What Advertising Can Learn from UX

We believe in user experience design’s core philosophies: designing for real people, attention to both detail and the big picture, and thoughtful combinations of creative and technical practice.  

UX design is what drives our own work in the field of UX reviews and consultation, after all.  

But user experience work–and in particular, its foundational principles–has applications and implications for fields outside of design and tech.  One huge field that’s gotten some overlap with UX design lately is advertising. 

Obviously, we’re seeing more and more advertising/PR firms invest heavily in digital marketing and analytics.

We’re seeing the rise of predictive and in-stream advertising, and sponsored content.  Pretty soon, we’ll get to a point where every advertising firm has to have a UX designer in-house to accomplish their day-to-day tasks.  

But we’re not yet at the place where UX’s core and best philosophies have gotten to the largest segments of the advertising industries.  

So here are some humble (and bold) suggestions for how advertising can learn more from its geeky and fast-moving cousin, UX design.

1. Take your cues from users themselves.

If you’ve ever watched Mad Men, you’d think that advertising creative types sit in their offices all day coming up with funny stories and taglines to pitch each other.  Truth is, that’s not far off the mark.  A lot of advertising/PR work still relies on creatives getting into the heads of customers through pure guesswork.

You have to “imagine” what the user thinks and feels and build an advertising campaign around it.  But UX is built on creating in-depth user profiles–usually through a combination of user interviews, market data, focus groups, and more–before attempting to design solutions that will work for them.  

Some advertisers use this approach already, but others still create from the top-down, or really from guesswork to product.  It’s worth digging into the world of profiles, attitudes, and personality insights before making creative leaps.  Users have a lot to tell you, if you have a way to ask the right questions!

2. Try and fail constantly.

For good reason, advertising is an industry on the hunt for the next big thing.  That might be the next famous Superbowl commercial, or the most eye-catching photo campaign.  If you’re lucky, it’s the iconic song “I’d like to buy the world a coke”.  

But failure and iteration, which are incredibly important to the UX process, are healthy and key parts of any creative journey. 

Failure can offer inspiration for future work, and helps us boil our work down to the very best ideas. But failure isn’t always easy to confront and capture well in a process, especially when a team’s ethos is built on competition, bottom line, and meeting hard deadlines and figures. 

Try incorporating more exercises into production processes that focus on “bad” ideas and rough drafts–getting used to failure can make it a lot easier to access success.

3. Sketch and mock-up before making the real thing.

User experience design’s bread and butter is the wireframe.  We’ve talked about wireframing before: what it means and how to actually do it. 

Wireframes basically sketches of your product that generally don’t have any code behind them. 

You get a cheap and quicker way to “mock up” the actual product and work out kinks in the user flow and visual design before they hit development stage.

But the wireframing “attitude”–you know, the one where you sketch and mock anything up roughly before moving to final or polished drafts–can be applied in any field.  

In advertising, it could mean moving through several iterations of a tagline or slogan, or sketching the storyboard of a new ad on a sheet of paper before creating it live.  

You’ll save both time and money by using easier tools that you’re less attached to–so you’re able to discard the bad ideas and hold onto the awesome ones.

4. Describe for someone outside of your industry–aka no jargon!

The funny thing about user experience design is that despite being a very technical and jargony practice in itself, the final product–the design itself–can’t have a lot of industry-specific terms or your users will simply not know what you’re talking about!  

Part of being a great UX designer, and also an effective advertiser, is being able to describe your product or service without industry jargon.  

How would you explain it to your grandmother who’s never had a smart phone, for instance?  Or how would you explain it to a kid?  

Simplifying the language and approach can be a great first step to reaching a wider audience.

5. Be honest.

This might be an unpopular approach in advertising, since not everything is sell-able this way.  But transparency about a product’s function and specs can build long-term trust with the user that gimmicks can’t.  

If your design and PR are both built on offering clear and simple messages to the user, they will appreciate it–and in the long run that’s the appreciation quick money can’t buy.

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About the author:

Ryan O'Connor

Ryan has helped build compelling experiences for startups and Fortune 500’s around the globe, a passion he draws from his endless curiosity of psychology, computer interaction, and company culture. A published author and mentor with an M.S. in Human Factors, Ryan is on a mission to help companies discover the balance of creating delightful digital experiences while achieving business goals.