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Profit Centered Design vs User Centered Design

A month ago, Facebook revealed another redesign. Just as we’d gotten used to their last iteration, in came a fresh new look. Though fresh is perhaps the wrong choice of term. The news feed redesign initially took many aback, holding a somewhat retro feel. Current trends all point towards flat and minimalism. Facebook had done the opposite.

Out of a cacophony of outcries – a standard reaction to any Facebook change – came one interesting article from Dustin Curtis. His article claimed Facebook had originally planned to move towards the generic flat design. However, decreased ad impressions in this new – beautiful – design had led to a design reversal. A reversal towards something more ‘practical’.


The ‘original’ Facebook redesign

This article was later shot down by Facebook’s own Product Design Director, Julie Zhuo. She made the claim that, rather than focusing on ad impressions, the finalised design was a result of catering for worldwide compatibility. Ensuring Facebook could be used on lesser and greater machines alike.

Which side of the argument is telling the straight story is open to interpretation. We can either trust the insights of Facebook’s own employee, or rely on theories unassociated with the company themselves. Regardless, as a proponent of User Centered Design (UCD), this argument raises a conflicting question; Who do we put first, our users or site functionality (or more specifically… money)?

The Conflict With User Centered Design

Whether Facebook did indeed head down this route it open to interpretation. However, It’d be foolish to say this doesnt happen elsewhere. It is the goal of 99% of sites out there. Maximising conversion and ad impressions are part and parcel of the industry. From portfolio sites, to charity sites: the aim is to have people walk away with the correct impression in the name of profit.

This ‘correct impression’ is where the grey area forms. It is subjective. Is the correct impression the one which yields the highest income, or the one which leaves our visitors happiest – walking away and sharing their experience with friends?

In an ideal world, both are achievable – and in rare cases we see some great examples of this synergy. In the majority however, it is a choice between the former or the later; more than likely resulting in the former. This is where we enter the conflict with User Centered Design.

User Centred Design requires us to put our users front and centre of the design process. Everything we do, every finely tuned pixel is to the benefit of our end user. To ensure their interactions – their experience – is as intuitive and focused on their own goal completions as possible. When we shift focus away from the user and towards the site’s goal it is all too easy to abandon the user entirely.

Profit Centered Design

A perennial and obvious advert for this user-less approach is none other than video behemoth Youtube. Adverts are the order of the day. The content we want is pushed to the background as we are forced to suffer 30 second advert for some little-known product. The user doesn’t want adverts, the user doesn’t need adverts. Youtube however, does; Youtube needs an income.

Aside from Youtube, we see examples of this approach all over the web. We see sites opt for pagination where it is needless; we see pop ups and overlays appear – broadcasting a call to action – when for the last 15 years we’ve complained of their annoyance. Ad-Blocker has become as essential a part of our browsing experience as the browser itself. We see designs optimised for ad impressions, rather than viewer delight.

But can we really object to this ‘Profit Centred Design’? At the end of the day, a site has to support itself. Just as Maslow’s hierarchy highlights physiological needs (such as food and water) before needs of esteem (respect of others), websites have to cover server costs and employee costs before they can focus on the needs of users.


Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

So when adverts are served to us day and night, and design booched in order to serve these to more and more customers, do we really have cause to complain?

The Case for User Centered Design

Design is the overlay that renders sites usable, memorable and unique. Part of the User Experience Design philosophy is that we tailor experiences to be memorable, to leave a lasting emotional impression. Users will leave contented, having enjoyed a site. They’ll share it with friends and return themselves to recapture those feelings.

Design makes a website enjoyable and something users want to continually use. By putting users at the forefront with UCD, we ensure designs are streamlined to be as effective and efficient as possible. Enabling the user to do what they want and need to do to, wasting as little of their valuable time as we can.

This is the strict divide with the ‘Profit Centered’ approach. In putting users first we remove pagination in preference of tidy full length articles (= less site income from ads), we only serve users with the content they need and want (= less ad impressions from our newsfeeds, = less income).

Can sites truly maximise profits whilst offering users the best possible experience?

A Balanced Approach

I feel this is a loaded question: The answer can only be yes in very distinct cases. Revenue generators (Advertisements) aren’t the reason we visit a site – if anything the case is the opposite. Too many Adverts and we run a mile. Ecommerce provides the only obvious exception – ensuring user journeys are quick, efficient, and memorable ensures users buy and keep buying.

Elsewhere, with the likes of Facebook and many others, money will always be the bottom rung of that pyramid. The need that must be fulfilled to ensure the site’s existence and to keep shareholders content. Happy users are a luxury not all sites can afford.

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