Over the years, user interaction with platforms has changed in unpredicted ways. As users spend more and more time on their devices, many platforms have evolved from being tools or sites for occasional or irregular use to essential parts of their users’ daily lives. Repeated use of the same platforms puts their user experience under a magnifying glass, as regular interactions increase users’ expectations from their experiences, while also making them more aware of hidden costs.
Wasted Time = Money
At first glance, many platforms appear to be “free” to users, but as usage increases, so does time spent navigating around profit-generating elements such as video advertisements slowing down a site, pop-ups that block access until viewed, and surveys or other invasive information-gathering techniques. As users make repeat visits to these platforms, their patience for these revenue-generating disturbances grows thin, often leading to the installation of ad-blockers or completely avoiding sites, as they determine that the amount of information gained per click does not represent a fair exchange.
Revenue from advertising, or directly from users?
Some of the most successful platforms allow users to opt out of these disturbances, using cost models that let users pay for added convenience. For example, Spotify and Pandora both offer a basic free service with the understanding that users must listen to advertising to get access to the “free” content. For a small monthly fee, users can avoid disruptive advertising and listen to unlimited music. Hulu, a TV and movie platform, also uses a tiered plan, starting with a basic user fee for an experience with advertisements, ranging to an ad-free experience with premium content, and more options in-between.
While it is easy to argue that users like cost-free things above all others, interactions with platforms like Hulu and Spotify demonstrate that users value time and convenience, and occasionally prefer to pay monetarily to save time and increase enjoyment. In fact, in June 2017, Spotify had 57 million paying users out of over 140 million total registered users. Over 40% of users are willing to pay for something that they could technically get for “free.”
When advertising doesn’t waste users’ time
Pinterest has taken an entirely different approach, using ‘promoted pins’ to generate revenue. In a manner similar to Facebook and other social media platforms, Pinterest makes its money from advertising impressions, but by using promoted pins, the ads mesh more organically with the content provided. After all, whether they’re food, design or fashion related, Pinterest pins help users collect information and gather inspiration. So saving relevant ads for potential later purchase fits very well into Pinterest’s front-facing product offering.
Making profitability work: the idea of ‘fair exchange’
For companies, the key takeaway is determining how much value a user gets out of an experience, and how much time, information or money users are willing to pay for it, or whether the ads can creatively be incorporated into the experience. Excessive ads lead to workarounds and lost revenue if the product does not seem worth the user commitment. The best way to accomplish a balance is through transparency between the provider and the user.
Platforms that use invasive advertising should consider changing up their revenue models. Staying with their current models can equal lost revenue, which this article from Fast.Co Design explains how to quantify. If they were not to change, there must be clear value associated with it. As users become more aware of the burdens of habitual use (or even addiction) to their various platforms, they will weed out more and more platforms that are providing an ethically questionable experience.
How can platforms better understand users?
The concept of Dark UX as discussed in this article explains the concept of hidden costs to users, and helps them become more informed about how they consume information. Websites like Better Ads and Simply Secure serve as common ground between users and platforms to explore these trends. From either perspective, it is in all parties’ best interest to be aware of the benefits and drawbacks of the current options and solutions, and know that creative solutions exist.
The lesson for platforms here is to be more open to designing around user experience, and continually reconsider the cost of user loyalty – it may not be as much as you think it is, or it may be even greater. If you are the user, are you giving up more value than you get out of the experience? If you are the platform, are you using a model that leaves money on the table and offers a subpar user experience? Use these resources to round out your perspective. Push for a better user experience and be flexible in how you pay for it. You may have more flexibility in your approach than you initially thought!