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In dark age of UX

It is a too frequent occurrence: websites with ads in a huge part of the screen estate or yet another sponsored post disguising as content. Our attention is being sacrificed for the sake of more ad revenue and click rates. What have we become, both as users and designers?

As a professional, I understand both sides of the equation, but I side with the user: having to click through a myriad of autoplay videos, popups and ads does very little in favour of my experience.

As our attention span is (arguably) getting shorter, there is an ever increasing competition of elements on any page fighting to get the biggest chunk. The more attention-grabbing, the more money-bringing seems to be the formula, thus bringing ads front and centre, as you can see in the screenshots below.

Another, similar strategy is followed with sponsored content: they are disguised as original content, subtly making it look like just another element of the website.

Examples of sponsored content (also named promoted, paid)

Notice how Quora displays the ad as if it where an answer to a question, but then opens the ad's homepage when the user clicks it. Or Twitter's different promoted content patterns: sometimes the word 'promoted' is on the bottom of the post, sometimes up front.

In every case there's a common pattern: the piece of design marking content as an ad is small, grey and usually positioned in the lower corner, just enough to abide some requirement regulation, but subtle to the point that it might genuinely pass for content.

Where do we go from here? As a user, I very often feel annoyed and deceived; my instant reaction is to not click in the ad-like content, or even leave the page. As a designer, I have mixed feelings: this is definitely not the problem- solving practice we were taught in school, but on the other hand, as a cross- functional practice, design does have to play in the field of business and optimise certain metrics.

As a purely functional UX designer, am I speaking from a position of privilege? Certainly. Would I be okay with designing content that optimises for click rates and affiliate marketing? I think no - but I am certain that we don't always get to pick our fights in life.

Do I have suggestions? Barely. Saying ads' banners and incognito sponsored content should not be a thing is an easy, yet improbable recommendation. But as a User Experience designer I believe it is our mission to put the user front and first. The following examples have promoted pieces in the middle of their content, but it is visually distinct, so that the user can easily skip it.

While clearly an ad, the grey box doesn't look like but I can easily choose to ignore it if I don't find it interesting enough. (Actually, it is call to action that redirects to the products' page of the same website).

Wired uses a similar approach of making sponsored content stand out enough so that a user can spot it.

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