On UX and advertising

Peter Merholz’s rant The Pernicious Effects of Advertising and Marketing Agencies Trying To Deliver User Experience Design is bold, uncomfortable and dogmatic, as all rants should be. I too have been thinking hard about the role of UX in advertising and, reaching similar conclusions, rushed to slap Peter’s back. However, my comments were somewhat splenetic after a difficult week, and after some time to think (and yes, to feel some of the sting of the backlash too), I’d like to make a more reasoned case for the offense.

I’ve never worked in an ad agency. However, I’ve mentored and befriended enough designers in the industry to recognise many of the patterns that Peter condemns. Harmful practices such as spec work, bait and switch, and employee exploitation pervade a worrying proportion of the agency world. So the post is a heavy punch, but a fair one. And I’m glad that, ignoring a few blow-the-belt blows, the critical reaction has been constructive. Most of it, of course, comes from ad agency designers who feel hurt by the article. They have fought their corner and accused Peter of tarring all agencies with the same brush. It’s a fair counter, but to shrug our shoulders and blame the other guy doesn’t make the smell disappear.

Are all ad agencies “soulless holes”? No, but some certainly are. Can UX designers make a difference in the advertising field? Possibly. But I see it as a a quixotic endeavour, swimming against the tide of a value system that frequently causes the disempowerment of the user. So I stand by my comment that a UX designer at an ad agency is an oxymoron. I have never made a “campaign site”. Nor will I, particularly after this post. To me, user-centred design must have higher aims, and I don’t understand how a UX designer can be excited or rewarded working on advertising projects.

And this, to me, is the crux of the debate. Peter’s post is an ideological gambit, and an old one at that: First Things First for the next generation. The debate was, and is, unwinnable as it revolves around sacrosanct personal values. Those who subscribe to the worldview that “advertising as it is widely practiced is an inherently unethical and, frankly, poisonous endeavor” (for the avoidance of doubt, clearly I do – but note my italicisation) will approve of Peter’s stance. Others won’t.

So far, so idealistic, and I know well that my belief in turning design toward The World’s Big Problems will be seen as naive or elitist. But just because an argument is unwinnable it doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. Difficult, scary questions lie beneath the surface of the post, although for some readers the aggressive language caused those questions to be lost in the froth. How do we come to terms with the fact that a wide range of organisations now practise (or claim to practise) user experience design? How will this affect the perceived value of our work? Does user-centred design contain values that conflict with a capitalist society? How do we decide which projects are most worthy of our attention, and is it right for designers to play the role of ethical judiciary?

These are questions that truly matter in our industry, and I hope the conversation can move beyond personal affront and politics. If it can, then I think Peter’s role as agent provocateur will have been worthwhile, whatever your feelings about his comments.

Update: Peter’s followup post.

Cennydd Bowles