Visual Design Sustainability – AOL’s Project Devil and Web Page Vampires

AOL’s Project Devil promised better web ads, mostly through re-design of the banner ad concept:

Here’s a description:

The ads are larger than standard display units, with just one slot offered per web page to help a brand standout. Online marketers can work with roughly the same amount of space on the internet they might have if they bought spots in magazines. For consumers navigating the web, the one-per-page units remove the clutter of multiple ads.

These large units place emphasis on content so AOL users can engage a brand and – ideally – understand why products or service relate to them. Project Devil ads can support text, images, video and social integration, as evidenced in a YouTube video about Project Devil.

One interpretation of these ads is that they are an attempt to improve the UX of online advertising – by letting users know more quickly if the ad applies to them, they can complete more tasks more efficiently. This ties into sustainability by linking customers and services more efficiently.

However, one wonders if they’ve considered efficiency. These ads were almost certainly created in Flash. As we’ll see, this results in an extra power suck.

Here is a study that demonstrates that typical banner ads on desktop web browsers drain several extra watts, compared to equivalent web pages that don’t have ads.

The Hidden Energy Cost of Web Advertising

Banner ads apparently “burn” extra power compared to a complex web page without ads. My guess is that Flash-based ads probably have some sort of energy-hungry loop engaged.

The measurements on several PCs and browsers show that, on average, the additional energy consumption to display web advertisements is 2.5W. To put this number into perspective, we calculated that the total amount of energy used to display web advertisement is equivalent of the total yearly electricity consumption of nearly 2000 households in the Netherlands. It takes 3,6 “average? wind turbines to generate this amount of energy.

The value of a Devil or other banner ad has to be balanced by the amount of “vampire power” the ad draws when sitting unnoticed, often for hours, on the end-user’s screen. According to this study, using banner ads in a country equivalent to an average US state requires that we build a few more wind turbines.

Their energy drain is comparable to electronic devices which draw “vampire power” when they are turned off.

My question is who is paying for those turbines – and who is getting the benefit of us paying to build those turbines. Another hidden cost of advertising!

The amount of vampire power here is less than that sucked by the typical “turned off” appliance in a US home, estimated to be about 10 watts in some studies. I’m guessing that PCs, and gadgets are lower, and big TVs that are skewing things upwards.

It is similar to the vampire power drawn by an efficient notebook computer in “sleep” mode, about 5 watts.

An article in PCWorld online estimated a 10w vampire power drain raises a typical US electricity bill by about $7/year. Now, if the computer is on and the user browses an ad-filled Internet several hours a day, there is an extra dollar or two being wasted on running vampire ads. That’s certainly less than the electricity wasted during a television commercial, but that’s something I am watching full-screen. It’s the programming at that moment, whereas banner ads have always been a sideshow. Internet ads hang around in the background, trying to work their subliminal magic, whether or not I’m looking.

Virtual Vampire Power, indeed.

Project Devil looked like a good attempt to re-think ad design from the UX context. What we need for Sustainable Virtual Design is re-thinking of ads from their sustainability and efficiency context. I bet online ads could be re-imagined so they were more energy-efficient sitting on that web page.

Whose fault?

Adobe Flash – NOT the problem. Adobe has published guidelines for reducing a Flash movie’s impact.

Front-end developer – yes, they should know about and use the Flash energy minimization methods. They should also be communicating up to the designer, if we have the unfortunate case where the designer doesn’t know anything about HTML, CSS, ActionScript, etc. But dedicated developers in a silo-ed workplace may not have that option – the project flow is often one way from a “creative” to a lower-down codebeast, who often can’t provide pushback on design decisions.

Designer – THE PROBLEM. Flash is khullllllll for many designers because of its great graphics pipeline. Lots of them use it to develop prototypes (in Flash) which are then re-coded by someone else (in Flash). There are companies that do almost nothing but build flash-based banner ads for the web in LA.

The things that make a banner ad an energy hog are mostly design decisions. Engineers can’t create a 50mpg car if the designer demands it look like a Hummer H2.

Client – sure, of course they’re lame. Forgive them for demanding Flash…when they know not what they do.

It is the responsibility of the sustainable web DESIGNER (or, if we’re lucky, the hybrid designer/developer) to put in options for the client. This could be added as analysis in their design document (yes, there) or comparable deliverable. The designer is the one most likely to educate the client, not the site engineer or a dedicated front-end coder, neither of which go out to lunch with the client.

Imagine a client studying a little calculation showing that if 2 million people see the ad, they’ll burn 4 million worth of electricity. Lots of clients are self-consciously “green” these days.

Finally, the designer could ask the client if they have any sustainability initiatives that would benefit by changing from an inefficient ad to an ad using “green ingredients”. Making the ad work without the usual motion-graphic crutches would take redesign. It would take a close working relationship between designer and programmer – or better yet, a designer/programmer “hybrid” who can do it all in their head.

I’m not knocking Flash’s graphic tools. They’re still superior to HTML5/CSS3 in 2012, and there’s many times when Flash is best. Banner ads are not one of them. I can’t think of a good UX justification for creating these web page vampires.

It could be different. Design is the problem.

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