In all areas of life you can find elements of snobbery that separate the “educated” experts from the commoners. The world of wine is one, as most critics would likely vomit into their spittoon if they were forced to drink the stuff that the average American quaffs back. Food is another, where Haute-cuisine and Hot Pockets occupy two very different areas of the culinary spectrum. But it’s also true for digital and user experience. Sometimes things that horrify and offend our high-horse principles don’t matter one iota to the average user. And in order to build digital products that truly work, you need to have the self awareness to make decisions based on your audience, not on your own self-righteous observations.
A classic example is the role of digital advertising. As somebody who comes from a content background it’s hardly surprising that by nature I find most digital advertising annoying. But in the grand scheme of things advertising offers most consumers the best of all worlds. They get to access content for free, in return to being exposed to a limited number of blinking monstrosities while they surf.
But there we go. I can’t help myself. “Blinking monstrosities” is clearly a very subjective term, but it represents how I – from my holier-than-thou content background – viewed most advertising. But after a while I began to re-assess my position on ads because perhaps – just perhaps – I was being a snob about it. While flashing and animating banners and boxes offended my sensibility, did ordinary users **really** care? I don’t think they do.
A classic example is back in 2010 when I was considering implementing either Konterra or Vibrant Media contextual text-link ads on a site I was running. To say I hated these ads on principle was a bigger understatement than the time Jeffrey Dahmer’s teacher described him as “spirited”. The idea that smack in the middle of our wonderful content you’d see a double underlined word that – when rolled-over – would spawn an ad was horrifying. There was no way I was going to allow that on MY site.
But after outright refusing to even entertain the idea, I began to slowly change my position. Firstly, I have no time for people who simply refuse things point blank without testing them. The Web is an incredibly powerful analytical medium that lets us measure everything, so gauging real-time response to a change or new feature should just be common sense. It takes a breathtaking level of arrogance to assume that you know better than your users, without even seeing any data.
Secondly, it began to strike me that maybe **I** was living in my own self-imposed bubble. In my day-to-day life I’d only ever speak to other digital professionals who generally all shared a similar mindset to me. This simply served to create a feedback loop that re-inforced many of my pre-conceived notions. Maybe I was being elitist? Maybe it was just a bunch of insider content snobs in NYC that didn’t like the notion of in-content text ads, and maybe outside of that bubble ordinary users didn’t really care.
So ultimately we did the sensible thing and tested it. For the record I still hate in-content text ads and that will likely never change. But our tests revealed that our set of customers didn’t seem to care all that much. Numbers and engagement remained steady and our business didn’t collapse because swarms of people decided to defect in protest at our shoddy user experience.
Some might view this as an example of simply selling-out your beliefs. I can understand why people might view it this way, but for me it was about being humble enough to accept that your gut reaction is often wrong, and that you’re not as connected to your audience as you’d like to think. For me building a good user experience online is about knowing when to take a stand, but also knowing when to see past your own dogmatic convictions. Data truly is a wonderful thing but the reason why many shy away from it is that it can often surface some very uncomfortable findings – findings that run contrary to things that you inherently believe in.
One of the quotes that I became most known for amongst my team was “Are people really going to care about that?”. I asked this question when discussing any new feature, change, addition or deletion from the site. Because from my experience I find that we - with our institutional and industry knowledge – tend to place far more value and importance on things than our users do. So take a journey outside of your bubble from time-to-time and you’ll find that life really isn’t that scary.