How do ads affect user experience?

By UserTesting | December 7, 2023
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Advertisements have become integral to how websites and applications operate, receive revenue, and interact with users. Recognizing the need to run ads without compromising the user’s experience can be a tricky balancing act. Learning which type of ad formats perform best and where to place your ads will help your organization increase user engagement, user satisfaction, and the entire online user experience.

A short history of digital ads

As media has changed—from magazines and radio to TV and now the internet—advertising implementation and delivery have also changed.

In the early days, programming included advertisements, but the main focus was on the ad's relevance. Would the advertised product or service resonate with the audience or feel too far out of left field? There was no way to avoid advertisements during commercial breaks on the radio or TV, so users had to deal with whatever ad came on, regardless of their preferences.

As technology advanced, so did how advertisements could be delivered and targeted toward specific demographics. This led to a significant increase in the ads users were exposed to, and with more ads came more resistance to consuming them. 

In response, ad blockers and other tools emerged, aiming to limit the number of advertisements displayed on websites and applications. New streaming services offered premium memberships so that people could opt out of watching or hearing commercials as long as they were willing to pay a little more.

Users have gained more control over the volume of ads they see online, and meanwhile, traditional advertising methods are losing effectiveness. The impact of UX ad experience has never been more relevant. Today’s designers must carefully balance the tightrope of catching the user's attention without becoming overly intrusive.

How ads affect user experience

Imagine the last time you looked up an online recipe and visited an ad-covered website. Did you enjoy scrolling through the site to find the information you needed? Could you easily navigate the site without inadvertently clicking on an ad?

One issue with online ads is the pricing structure. The more people who view or click on the ad, the more money the site or app owner makes. This incentivizes owners to display as many ads as possible to increase ad revenue.

As more ads flood the screen, users have difficulty seeing the content or navigating the page without friction. UX design creates an environment where content and ads coexist without overwhelming or distracting users.

The balance is tricky; more ads equals more monetization, but they may also upset the user. UX designers must experiment with many factors that affect the overall user experience, like the ads displayed, ad placements, and the number of ads throughout the app or site.

Types of digital ads for sites and apps

Different types of digital ads can be combined on the same page. For example, you can have a video display, a native mobile ad, or both. Some types are better suited for different use cases, so knowing how they work can help you decide when and where to use them.

Display ads

The most common ads on a blog or a popular news site are simple display ads. They typically combine images and text but can include videos, audio, and graphics.

Display ads come in various forms, including:

  • Banners
  • Landing pages
  • Pop-ups
  • Flash ads

Display ads are popular thanks partly to the low entry barrier and easy implementation. Most sites only need a specific number of monthly visitors to qualify, and site owners can add them to their site with a simple line of pre-written code.

Because display ads are so easy to implement, they’re sometimes overused, resulting in less relevance and specificity to the target audience, which means lower conversion rates. UX designers must restrict the number of display ads on a page and monitor their relevance to create a better user experience.

Native ads

If pop-up ads are intrusive and annoying, native ads are, ideally, the opposite. They’re often camouflaged within the platform they appear on, designed to look more like an organic part of the content instead of a traditional advertisement. 

Instead of the ad sticking out and intentionally trying to catch the user's attention, native ads blend into their surroundings. Multiple elements should match the style of the website or application, including:

  • Design
  • Colors
  • Text
  • Images

Think of how Facebook ads appear as just another post within your feed. If not for the Sponsored tag, you couldn't distinguish between an ad and your friend's post.

To best use native ads for user experience, ensure that these ads align with your platform's style and substance. The ad should match the visual design and appear in content that's already interesting to the user.

Video ads

Whether short clips that last a few seconds or longer videos that run for several minutes, video ads are designed to engage users more effectively than static ads. They often use storytelling techniques to create an emotional connection with the viewer.

Auto-playing video ads are displayed on websites and apps in a few common ways. One of the most popular methods is pre-roll video ads, which play before the user's chosen content starts on platforms like YouTube. Mid-roll ads interrupt the content partway through, similar to traditional TV commercials. Another standard format is in-banner video ads, where the video plays within a traditional ad banner space on a webpage.

Effective video ad content is tailored to the platform and the audience, considering how users interact with it and what kind of content they expect to see.

While video ads can be highly engaging, they should also be used as a balanced ad strategy. Too many video ads can be intrusive and annoying, harming the user experience and the advertiser's reputation. It's important to balance video ads with other forms of content and ad formats.

Mobile ads

Most ad types that function on websites—display ads, video ads, and native ads—also take mobile forms. The main difference will be the ad's dimensions and how it is displayed on smaller screen sizes instead of larger desktops. 

Mobile ads are displayed much like other ads. They are used as banners at the top or bottom of a page, as full-screen ads covering all the content, or blended seamlessly with the content, like native ads. Since smaller devices don't have as much space for user interaction, the ads can only take up so much real estate. Otherwise, users will find the navigation frustrating, and bounce rates will increase.

Timing and frequency are also important considerations. Bombarding users with too many ads in a short period can lead to ad fatigue and negative sentiment toward the advertiser. Instead, try spreading out ad delivery and capping the number of ads shown to each user per day.

Respect for the user should be paramount in mobile advertising. Offering users the ability to control their ad experiences, such as opting out of certain ads or adjusting their ad preferences, can significantly improve user experience and foster a more positive relationship between the user and the advertiser.

Mixture of ad formats engages customers

You might assume that if you designed ads to be consistent with one another and relevant to the page context, they might provide a better user experience. However, according to user research, a mix of ads and ad formats drives more engagement than monotonous ad formats.

Using only one kind of ad format or promoting ads that are all similar in topic or style can lead to oversaturation and a lack of effectiveness. The user becomes desensitized and essentially sees past or ignores the ads, leading to lower engagement rates.

On the other hand, a diverse mix of ad formats tailored to the platform and audience creates a more dynamic experience for users. They don't feel bombarded with just one type of ad, so they're more likely to pay attention and engage.

Use a combination of display, native, and video ads across your site or application pages. Mix in ads that use browsing history to offer products or services relevant to the user but not necessarily to the content on-page.

Best ad placement for user experience

Just as crucial as what type of ads you display is where you place your ads. Following the industry's best practices will help you position ads to have the smallest negative impact on the user experience.

Balancing content and ads

One of the most critical aspects of ad placement is maintaining a balance between content and advertisements. Overloading a page or an app with ads can distract users from the content they came for and slow down loading times, making the user experience less smooth and enjoyable. 

When considering the balance between content and ads, UX designers should ensure ads do not disrupt the flow of content or navigation. Ads should be clearly distinguishable from content yet integrated seamlessly into the design of the site or app to maintain aesthetic appeal. Try placing them after the table of contents at the top of a long article or after the end of a blog post.

Avoid intrusive ad formats

Users respond to only some ad formats the same way. Some formats frustrate users because they inhibit site navigation or make the content hard to read or understand. Pop-up ads that cover the content, auto-playing video ads with sound, or interstitial ads that appear before the user can access the desired content all disrupt the user flow and distract attention from the value.

Avoid using intrusive ad formats whenever possible. Instead, opt for less disruptive formats like banners or native ads that blend seamlessly with the content. These ads can be placed strategically to catch the user's eye without interrupting their activity.

Place ads in line with content

Often, the best-performing webpage or app ads are placed within the content or at the end of an article. These ads appear naturally along the path of the user's consumption rather than interrupting their experience.

In-line ads are less disruptive than other ad formats. Users can continue to scroll and read without having to close or navigate around the ad. Another advantage of in-line ads is that they can be contextually relevant. Because they're placed within the content, they can be tied to its subject matter, making them more relevant and interesting to the user.

Consider user accessibility

Accessibility refers to the design of products, devices, services, or environments for people with disabilities. On digital platforms, accessibility ensures that all users, including those with visual, auditory, motor, or cognitive disabilities, can access and interact with the content.

To improve accessibility in ad placement, organizations should follow web content accessibility guidelines (WCAG). These guidelines provide many recommendations for making web content more accessible. They include providing text alternatives for non-text content, ensuring content can be presented in different ways without losing information, making it easier for users to see and hear content, and making all functionality available from a keyboard.

The future of advertising and user experience

Overusing ads throughout digital experiences can overwhelm, annoy, and frustrate users. An ad experience that feels more burdensome than frictionless makes users less likely to engage with the ad content and less likely to use the site or app. The future of digital ads must prioritize user experience by innovating new technologies and creating immersive experiences that don't feel intrusive or disruptive. Organizations will continue personalizing ads, making them more relevant to their audience.

Transparency is another trend that will continue to shape the future of advertising as users demand more control and understanding over how their data is used for targeted ads. Organizations will also prioritize offering ad customization options to users, giving them more control over their ad experience.

What's next

If your website or app sells products, generates leads, collects sign-ups, or has users take action—fine-tuning your call to action, or CTA, should be at the top of your to-do list. 

About the author(s)

With UserTesting’s on-demand platform, you uncover ‘the why’ behind customer interactions. In just a few hours, you can capture the critical human insights you need to confidently deliver what your customers want and expect.