Know your audience

April 25, 2012

As a digital agency, we are often put in the delicate position of balancing between our customer's stated desires, and those of their customers. Indeed, much of web design practice is often construed as a marriage between business objectives (conversions) and user experience (UX).

But what if the two conflict?

While the web medium is relatively new, we are familiar with the advertising business model from print, radio and television. You develop a product (article, show, whatever), you attract an audience (readers, listeners, viewers), then you sell advertising to businesses, or anyone who has an interest in reaching that audience to promote their wares. (Yes, I know, these industries have also frequently been able to collect revenues from subscriptions to the end consumers, but let's ignore that little complexity for the time being.)

Now the question arises: Who is the customer? Is it the audience, who are users of the product you are offering? Or is it the advertiser, who pays the bills? The simple answer is both, but that doesn't help to balance the scales where interests conflict.

I think a bit of industry history provides a clear answer.

For about 8 years before anyone ever heard of Google, there was a fair bit of competition in the web search and aggregation space. Yahoo!, however, stood out as, if not the first, very close to the first mover, and the clear leader. Today, Google is practically synonymous with search (indeed, with the web for many people). Yahoo!, well, its troubles have been well-documented.

What happened?

One version of it goes like this:

Yahoo! saw the infamous banner ad as the primary vehicle for its business objectives. An intrusive, obnoxious, inefficient abomination of design and usability, occupying the prime screen real estate, above the fold, thought to be the first place the eye would fall when arriving on a page.

Google, by contrast, had a home page that was the paragon of simplicity and spartan design. You didn't even see an ad until you decided what you were searching for. And when you did, the relevant ads would appear innocuously, off to the right-hand side, to a left-to-right reading audience.

Which is serving the perceived needs of its advertisers, and which the end-user?

Yahoo! was listening to its major advertisers, who were telling them: “Please get this (pointing at their banner ad) in front of as many eyeballs as you can.” Yahoo! complied. They knew which side their bread was buttered on. Sensible thing to do, right?

Google, by contrast, developed a web search experience second-to-none. The end-users flocked to it because it got out of the way, and delivered the results people wanted. No more, no less. Advertising eventually appeared, but on Google's terms, not those of the advertisers.

Who was right? In this case I believe that history, and through it the all-powerful consumer, has spoken. Heck, Google probably wouldn't even exist today, had Yahoo! not completely missed the point.