On Happily Disrupting the User Experience

Recently I was visiting with a public company’s Webmaster discussing a simple idea: the selective use of interstitials. This particular Web site gets a fair amount of traffic. And because the company was planning a new product launch, I thought an interstitial would be a relatively low-cost way of starting to build buzz.

From experience I knew that whenever a public company was about to announce its quarterly earnings (as this one was), a predictable increase in traffic occurred, probably attributable to individual investors and perhaps even institutional investors. So the proposed interstitial would be getting attention from other important corporate audiences.

Blood boiled to the Webmaster’s scalp. Timing being everything, I apparently had unwittingly joined a game of “catch the chainsaw” just as it was my turn. Oh, lucky me.

“I’m familiar with interstitials. But they disrupt the user experience, so we don’t do them,” he said with more than a dollop of disdain.

The corporate marketers in the room, perhaps awed by the words “user experience,” were eerily silent on this point. I mean, no one in his or her right mind would ever consider disrupting the user experience.

I am not in my right mind.

And I am a raving pragmatist on the topic of user experience.

My television user experience is disrupted (or, at the very least, divided) by commercial messages. My newspaper user experience is disrupted (or, at the very least, shaped) by advertising. My magazine user experience is disrupted by blow-in cards. And yet, if the quality of the editorial or program content is valuable to me, I really don’t care much about the disruptions. I feel that this is a necessary evil, a bargain that I am willing to strike because I want my Lewis Lapham, “West Wing,” “Gideon’s Crossing,” Sunday New York Times, “Simpsons,” Jim Lehrer, Bob Metcalfe — and I want them all to prosper.

(Though Richard Sennett’s wonderful work “The Fall of Public Man” is not exactly on point here, I suggest it just the same. I liken what some Web-user-experience ideologues are pitching to the homogenous, sanitized, gated, guarded, master-planned communities that continue to spring up along the margins of all that we may fear: the culturally, racially, architecturally, and economically unzoned; the noisy; the morally equivocal; the sometimes dangerous; the crowded; the unscripted. When you drive through the gates of one of these enclaves and pass along its avenues — “Misty Glen,” “Windheather,” and “Faun Falls” — you can read the superego’s ham-handed script. Here is “happily ever after,” the place where all stories end. Here we accept the details of life only grudgingly. We will fight every wrinkle. We will keep death outside the gates. And, as your car pulls up one of the home’s driveways, you get that good/bad feeling, the feeling that only intruders understand. For the specific germ that the master planner would scrub away is here, idling in your blood-soaked heart.)

Now much may be said for a positive, seamless user experience. (I know because I’ve said some of it.) And, admittedly, the lion’s share of arguments and ideas from the positive user experience camp have nothing to do with advertising.

I think a lot of life is a strange dialogue between resistance and release. (Translation: Maher has internalized just enough of the Puritan ethic to be suspicious of things made too easy.) I like the occasional glitch. The cardinal virtue of commerce — that is, convenience — sometimes makes me a bit suspicious. I like a garage sale that has a box, usually underneath a cheap card table, full of small, interesting stuff that the seller couldn’t find a convenient category for. In college you would find me on the fifth floor of our library because it had whole rows labeled “Miscellaneous.”

And my mom used to tell these marvelous, mundane stories that included cousins and recipes and former employers and how Gable used to date a Houston society girl and the timid, crazy uncle who was mustard-gassed in World War I, then came back to the States convinced he was French. All my mom’s stories needed to complete their effect was a “Yup, that sure was a shaggy dog” at the end. And all of what I’ve just described — even the way I’ve described it — might be characterized as a bad user experience.

The occasional (as in very seldom) interstitial is, in my opinion, not a bad thing. And, from a marketer’s standpoint, it can be a powerful, cost-effective way to get the word out about new product offerings or upcoming events.

The interstitial is an obvious bit of advertising. And I’ve come to really like obvious advertising because it is what it is and pretends to be nothing else. On the other hand, when a respected financial or industry analyst seamlessly weaves a reference to one of his or her house favorites into an article or a conference speech, it’s hard to tell where the self-interest leaves off and the good counsel begins. (There is no necessary conflict between self-interest and good counsel, but often there is.)

As for the proper execution of an interstitial, all I can recommend is that you keep the interruption short and, preferably, clever. Give the site visitors the option to “Enter” rather than making them sit through the little show.

But what matters most is what awaits the user on the other side of the interstitial. And if you have a Metcalfe or a Lapham — or the business-to-business equivalent (which requires a strange bit of conjuring) — don’t let the Web user experience purists cow you. Catch the chainsaw by the handle. And toss it right on back.

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