the original banner ads? They were blinky, quirky, scrawny, made up of “web safe” colors, and had huge click-through rates of the magnitude that would make today’s marketers drool.

Well, digital advertising has changed a lot since then, including that click-through rate. From display to video, from social to content, from targeting to programmatic, digital placements have evolved significantly in both form and function. With the increase in sophistication of the marketer’s digital toolkit has come a greater complexity, more risks, more issues and lots of disconnected fixes from vendors.

The campaign creation process has evolved, too. That process once included actual human conversations with publishers to plan out interactions, targeting and creative. For instance, a marketer might negotiate with NYTimes.com to be on the landing page for Style, and their creative agency would develop a bespoke takeover that would look amazing and might even have some inter-unit interactions that could be attention-arresting and engaging. There was a time when these kinds of ads won big creativity awards, and they were worthy of it.

Of course, biddable and programmatic advertising has changed not only that process, but the very nature of digital marketing itself. Technology has pushed digital to a sort of one-size-fits-most model, where marketers buy audience instead of inventory. Many campaigns don’t stipulate which properties ads will appear on, but instead target demographics or people that have taken a certain action before, like opening an email.

While this has created a level of customized targeting and CRM-like capability that has never been possible before, it has also created a situation where a user’s journey can be quite disjointed. Further, the creative or message can be either inappropriate for the viewer based on their relationship with the advertiser, or wrong for the context in which the user is seeing it. The lack of predictability that programmatic — and the broken processes that lead to an ad being served — has created a seemingly boundless range of unintended outcomes and UX fails.

Who Cares?

So does it matter? More than it seems. Not only do user path failures prevent hand-raising consumers from converting, but they contribute significantly to the “annoying factor” of digital ads. And that falls into a group of intangibles that can deplete brand equity and reputation.

To get less theoretical, I’d like to share an example scenario ripped from my own personal experiences. While this is, of course, subject to the audience of one caveat, I know from anecdotal and empirical experience that these kinds of things happen to all kinds of users all the time.

Example: Selling to an Amateur

Though I’m no athlete, I have been working pretty hard to up my fitness game over the last year or so. I’ve been enjoying running and CrossFit, and I try to work out daily. (I’m proud of my strictly amateur/beginner-for-life results, thanks for asking).

Of course, you wouldn’t have to have ever met me to know this — you’d just have to check out the behavioral data that has been amassed about me online. I can tell a number of third party data companies know all about my fitness activities, because I’m being served quasi-intriguing, quasi-relevant ads all the time. Here are few samples:

  • No fewer than a dozen direct-to-consumer brands want me to buy high-end fitness shorts.
  • A “made for executives” fitness and weight loss routine has been “custom designed for my busy lifestyle,” or so a regular ad tells me.
  • A life insurance brand is offering me a discount because I regularly can run a mile under 9 minutes and/or I work out at least 5 times a week.

I’m not surprised. I regularly make purchases in these or related categories. I have a number of fitness apps I use frequently. I’ve logged over just over 900 miles in Runkeeper over the last few years — where, yes, my average mile is in the mid-to-upper-8-minute range (I told you, beginner-for-life).

To those of you who do a good bit of digital marketing, you recognize this as business-as-usual. And perhaps even some of it may seem like advanced technique that you might not even pursue because of the high CPM it might demand, driven by the cost of targeting and the low return it might earn. Nonetheless, behavioral marketing, retargeting and look-alikes, among other types of units, are the bread-and-butter of programmatic digital advertising. And why shouldn’t they be? They “work.”

Or do they? Or, better asked, are the direct sales worth it?

You see, given the current state of digital advertising, the full user journey of a prospect who is targeted (e.g., not a hand-raiser) is pretty miserable. And miserable experiences erode brands, cause reputation damage, and, generally speaking, piss people off.

Here are a few simple examples:

Under Armour Quarter-Zip Sweatshirt

  • I see an ad for a quarter-zip I really like, featuring product photography in situ. I click the ad, and the landing page is a generic “new arrivals” page. The actual shirt is nowhere in sight.
  • I click through several products, trying to see if they are the same as in the ad I saw, perhaps in another color. I can’t find them, and, frustrated, close the site, returning to my original online task.
  • On the next site I visit — and really for the next several days across all my screens — I see a “behavioral” ad featuring all the incorrect products that I had browsed while looking for the elusive item originally featured.
  • I receive an email from the site (this actually happened to me) featuring, again, the incorrect products and imploring me to purchase them.

Nike Running Carousel

  • I see a carousel for Nike’s spring running line. Clearly there is some look-alike targeting going on, and the platform (most likely Facebook), knows I bought some running gear from competitor brands over the last year.
  • I click through the product shots in the carousel, seeing a few items I like. As I do, the model names and numbers do not update. The caption only reads “Unlock an exclusive Nike Experience.”
  • When I get to the end of the carousel, the call to action is for to download a Nike club app of some sort. In fact, all of the product shots lead to that app download.

Tracksmith Running Shorts

  • I do some research on performance running gear and find Tracksmith, a brand I hadn’t heard of before. They present an irresistible purchase offer (a free shirt), and I buy a pair of shorts I need and a few other items that look awesome.
  • I get an attractive package in the mail, and the clothes don’t disappoint. The shorts quickly become my go-tos.
  • For the next 18 months (and counting), I continue to be harangued by ads for the same shorts and pants I ordered, with the same “first-time” offer.
  • The net: Tracksmith, using cookie-cutter media, is missing a chance to help me with other running needs: I’ve since researched and bought gloves and other cold-weather gear.

These scenarios are pretty frustrating for a user, clearly.

But what’s surprising is that they are also both expensive to the advertiser and easy-to-fix through better design.

Designing Campaigns with a High-Quality Experience

While these unintended issues are invisible to marketers, they would be immediately spotted by — or more correctly anticipated by — a User Experience Designer.

While many see User Experience (UX) Designers as either usability police or low-fidelity graphic Designers, their super power is really imagining user paths that are simultaneously intuitive, rewarding and efficient. They imagine not only the ideal path-to-goal for a user, but all the exceptions, branches, elegant failovers, and variants to the path that make an experience not only effortless, but high-quality. And they design systems that optimize these paths, crafting custom solutions and even technologies to do it.

The UX Designer sources their design guidance from user-centric thinking: a thorough understanding of the end user and their behaviors, predispositions and goals. If this sounds like design thinking, it isn’t a coincidence: User Experience Design, and its predecessor Information Architecture (IA) are rooted deeply in the design thinking tradition.

Unfortunately, the process to deploy a “campaign” — really an automated selling funnel — like those described above is dominated by media strategists, adtech salespeople and asset managers/junior production staff, none of which are user-centered roles.

Adding a UX design step to the campaign planning process would unearth these problems and likely more, providing a better brand experience, higher efficiency (fewer wasted impressions), likely higher conversion rates, and definitely better brand sentiment.

This problem will also compound as voice platforms try to monetize and as streaming services consolidate data and begin offering more mature programmatic or personalized placements.

Getting It Done

Changing the campaign planning process might seem daunting, especially considering the scale involved with media planning and buying.

Also, the UX Designer doesn’t enjoy the stature it once did in creative agencies, as it is exceptionally difficult to keep these roles “billable” outside of large-scale website and app projects, work that is the purview of specialist shops these days.

But marketers may not need to change too much to add a UX design layer. Here are a few approaches that could work.

  • Marketers can require the media agency or adtech partner to provide and review with them detailed UX flows of proposed buys. This may incur a charge, but the billable hours required are likely small compared to commissions and existing fees. This will require everyone on the team to think through programmatic buys (and vendors) more critically. Importantly, it will help everyone involved think through the campaign structure, and who is receiving what message, when.
  • Marketers can find out who is doing their brand’s or enterprise’s website or app design and build work, and can potentially source from that vendor’s UX team. It will come with some project management time/fee as well, but it will be worth it.
  • Marketers can hire a freelance UX Designer or consultant of their own. Since this is likely a somewhat uncommon ask, it may need to be someone somewhat senior who can reason through the constantly evolving media formats digital buys include these days. The drawback to this approach is that the resource will need to be managed. But the benefits are numerous, including having someone with a broad, objective and holistic view of the campaign ecosystem who is also on the marketer’s side, i.e., not with a vendor with competing priorities. Also, this may be a marketer’s only option in situations where the company operates its own programmatic trade desk or does all its own planning and buying.

Take an ROI View

This might sound expensive, and building out an ecosystem of user outcomes can, of course, be costly. But not only will the investment pay for itself in both sales and efficiency, it will demonstrate the brand’s commitment to quality and brand experience, which builds equity.

Further, the payoff of investing this kind of process will compound with time. As is frequently the case with UX design, patterns will emerge over time and you’ll be able to apply best practice solutions to future efforts.

Put differently, there is positive ROI to this approach in both the short and long terms, realizable by both lifting revenue and decreasing net costs of campaigns, via efficiency.

Nevertheless, most users see digital advertising as a pestilence on their online experiences. As we once joked in the early days of UX design, “Users are going to have an experience, whether or not we design it for them.” The same is true for their advertising experience, so we owe it to all parties to design a great one for them.

Managing Partner at Rebellion Design Co. In New York. Marketing leader, husband, dad, and person.

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