Ad Placement

The Problem

For ages now, in-stream TV commercials were a leading advertising approach. Since the world has been quickly transitioning from cable TV to over-the-top (or OTT) internet services, advertisers are losing the chance to deliver messages on TV to their customers. To tackle this problem, the ads team came up with the idea of using Samsung smart TV UI to discover advertising opportunities. At the time I got on board, Samsung Ads had very few monotonous ad placements. The product was eager to expand and grow.

My Role

As the lead designer for owned-and-operated ad units on Samsung smart TV, my top priority is to execute my design vision by partnering up with the cross-functional team to deliver a high-quality user experience.

In the past years, I've helped the team ship out a good number of ad products, and the business has been growing 100% year over year. This article is about my general design process, a brief showcase of the final products, and the learnings I want to share. For a deep dive into case studies, please contact me.

(For my non-disclosure agreement, I omitted and obscured confidential information in this case study. All information in this case study does not necessarily reflect the views of Samsung.)

How I Design

Step 1: research

Samsung Ads serves two groups of people: advertisers and Samsung smart TV users. As a start of the design process, I worked with marketers and UX researchers to learn the expectations of advertisers and user pain points in digital ads. We conducted extensive research through user observation, interviews, and competitor analysis.

Advertisers care about the effectiveness of ads - the number of views and clicks which potentially lead to sales. When considering a business partnership with an ad platform, they focus on targeting, how frequently an ad would be viewed, the size of the ad creative, etc. Beyond that, post-click is another important factor in presenting further information and encouraging purchase.

On the other hand, ads are generally seen unfavorably by people. So, the design challenge was to create an ad experience that was not merely acceptable but one that people would find useful and enjoy. To understand people's behavior and attitude, I conducted two types of research:
  1. TV interaction analysis: analyzing TV usage data to understand how the traffic goes on TV.
  2. Article/news review: understanding people’s thoughts regarding digital ads across competitor platforms and devices (web, mobile, OTT, etc.).
The main finding from my research was liberating and inspiring - people don’t hate every ad; they hate the obnoxious ads. For instance, people don’t like pop-up ads because they interrupt what they are doing. People also feel irritated by ads that are not polished or look unprofessional. However, ads are more acceptable if they are less disruptive to what they intend to do and relevant to their interest. Furthermore, people don’t mind ads if they enable free movies.

Market Research and User Study

Step 2: ideation

A quick summary of the research findings:
  1. Advertisers want people to see and click on the ads. They care about targeting effectiveness, ad viewability, ad size, etc.
  2. People don’t mind ads if they are not disruptive, polished, and relevant to them.
Therefore, to deliver a good ad experience:
  1. Design ad placements to maximize viewability while not being disruptive.
  2. Add creative quality control by filtering out unpolished ads.
  3. Improve ad relevance by learning people’s viewing and browsing history.
To amplify ad viewability, I started with identifing the most visited screens on TV. According to the usage data, these 3 screens were getting the most traffic: TV home screen, App Store home screen, Universal Guide (a content discovery service) home screen.

Next, I created nearly 40 ad placement designs in those 3 screens across TV model year from 2015 to 2020. The design explored possiblities in the following ways:
  1. Layout: horizontal on the top, vertical on the side, blend in the middle.
  2. Size: small and conservative, big and aggressive, expandable on hover.
  3. Format: autoplay video ad, gif animation ad, static banner ad.
  4. Information: with or without prices, airing dates, call-to-action (CTA) buttons, etc.
  5. Category: ads of TV shows and movies, automobiles, consumer packaged goods, etc.

Regarding creative quality control, the operations team has been following the rules that created by the marketing team. And the engineering team developed a set of algorithm that learned people's watching taste which could be applied to improve targeting.

Paper Sketches

Sample Wireframes and Mockups

Step 3: decision making

To narrow down design options, I built animated presentation slides and interactive prototypes to review the design with the team, including product managers, engineers, marketers and sales (who have direct contact with the advertisers). Through the discussion, we developed a better understanding of our goals and formed a clearer product direction.

For example, the autoplay video ad is one of the top choices for a few reasons: it catches people’s eyes (marketing); it is relatively easy to implement (engineering); it is more scalable given the inconsistency of Samsung smart TV operating systems (product).

Step 4: user testing

Advertising's purpose is to deliver the product message to the right people. When people find the ad is helpful, they tend to show greater interest in learning more information or buying the product. Therefore, the testing was to validate if the ad was noticeable and could provide helpful information.

To find out the most effective design, I worked with UX researchers and conducted two types of testing:
  1. Cafe study: to learn people’s sentiment; quantitative and quicker.
  2. Usability testing: to verify interaction and visual design; qualitative and deeper.
There were four main findings:
  1. People liked being able to visually distinguish the ad to avoid going to it by mistake.
  2. Autoplay video ad was more noticeable than static banner and some people commented that it added spice to the experience.
  3. People wanted to see the price up-front if they were interested. Related information along the ad would trigger more clicks.
  4. People showed preference on seeing TV show or movie ads, rather than cars or consumer goods.
Based on the findings, in the next iteration, I focused on the designs that were visually different from the other components in the TV UI and added information about the ad that would help people with their decision-making. Beyond that, the ads team prioritized autoplay video ads as the top format and focused on TV shows and movies as the main category.

User Testing Results

Launched Product

Video Ad in Universal Guide on TV 2020-2021

Ad in Universal Guide on TV 2018-2019

Video Ad in App Store on TV 2017

Video Ad in Apps Panel on TV 2016

Video Ad in home screen on TV 2016

Ad in home screen on TV 2015

The Impact

Business Success - Win Advertisers

Since new ad placements launched, Samsung Ads has been getting media attention and loved by advertisers. A redesign of one of the ad placements drove the number of views to increase by 33%. Our revenue has been doubling every year since 2016.

Last year, program tune-in was improved, as the viewership of a summer premiere episode on a top broadcast network more than doubled (200%+lift). Also, we facilitated 10 times greater views at a subscription video streaming app through Samsung Ads native and cross-device experiences.

UX Success - Win Users

The advertising industry has complicated rules and regulations. Designing an ad platform is even more complicated for seeking the balance between user experience and business goals. As a designer of an ad platform, I always believe that UX and advertising should not and do not have to be enemies. My design is driven by the philosophy that good design is good business which leads the design to be native, non-intrusive, and even pleasant. Good ads can be useful and enjoyable to the users while bringing more profits to the advertisers.

As a reflection of this design philosophy, in a quick poll that people were asked, about their attitude to the ads on Samsung Ads platform, most people chose "like" and "neutral".

Design Culture Evangelism

Since design has historically been equated with aesthetics and craft, designers have been celebrated as artists. It is a common situation that designers are experiencing misunderstanding of design from people across functions at work. As a designer, I have been spending more time explaining what design is than actually doing it.

Instead of adding cosmetic layers, design is a crucial cognitive ability to solve people’s problems given the knowledge of human conditions and human needs. In the real world of business, design should be driving product innovation instead of being subsidiary and driven by technology or business. Design should not be an extra; it needs to be a core competence.

I evangelize design thinking and establish the design process in three ways: I promote the vision of design in day-to-day work; I give design talks to team members as well as key stakeholders; and I invite people to be participants of my user research and usability testing. Since I joined the team, noticeable changes have happened as collaboration flow and product development process have been reshaped with design thinking incorporated. People have started to think of design differently.

There is no longer any real distinction between business strategy and the design of the user experience. Although changing workflow and changing people's minds is tough, I believe it is worth making the effort to release the power of design and make a meaningful impact.