Cia Romano, chief executive officer and founder of Interface Guru, is an evangelist for end users, researching and reporting on why user-centered design for the web, intranets, software and kiosks is mandatory for success. A hands-on user interface expert, Cia has developed the Usable Times 5 criteria for ranking computer screen effectiveness. The metric, based on her usability lab studies, focuses on user response to five factors consistently observed in the lab: orientation, permission, interactivity, relevance and speed.
This month, Interface Guru is mounting a new study about how users respond to online advertising, so I sat down with Cia Romano to chat about the study, ad usability, consumer attitudes and more.
Brad Berens: What can you tell us about the study that your company is launching this month?
Cia Romano: As usability researchers for six years, we've seen the reactions of users to online advertising while we are testing for content usability. Reactions range from annoyance to indifference. Over the hundreds of lab tests we've conducted, I have yet to see a person say, "Wow, that's a cool ad. May I click on it?"
More often we hear, "Here's where they're trying to sell me something." What we see repeatedly is that ads, unless they appear at the appropriate time and place, are devalued as compared to content (i.e., if users click on an ad they thought was content, their response is, "oh, it's just an ad"). So at a minimum, it's in the best interests of advertisers to make sure their ads are clearly presented as such, because users are in the driver's seat-- and they want to choose the experience path. They will look at ads, but only once they have found their content target, or at least are confident that they are on the right path to the desired content.
So we at Interface Guru feel it's time to measure user response to online advertising specifically. We're funding our own study to provide advertisers an objective look at what works and what doesn't, in the hope that advertisers and their agencies will come closer to what users really want to experience. We have an issue with the term "interactive agency," because animation is not interaction-- it's essential that those who design so-called interactive advertising pay attention to human-computer interaction, or they may be undermining themselves and their clients.
Until the study is complete, our advice to online advertisers: Don't try to fool users, place ads at a relevant point on the experience path, give the users some control, and they are likelier to pay attention to an ad.
Berens: We talk a lot about the usability of websites, but what about the usability of advertisements? Aside from a clear "close" button, have you found any hot issues on how usability of an ad can impact a brand positively or negatively?
Romano: The usability of advertisements is precisely what we intend to examine in our study in May. Users want control that extends beyond the "close" button-- they want to decide how, when and in what form they experience content. We planned the study because of user irritation we've seen as a byproduct of over six years of testing for content usability. Smart advertisers need to understand the how-when-in-what-form, or users will decide it for them.
A few quick "hot issues"-- auto-launch of audio is probably the greatest irritant. Users want to interact, so a better choice is to let them know that audio is available, and then provide controls so that users can invoke the audio when -- and as many times -- as they want to. Another ad format users hate are ads that move to obscure content. Pop-ups that appear on top of a home page -- before the user has had a chance to see what's available on the page -- are another common complaint.
It's the social equivalent of inviting friends to dinner, then asking them to buy Tupperware when they arrive at your doorstep. At least say hello first and let them come inside before you start to pitch them-- unless, of course, you don't mind offending them.
Berens: Building on that last question, is it just the usability of the ad itself or something else?
Romano: While we are designing a study to specifically evaluate the usability of ads, the web experience makes it difficult to isolate ads from content. The two are so "intertwingled" that the distinctions easily made in other media (think print or broadcast, where ads are immediately identifiable) are difficult to make on websites.
Frequently, ads are made to resemble content, and vice-versa. The rules of engagement, so to speak, vary from site to site. So users must constantly reframe their reference points.
Advertising is necessary, and can be beneficial. What we are raising is the idea that advertisers may be shooting themselves in the foot through inappropriate placement or presentation.
Berens: Can we get more granular on the audio question? Sure, users don't like their computers to start barking at them any more than some people want their cars to talk to them ("the door is ajar"). But surely there are different kinds of audio. Our friends at Rovion, for example, have great results with their greenscreen floating spokespeople, and if a user mouses over there's a clear close button. But with Rovion the ads are, I think, nearly always custom created for the site.
Romano: This clearly addresses the issue of relevance, so it makes sense that these implementations are more successful.
Berens: Oddcast's avatars are a similar example. Are some non-user-initiated audio executions better than others? Is it really about the audio in and of itself, or is it about the irrelevance of the audio to the content, or is that a false choice?
Romano: Well, one reality is that we never know from where a user is accessing online content-- say, from work, where an autolaunch of audio can be embarrassing. If the audio is irrelevant in the experience path, users are doubly irritated, and due to the haphazard placement of ads in the web experience, irrelevance to the user is a common problem.
This topic is a complex one. My initial take is that content-oriented sites, such as news sites, have a different problem than entertainment sites. NASCAR fans are happy to hear their favorite racers. If I go to the website for a movie I love -- say, "V for Vendetta" -- I am likely to enjoy hearing the voice of the hero, or the soundtrack. But those are highly targeted properties. Mass-media sites face more of a challenge because they are serving diverse audiences on diverse topics. What one person loves -- say, celebrity gossip -- may be completely off-putting to a user who came to read real news.
Berens: When there is a negative user response to an ad, do you have any general insight about who gets the blame? Can we reliably say that it's the brand/advertiser, the publisher or some combo platter?
Romano: You have it in the correct order -- brand/advertiser first, publisher second. Except in the case of membership or association sites, where users have high expectations of the publisher. Then the order is inverted.
Berens: The adware companies -- particularly WhenU and Claria -- have done a lot of work to make it clear that the ads they serve up onto a user's desktop are coming from their companies, rather than from the online publishers. Do you think that the distinction they're drawing is legible to users?
Romano: Unfortunately, no. The general noise-to-signal ratio online makes it extremely difficult for users to tell who's who, and they will not make that effort. They will simply filter, or block, the ads -- and then they become what we call "Tunnelvision Man," who has to narrow the field of view just to be able to see the content they came for in the first place.
It's funny that the more objects we place on screens, the less users see.