How white noise affects UX

Web Designers are typically thought to only solve design problems and create trendy sites. Little credit is given to the subtler role we play in commercial sites.

Viewers’ focus and time are an increasingly rare commodity that pays for the vast majority of free content online — through ads, sponsors, product placements, and other means. Though many don’t realize it, often one of our primary roles as designers is to direct focus to the advertisements and sponsors that monetises the site.

But what is the best way to go about doing that, without seeming excessively forceful? Below I’ll dive into what white noise is and how it affects your users’ experience.


White noise: How it affects your user’s experience

When you hear the term white noise, you typically think of the gray “fuzz” your TV presents to you when the signal is lost. However, the term can also apply to nearly anything:

White noise: noise containing many frequencies with equal intensities.

According to the Google definition, white noise can also be interpreted to mean a loss of focus or direction. In terms of web design, that would mean the user isn’t correctly directed to your website content and thus, loses interest or focus.

It’s a popular notion within the web design & development community to present a content-first approach; with advocates such as Jeff Zeldman, Luke Wroblewski, and Alex Morris writing about the subject. The idea being that with a content-first approach, it’s less likely to have the content fight for attention among advertisements, or worse, the website design itself.

Everyone using the web with some frequency will have experienced this scenario at some point: You casually browse to a website, and immediately find yourself more drawn to the “extras” of the website rather than the stuff you actually came for.

Being assaulted with ads and product placements when you simply came to read an article is not a friendly user experience. At worst, the user may even leave the website with a bad image of the brand itself.

Commonly, users in these scenarios don’t even attempt to sort through the mess to find the content they came for — they leave almost immediately. So as you can see, effective placement of sponsorships and products is essential to the success of a website. Getting it wrong can result in a loss of website views, poor brand reputation, or an overall unprofessional demeanor.

While getting advertising wrong is quite easy, doing it right is actually fairly straight forward as well. Many popular websites employ advertising, and yet they still have very professional and appealing reputations to boot. It’s more a manner of approaching your own website as a viewer rather than the owner than anything else. Ultimately, you want to leave a website thinking about the brand and the content they provided, not the advertising it served up. Below are a few trends, with examples, of how websites do this today from the good… to the bad.


Common advertisement solutions

Advertisements have earned their place on the web as the primary means of paying for content. Users without an adblocking plugin will be bombarded with countless ads throughout their daily web surfing. Although it may sound like a miserable and poor experience, you may not even realize many of your favorite websites use ads as a revenue model. That isn’t because those websites do it infrequently — it’s because they do it right.

When advertising and product placements don’t interfere with your users’ website experience, you’ve done it right.

Blending content and sponsorship

Frequently you’ll venture across websites, such as Twitter, that blend their ads in with the main content. This technique is generally well accepted if done correctly.


The key to getting this right, is making the advertisement look fairly similar to the content, but to obviously designate it as a sponsorship. Otherwise, users will feel mislead into visiting the sponsor and lose trust in the parent website.

Other popular websites to employ this technique are Reddit, Tumblr and Facebook.

Subtle placement outside content

While the blending techniques has grown to be a popular solution, many websites employ other solutions. Dribbble for instance, places advertisements in the footer and sidebar of their website. They’re tucked away enough and designed to not be noticeable to those in a hurry, but to casual visitors the ads are still hitting their mark.


While this solution is generally well accepted, some sponsors feel it isn’t a direct enough approach. These type of advertisements should still look like they belong, and not unreasonably encroach upon the main content. Dribbble does a great job of keeping the content as the main focus point, but also serving up ads in off areas to bring in revenue.

Commercial advertising

Some websites have kept the traditional advertisement feel to their sponsorship placement. Youtube has options for preroll, endroll, and “commercial” type placements. Generally speaking, these types of advertisement look and feel a lot like TV. They’re very commonly found on video hosting services and typically force the user’s focus rather than acquire it naturally.


While sometimes these types of solution leave a bad taste in users’ mouths, making sure the sponsorship content is relevant will go a long way to increasing interest. Hulu does a great job of surveying user’s interests to offer up more personalized advertisements.

Blatant, non-designed advertisements

These type of placements are generally the worst for a website viewer. Advertisements are thrown on wherever they fit, with minimal effort made to make them relevant or feel “included” with the website style.

Websites offering these type of placements typically have higher sponsorship revenue — but at the cost of a lower quality looking website. Frugally Sustainable is an example of this, with nearly the entirety of the sidebar dedicated to ads. This type of solution is almost always avoided by those looking to present a professional or welcoming demeanor for their website. Sometimes a website can scrape by with such poor placements, but the sense of ad space being oversold still may linger with the user like in Yahoo’s case.


In conclusion

A lot has changed over the last few years with web based advertising and the user experience. Now more than ever, websites are attempting to present ads in a more appealing and approachable manor. In turn, this pays the bills whilst keeping the user’s focus primarily on the content.

If you’ve had an adblocking plugin since the dawn of the web 2.0 days, I highly encourage you to disable it for a while.

Many websites now don’t simply plaster “personal” ads on every available area, but rather opt for more focused and content-relevant advertising techniques. Along with this emphasis on the UX of advertising, Web Designers have also grown to require vast skills in the User Experience area; which is a good thing for casual web browsers!

How do you handle adverts on your sites? Is advertising a good way to fund free content? Let us know in the comments.

Featured image/thumbnail, white noise image via Shuttrstock.

  • Plyphon

    Have to disagree 100% to your conclusion, ads are more invasive than ever right now, often offering products completely unrelated to my interests or products I already own.

    In fact, it has been so bad on so many websites, for the first time in about 10 years I downloaded adblock and tracking blocker as I had finally had enough about a month ago.

    The worst are the links in body text that when you mouse over create an annoying pop up window. UX is out of the window when a website employs these. My UX is ruined. Let alone YouTube ad’s that lock you out of your content, ad walls you have to go through to get to articles, sponsored articles and stacks of sidebanners and MPUs that completely break immersion in a website. It’s gotten out of hand, imo.

    • James

      Yeah, I tend to agree with this sentiment. If anything advertising is more intrusive today than it ever was.

      It’s not that they are now less intrusive, it’s just that we are getting smarter at intruding on the user-experience.

    • Dustin Cartwright

      I definitely understand where you come from as well. It’s highly dependent upon where you browse, as some niches have more intrusive advertising and other’s sometimes don’t advertise at all even. What you describe are some of the worst forms of advertising, and if they’re as prevalent as you lead me to believe then more power to you for using adblock.

      For me, the worst I experience is generally a pop-under here or there. Most of the websites I browse are primarily focused on web design, development, or UX so they’re more respectable about advertising by nature. That being said, for websites that aren’t intrusive with their advertising, I would highly suggest disabling adblock just for their domain. That revenue tends to pay server costs or even the cost for the content creation! :D

  • Bianca Board

    Great article. Unlike Plyphon, I agree with your conclusion. I think advertising has become a lot less intrusive online and more relevant overall. You can’t please everyone, and sure not every site is focuses on being user friendly, but generally my experience has been more positive as of late.

    • Dustin Cartwright

      I agree. I had actually used adblock up until writing this piece. When I disabled it I actually had to double check sometimes to make sure it wasn’t still running. Quite a few websites have really put forth the effort to make their advertising less intrusive… Though others, haven’t quite gotten the memo yet haha.

  • ValuableTuts

    Hey Dustin, Great Sharing! I also agree with your content-first approach because it is the best way of ethical advertising over online medium even content marketing plays a vital role now the days.

    Kudos to Dustin !!


    • Dustin Cartwright

      Thanks! I most certainly agree. Putting the content first – even in a very intrusive advertising experience – is always the best option. It actually is possible to have a website loaded down with advertising, yet still deliver content without the ads stealing the show. :)

  • Bryan Kearney

    (I counted 14 ads… )

    I don’t know about this article, I’ll need to think about it some more. I will say that my skills in ignoring ads completely has gotten better, and I’m pretty sure i can’t/won’t turn that skills off.

    I’m wondering when ads will stop being so obvious and start getting sneakier. Sorry to sound ridiculous but I laugh to myself and think of Futurama as Frye has ads in his dreams.