It’s the Empathy, Stupid

How to begin fixing online advertising

It’s hard not to agree that online advertising is broken. People are fed up with ads that get in their way, slow down load times, and seem designed mostly to trick them. Some are going so far as to block all the ads on their phones, now that iOS 9 has made it easy to do so.

I’ve been observing us — the media and advertising industry — as we debate how we got here, wring our hands over what to do, point fingers at perceived villains, and speculate outcomes. Most of the discourse is about data, technology, or the quality of ads. Almost none of it seems to consider the actual consumer of our products.

The discussion needs to move back to a more elemental level — it seems to me we have a design problem here. Or, more precisely, an empathy problem. As Tim Brown of IDEO eloquently puts it, “Empathy is at the heart of design. Without the understanding of what others see, feel, and experience, design is a pointless task.” Having failed to apply design thinking at the outset of our online publishing journey, we as creators of experiences have built the mess we face now. Advertisers are so fixated on blasting through the noise and publishers are so desperate to monetize that they haven’t noticed just how bad this whole experience has become for the people who matter most — their audiences.

I don’t pretend to have any formal expertise in design, but I do know with certainty that it profoundly matters. I’d always had a sense of why Apple is the most valuable company on the planet and why Zurich is so often at the top of world’s-most-livable-cities lists. But it wasn’t until I saw Cameron Sinclair of Architecture for Humanity speak about his organization’s approach to solving problems that my eyes were opened to the importance of empathy in what we build and how we build it. Before beginning a project, the architects of AFH spend time with the people they’re there to serve, to better understand their problems and needs. Listening is the key component because otherwise, as one architect says, “it becomes your building more than theirs.” Sinclair has a simple mantra that sums this up nicely: “Design like you give a damn.”

Design like you give a damn. I think it’s that simple for us, too. We’re turning off our audiences because we haven’t stopped for a second to truly consider what they see, feel, and experience. People don’t like to be tracked, interrupted, duped, slowed down. But we’re not listening to them, so why do we expect them to listen to us?

Original artist Robert N. Lawrence http://bit.ly/1QenRVb

At Quartz, we have always believed that digital advertising could be a welcomed part of the user experience, which is why we’ve made ads an integral element of our overall product design process from the start. Delivering on this belief begins with certain principles that guide us in the design, development, and selling of advertising. I thought it might be useful to share them here.

There is really only one rule; all other principles always point back to this one…

Users come first. We are all users — readers, viewers, listeners — ourselves. We strive to create experiences we would enjoy or engage with and eschew those we would not. That means:

  • We don’t get in your way. Our ads don’t pop up, push content down, or make you wait five to thirty seconds to get to the story you actually wanted to read or the video you actually wanted to watch. We keep our code as light as possible to go easy on your browser.
  • We respect your intelligence. Our sponsor content is always clearly and prominently labeled. Our editorial staff never creates advertising.
  • We are always striving to do better. Technologies evolve, habits change. At Quartz, we’re scaling our organization to keep pace with that change. Our code is in a constant state of evolution. Our client services team of developers and designers is larger than nearly any other publisher of our size. And ideas — about style, design, what works best on mobile or social, best practices in visual information display — are shared across teams and functional areas. We embrace journalistic independence, but enterprise-wide interdependence.

We adhere to these tenets from a position of both principle and pragmatism. Treating users with the respect we’d want for ourselves is the right thing to do. Advertising works better when users are respected, which creates a strong business. All of this begins with empathy.

I welcome your feedback at j@qz.com.

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