Advertising and All That Icky Stuff: Designing Digital Reading Experiences for the Real World
Conversations and observations on designing for reading… and making money too
Product designers like to think of ourselves as the only real champions of users. While the rest of the world hungrily optimizes for revenue, profit, user acquisition and other selfish corporate things, product designers remain the pillars of virtue in a sea of greed- always only looking out for the best user experience.
At least, that’s what we like to imagine.
But is it true, and is it even possible? At Tradecraft we practice whiteboard design challenges every week, and one of the questions we always remember to ask the client is this: “How do you monetize? Is there anything you want me to push to drive revenue here, so I can make sure it’s considered in my design?”
The truth is, no one wants to hire a designer who doesn’t make money for the company.
Users are great, but there ain’t no users if there ain’t no product. And there ain’t no product if there ain’t no money.
How It Began
My first idea for this article stemmed from a sweeping, grandiose vision to do good for the publishing tech world. As a young designer holding an English Literature and Journalism double major, I made it my mission to combine my love for technology and reading into one. Reading is one of my greatest loves, and I had gone to Journalism school in New York during the era of mass hysteria over print being dead.
Everywhere, my professors and fellow students were lamenting the death of the written word as we knew it. But I, being the futurist that I was, was unperturbed. I believed that technology, though seemingly threatening to the publishing world at the time, would end up salvaging it and taking it to the peak of it’s true potential.
Fast forward 4 years, and we’re nearly there. But not quite.
I started my quest to write an article about creating the best digital reading experience by seeking out designers at publishing-tech companies and getting their thoughts on the subject. One of the first designers I spoke to was Zane Riley, one of the first product designers at Brit + co. After I introduced my passionate spiel about reading and technology, he dropped a truth bomb on me: The publishing-tech world is a tricky world to design for, he said, because these products don’t inherently profit from what makes them useful, such as a seamless reading experience or beautiful, clean UI.
The thing that makes online publications profit is often also the most detrimental, distracting thing for a user- it’s advertising. And so as a product designer designing for reading, you have a dilemma: how do you balance optimization for profit and optimization for user experience? … (because) when you optimize for one thing, you de-optimize for the other. — Zane Riley
I was crestfallen. I had never even considered this. As a student designer, I had zero constraints and didn’t have to think about things like advertising. Yet designing for the real world is not constraint-free, and would people actually pay for an app just to read ad-free content? The answer seems to be no.
Publishing Tech’s Epic Struggle
Earlier this year, the extremely well-loved, well-designed news app Circa shut down because of lack of funds, a part of which were attributed to their refusal to implement off-the-shelf advertising, which would disrupt the reading experience. Why didn’t they ask readers to pay for the app instead? Presumably, no one was willing to.
The New York Times has long struggled with the transition from print to digital. There is advertising on the Times’ site, but advertising alone probably does not bring in enough to keep a huge operation like the Times on their feet, especially when their main source of revenue used to come from people paying to buy physical newspapers. I cornered the fabulous New York Times designer and graphic editor Jennifer Daniel at a recent Creative Mornings event and asked her: Has the NYT found the secret sauce yet? How are they planning to drive profit in the future?
Her answer: No. I DON’T KNOW. NOBODY KNOWS!
Profit probably won’t be coming from the newsroom, though I wish it could.
- Jennifer Daniel, NYT
Journalism and writing is a print-oriented culture, and when you put it online, it suddenly becomes free. But good writing should be worth a lot more than $0.
At least there still are people out there who are willing to pay to read the New York Times, which has been around since 1851 and has established itself as probably the most trustworthy, quality news source in the country( I shamefully admit: I love the NYT but I’m still not willing to pay that $3.75 a week for it).
But what if you aren’t the New York Times? What if you’re a tiny little startup that wants to create amazing, distraction-free reading experiences for people yet still stay afloat? Is the only option tons and tons of advertising? How do you make the reader’s experience as streamlined and pleasurable as possible while she’s reading on a tiny screen (especially if she’s reading on mobile), when you also have to think about how to stick ads in there and get $$ for page views? And is there even a point in doing that when so many people are using ad blockers?
Many ad blockers are free, and when you install them, all ads magically disappear. Apple recently allowed ad blocking software on iOS9, and all readers rejoiced and rushed to take advantage.
Unfortunately, ad blockers are also projected to take away more than $1 million in mobile ad revenue this year, and the majority of that revenue will likely be taken from content/ publishing sites.
“I use ad blockers because I hate ads more than I love content.”- Zac Halbert
Here’s a nifty article about ad blocking if you want to read more about it — the gist of it is, everybody agrees that ad blocking is a problem and it’s taking away revenue, but the root of that problem is that consumers hate ads. And no one really knows how to fix it.
“Whether you’re a creator out of your garage, a creator that has influencers in the millions or a media company that is in the content-making business, there are economics that are significant in being able to create content. If we block every ad there is, there will be no content.” — Lisa Valentino, source
As our sage design instructor Zac Halbert puts it, “Focusing on a great reading experience is one thing, but part of that experience is making sure the site is still there.”
Ah, the age old designer’s dilemma. I had finally been initiated.
And so began my quest for answers to this question: From a design POV, how can designers help craft amazing reading experiences, yet still help companies monetize?
Sponsored Content and Branded Experiences
One way around it is the ‘branded experience’ route. Many publications have opted for this route, including Medium, which I must mention as the host of this article in the first place. Essentially, brands will pay to either sponsor or create content on a content site in return for more exposure.
By leveraging sponsored content, e.g. the re:form design publication sponsored by BMW, Medium hopes to not have to sacrifice user experience for $$. Here’s a fascinating interview from Contently about Medium’s plans to leverage the publication and it’s plans for monetization in the future.
“Medium’s challenge…is that its focus on clean design and typography means that its nearly impossible for it to run standard display advertising. By opening its content up to sponsors, Medium wins both ways: It can make money, and not anger its readers in its process.”- Ricardo Bilton, source
Facebook and Twitter, though not considered traditional publications, feature sponsored posts, which are pretty much the same idea.
- Visually integrate branded content as much as possible into your product so that it flows seamlessly along with other content, and choose similar (if not the same) colors, text, and image placement. The experience of reading branded content should be as just as pleasurable for the reader as reading native content.
- Make it clear to the reader with visible tagging that she’s reading a “sponsored” post. Do NOT masquerade your sponsored content as native content, because once a reader figures this out and thinks you’re trying to trick them, they will never trust you again.
Not far from sponsored content lies native advertising. There are businesses out there dedicated to making unobtrusive, ‘native’ looking ads. In fact, I am currently working with one such client at Tradecraft, who is utilizing the ‘Card UI’ advertising trend to integrate advertising into mobile content sites.
While working on the product’s redesign, my team constantly struggled with how to evaluate traditional ideas of ‘usability’ when it came to a product that was essentially advertising. We experimented with whether incorporating text suggesting that the ad could be a part of the native content would simultaneously improve experience and conversion.
Once again, it could be argued that this is a way to deliberately mislead the reader, yet if this kind of advertising can make the publication and advertiser money, as well as bring value to the reader’s reading experience, then isn’t it a win win for all?
Only problem: ad blockers block native ads too.
- Straddle the line between “I’m not annoying” and “I’m not noticeable”. E.g. use muted colors that blend in so as not to scream I AM AN AD and distract the reader away from the content, but also do not blend in too much so that the reader completely ignores you.
Subscription models are another beast. Mostly reserved for long form, this is how NYT pays the bills, and is the ideal for any design-minded publisher as it eliminates the need for all advertising.
This doesn’t seem to be a lucrative space though. The verdict is still out on whether people love reading enough to pay for good writing. Subscription E-book company Oyster recently shut down, and Google purchased some of its core IP assets and talent- presumably to help them in their own push into content.
I talked to Catherine “Mao” Kue, a senior designer at Scribd, an e-book subscription company that was once Oyster’s biggest competitor and now the lone survivor in the independent subscription E-Book space, standing tall against Amazon and its weak Kindle unlimited.
Mao assured me that reading was not dead, and that Scribd readers were reading more than ever. Though Scribd does not face the same challenges with advertising as shortform digital publications, they feel more pressure to create amazing digital reading experience for people that are as seamless and pleasurable as reading physical books — or there will be no subscribers.
“Reading (books) is such a physical thing. As designers we need to translate the feelings of nostalgia- the smell of a book, the texture of a page, the weight in your hand- into the digital world.”- Catherine Mao Kue
Design considerations (since the reader is already paying, you can focus entirely on the reading experience! Hooray!):
- Set font to a clean, serif type default (e.g. Georgia or Times New Roman) to optimize for readability, but let the reader choose between typefaces when they want to.
- Maximize white space and minimize all other elements that could take up on-screen real estate (icons, tab bars, navigation) while readers are in ‘read’ mode, so they can focus solely on the words on the page.
- Mimic the physical reading experience when you can, e.g. adding in bookmarks as curled pages, allowing readers to highlight, etc.
- That being said, keep in mind that digital readers scroll. Do not attempt to mimic ‘page turning’ with jarring animations and excessive pagination, which only increases bounce rate.
Commerce + Content
If you’re a digital lifestyle publication like Refinery 29 or Brit+Co, you’ve likely explored the ‘commerce + content’ model, otherwise known as trying to get people to shop from your site while they’re reading.
Refinery 29 tried this a few years ago and then dialed the whole thing back when they figured out readers really wanted to read quality content, not buy things on their site. Their new focus is on “branded experiences” instead.
At Brit +Co, this model is still alive, though the integration between commerce and content is still something that most publications do not seem to have mastered.
Of course, what you’re selling doesn’t need to be physical content. The New York Times has a cooking app, which is extremely successful and could be a future instrument of monetization. Could the future of the NYT be in products like these bringing in profit to support the newsroom? Perhaps.
- Implement a ‘shop’ section as a separate section of your site and link out to shoppable content. Having shoppable modules interlaced between content is disruptive.
- Ensure the shop section is the same look and feel of the entire site, and that it is highly usable. Do not let an unusable shop section dilute the experience of your entire product, when it shouldn’t be the focus in the first place.
When all else fails, there are donations, and many online publications that refuse to implement advertising must rely on donations to keep their business alive.
This is often referred to as the ‘the tip-jar’ model, as a site will have a donation link, much like a ‘tip-jar’ at the top of the page.
Or, like Wait But Why, the awesome online news blog created by writer Tim Urban, they can choose to feature their content on a site like Patreon, which is like a ‘kickstarter for creators.’ Readers can go on Patreon and donate money to their favorite creators and provide them with sustainable income.
However, it is still tough to get people to donate (ask Wikipedia), and the solution is not very scalable. This may work for small independent blog owners, but when it comes to a big publishing company, tip-jars will likely bring in no more than chump change.
- Use straightforward, honest copy and visuals that appeal to a reader’s loving nature ( e.g. heart icons) that convey your need for help. Brain Pickings does a really good job of this:
- Do not mention how few people have donated (looking at you Wikipedia) or try to guilt trip your readers. This will only result in empty dance floor effect ( no one wants to be the first person on a dance floor).
If You Must Place Ads
If placing ads is really the only sustainable way for your publication to make money, make sure you are designing their placement in a way that is truly considerate for your readers.
One of the reasons Quartz offers such a great reading experience is because it actually considers users in their ads. Co-President Jay Lauf recently penned this awesome medium post about advertising with empathy:
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… Design like you give a damn.- Jay Lauf, via
Instead of disrupting a reader’s entire reading flow by sticking large flashy ads all over the place, Quartz places ads at the bottom of articles, or labels them clearly with the word ‘advertisement’ when they are in the middle of articles, so the reader always knows where the ad is.
And The Basics
And if we put advertising aside for a moment, there are other basic tenets of digital readability according to content product designers:
Minimize cognitive load for the reader by reducing visual clutter on the page. Create clear visual cues for what’s redundant and what’s meaningful, e.g. the article heading and content itself.
Set type size and height according to article length and screen size. Use colors with high contrast (e.g. black and white vs grey and white) to make text stand out more, especially for longer form articles.
Set in-line images to the right so readers can easily scan them and return to content when they read from left to right, and set header images at the top of the page so as not to interrupt the reading experience. This article by Google designer Adrian Zumbrunnen is an amazing piece on how to create a non-distracting reading experience.
On the web, we are confronted with an unprecedented amount of distractions that gave birth to various tools like Readability, Instapaper, Adblocker, etc. Attention span shortens while the quality of reading experiences declines; ultimately leaving a lot of great content out there undiscovered, unloved, unshared and unread by most.
This is not how we imagined the web to be. It’s our job as designers to bring clarity back to the digital canvas by crafting reading experiences that put readers first.- Adrian Zumbrunnen, via
Typography is another huge, huge consideration for readability. I would attempt to go into it but this article does it a lot better than me, using Medium as an example.
Consider innovative new technologies to improve the reading experience, like tailoring your content design according to when the user is reading. Zane shared this awesome article with me about what Centro is experimenting with to improve readability- through inverting background and text colors from day to night.
The future of monetization for publishing could be entirely different from what it is today. Everybody’s buzzing about bitcoin and what it can do for the publishing industry if the public is willing to adapt it at scale and make micro-payments to consume content they enjoy.
A startup called Bitwall is already making strides in that direction — and if it takes off, then we will be looking at a completely different landscape for publishing tech, with another unique set of design considerations.
For now, however, the dilemma still persists. I still do not have an answer as to what ‘the best way’ is to design for reading with monetization in mind, but I believe as designers we can hopefully make better choices when we better understand our constraints and the options we have.
Great reading experiences in the age of digital will not die! I believe it! And I’m excited to see how it will evolve next.
Thanks so much to the following folks for sharing their thoughts:
Zane Riley, Product Designer at Brit & Co @zaneriley
Zac Halbert, Product Designer and fearless design instructor at Tradecraft @zachalbert
Mao Kue, Senior Visual Experience Designer at Scribd @maokue
Jennifer Daniel, Designer & Graphics Editor at the New York Times @jenniferdaniel
If you liked this article, please recommend and share! I would also love to see your opinion in the comment section.
I am a Product Designer at Tradecraft. Follow me on twitter @butitjustis