The never-ending user journey through ads

Have you ever felt stalked by a product for which you barely showed any interest? You thought you buried it for good, but somehow it still shows up everywhere you go? Yes, we're all going through it too.

As users, we already have our path laid out for us in any product we use. We may be aware of this or not, but it has been like this for a while now. Originally, the journey that we take was planned from the moment we acknowledge the product and ended after we've dropped it for good, but it doesn't work like this anymore.

We often find ourselves stalked by products for which we hardly showed any interest or by others that we've used in the past, but that we wouldn't like to hear from ever again. Everything is part of a master plan that seeks to refresh our memory over and over again, wearing us out until we finally do something about it.

Before we jump to the core of those endless and distorted user journeys that many products now take us on, let's start by getting some important concepts out of the way.

What's a user journey?

Putting it simply, the user journey is the ideal experience that a user has, step by step, when using a product. It's planned by the design team, usually in the first phases of a product design process. At each step, there are a set of goals that a user should achieve before moving on to the next one.

The main goal is to map out the expected behaviour and provide users an experience that assures they'll achieve their own end-goals. Often, there are even rewards associated with certain steps, such as registering in a website or subscribing to the product's newsletter. In the end, everything feels like smooth sailing for the user, who might not even aware of the different steps through the journey.

Example of a User Journey (Journal of Product Design and Development)

The image above shows an example of a user journey that consists on a list of steps to take, along with a description for each. This is a conventional experience that users could expect from a product but, unfortunately, it doesn't end here anymore. Something is causing a massive derail from hereafter.

Advertising: the main suspect

It makes perfect sense to immediately point the finger at advertising as, nowadays we can't seem to get rid of those endless banners that pop up everywhere. When we're scrolling through social media, when watching a video or even when searching for unrelated topics on a search engine. It happens frequently, as different products try to extend their reach.

But what if I told you that advertising by itself isn't the real culprit here?

Ads have been around since Ancient Egypt and there's nothing wrong with trying to spread a message to a larger audience. All that has changed since then is the channels that can be used to advertise and the type of media available to achieve it.

I'll be back -- as soon as I finish my Pepsi

Today, through the world wide web, companies found the perfect place to advertise their products to a wider public that may, or may not, be interested in what they have to sell. It goes beyond having a webpage to showcase the products, they can get to you in more ways than those you can imagine. However, they are not responsible for derailing the conventional user journey.

Advertising may be seen as the first step in some user journeys, but never as an end-goal. For companies that run ads, getting noticed by the user is be the first goal they want to achieve, preceding a set of other steps, such as the ones that were pictured above.

For instance, we expect to come across a few car ads if we read a cars magazine, in the same way that we expect music ads while listening to a music streaming service. Those ads are not in any way personalized to retain a single user, but are rather planned to get the attention of a wider segment.

The kind of ads that follow us around everywhere we go are different from conventional advertising and have a specific name for themselves: retargeting ads.

Remember what you want to forget with retargeting ads

Retargeting, also known as remarketing, is a form of online advertising that can help you keep your brand in front of bounced traffic after they leave your website. (...) Retargeting is a tool designed to help companies reach the 98% of users who don't convert right away"
ReTargeter

That's a nice way of describing retargeting ads, which makes them seem similar to conventional ads in their form. The main difference is how each is generated and their main purpose. While ads may be the first step in a user journey, retargeting opens the casket of already buried journeys and throws them at you violently.

The following work pictures a perfect example of the extent of retargeting ads.

Retargeting Advertising Example (Mad Fish Digital)

Those ads may seem like regular ones, but the main difference is that any user browsing through that website would immediately recognize the Kaiser Permanente banners. This would happen because for them to show up, the user had necessarily some interaction with the brand before. They look exactly the same as any other ad, but a retargeting ad will stick after the first contact with a product and will follow you through a whole lot of other unrelated pages and applications for a long time, begging you to stay with them.

This is a common practice in e-commerce websites, for instance, popping up after you browse through some of their products. From that point, almost every banner you'll see in every other website will highlight those products for a very long time. Your journey doesn't end when you leave the website with no intention of buying anything. In fact, it doesn't seem to end at all.

Going way beyond the simple journey

The truth is that, nowadays, almost every website will retain some information about the users, even if it's not personally identifiable. That data will feed third party applications and enable reports about various elements. While this is mostly harmless to the users and can even improve their experience in some ways, retargeting ads are also born from this data and have a massive impact.

The work that the design team has by researching Personas and planning the ideal user journey may be ruined if the user keeps getting approached by the same product in between the planned steps. Applying additional pressure will most likely do more harm than good, as the user might feel forced to take the next step instead of achieving it naturally.

Google itself proudly underlines that their display ads appear in more than two million websites and in more than 650 000 applications through a set of different presentations. That's the best estimate of how many ways an ad can get on our nerves.

This kind of control over the content that users absorb is more than just a simple derail from the original journey. It's a way of selecting what we'll see, somewhat similar to what platforms like Facebook have been accused of doing several times now.

Main takeaways

One believes things because one has been conditioned to believe them.
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Retargeting is a marketing strategy that can be used in different ways, but its main purpose crashes directly with that of the user journeys. There are various ways of denying the data collection on the root of retargeting and to block the massive amount of ads that are spread around the web, but those are preventive measures and they don't fix the problem.

Discussions about the influence that some platforms may have in user behaviour are still on the spotlight, and strategies like retargeting are at the core of the problem. It goes beyond the user journeys that are planned by the design teams, even making some of their work seem pointless, as their purpose goes against design's own purpose, which is to build interfaces to solve existing problems. Retargeting doesn't mean to provide a solution, only to aggravate the feeling of need through abusive pressure.

The user journey that once seemed like a pleasant breeze has turned into a violent tornado of long forgotten products. Hopefully, soon enough it will all be over.

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