Time, they say, was invented to keep everything from happening all at once. Whether we’re performers, filmmakers or UX designers, time allows us to organize events and engineer an audience’s experience. Time is also a conversion lever that can be as powerful as messaging, placement, color or any other user experience factor—and as deserving of its own study and focus. Three areas in particular are, I think, important to test and optimize in regards to time.

1. A need for speed

Some events just can’t happen quickly enough. The end of Lost and the final, complete obliteration of IE6 certainly come to mind. From a conversion perspective, however, the same is true. The faster certain events happen, the more likely your website visitors will convert. This includes:

The least sexy factor: page load time. Page load time isn’t very sexy or hip, but it’s fundamental. It’s the plain, beige, lace-free foundational garment of your conversion optimization efforts. All other factors being equal, this single lever alone can improve your conversion rate and customer loyalty.

The conceptual keystone here, of course, is the phrase “all other factors being equal.” A fast page load time should be a starting point, an unseen support for your more visible conversion elements. The famed impatience of web users, so widely publicized in various surveys (such as this one on financial services sites, from Akamai), can be offset by brand familiarity and customer motivation. But poor messaging, uninspiring offers and confusing interfaces won’t improve much by being flung more quickly at the visitor.

Faster access to answers. How quickly do you provide useful information to your visitors? Must they visit multiple pages to understand your service or product? That may be a mistake. Some recent tests we’ve run for clients indicate that contextually embedding brief, clear answers on a web page can improve conversion rates by 20%-150%.

What does this mean, exactly? What we tested was the performance of a standard mini-site against that of a “layered landing page.” One mini-site contained only 5 content pages, each quite clear, compelling and concise. Conversion performance was reasonably good. The layered landing page, however, compressed the mini-site’s perceived information architecture even further. We went at this compression from several directions.

First, we condensed the information itself, so it was more compact than on the mini-site. For example, we stripped out repetitions and extraneous “filler” sentences, and in some cases streamlined the visual organization.

Second, we fostered the perception of a flat, informal information structure. One that had everything “right here”—quick and easy to access. We avoided the use of a standard-looking navigation bar or links list. Instead, we used only contextual “learn more” or “see details” links within the content. While we’re still experimenting with this, it appears that in some cases a reduced navigation formality has a positive impact on conversions.

Third, we used “light box” layers to present the condensed site information. We paid close attention to the design treatment of the layers themselves. We made sure they stood out against the underlying page, looked clean, clear and accessible, and worked quickly and easily.

Together, this had the cumulative effect of speeding up a visitor’s access to answers, both actually and perceptually, while still maintaining a clear, clutter-free conversion path. We’re exploring this further, but so far the results are very promising and have interesting implications.

2. Pace yourself

Of course, now that I’ve discussed the joys of speed, it’s time to think about slowing things down just a bit.

Communication across time. As we consider the time factor in conversion, we should also think about how to present a company’s message in stages, across time blocks of various lengths. Brace yourself—this could be painful.

I direct the “painful” comment to those reluctant to trim down a gorgeous 500-word service description because it wouldn’t be 100% accurate. As a recovering engineer’s daughter, I can sympathize—but it still must be done. This is similar in concept to developing “pitches” of various lengths, for various circumstances. You use the 10-second pitch as an introduction at a party, a 30-second pitch in the elevator, and so on. But consider how time unfolds in user perceptions:

  • First 50 milliseconds = subconscious impression. The information gathered during this time period is largely non-thinking. It’s perception at the level of “what my body tells me to feel,” to quote Gitte Lindaard. In this brief period, we’re able to communicate only in color, shapes, and imagery. That’s all. So test to be sure your design choices are communicating the right mood.
  • First 5 seconds = 10 words of your choice. How many words will your visitors read—and understand—in 5 seconds? If given the task of reading a document, probably 20 or 30. But when arriving on an unfamiliar web page with plenty of distractions, visitors will probably read only 10 words or less in those first 5 seconds. Maybe two headlines, if they’re short and legible enough. That’s not much to work with!

    But what you choose to do with those few words can have a huge impact on conversions. With landing pages, for instance, we consistently see better conversion results when we echo the visitor’s search keywords in—or near— the page headline. Yes, this is a standard technique, but one we seldom see used to its full potential. Even for products with longer sales cycles, that initial communication seems to have an effect far beyond the first 5 seconds. It appears to set the tone for everything that comes after.

  • Every 10 seconds thereafter = another piece of the pie. Too many site owners, in my opinion, use their site structure as a communications crutch (much like the evil use of PowerPoint, but don’t get me started). Every bit of information gets siloed onto its “proper” page, a situation that imposes an odd, unnatural interaction style towards visitors: “Hey, you! Want to know more about us? Well, we’re not going to tell you until you click the About Us tab. Nyah-nyah!”

    What works better for conversions, in our experience, is distributing concise, faceted bits of information across a conversion experience. Highlighting your company’s longevity here, your excellent return policy there. The effect through time is that every few seconds a visitor learns more about you and what you have to offer.

No fair hiding! Just in case you’re thinking animation would be a great way to control the timing of communication, STOP. In fact, the opposite is usually true. Animation can slow down or disrupt the delivery of important information, reducing conversion rates. While it can be very effective as a support element, I don’t recommend animation to communicate anything substantive. If it’s important, don’t hide it in time—keep it static so you’re more certain it will be seen.

3. Slow it down

Last, there are situations where it’s better to put on the brakes. Time changes our perceptions and responses. Given more time to think about it, for example, a greater percentage of people stop being selfish louts and become willing to risk their lives to save others. So it can be to your conversion advantage to step back, take a breath, and help your visitors slow down. One area where it’s especially worth testing a slowdown is regarding forms.

Form division. It’s not always best to present an entire form process to the visitor all at once. In fact, dividing up your form into multiple steps can give your visitors time to:

  • Learn more about you and your offer. You’ll have two+ pages to display contextual answers, quotes, examples, mini case-studies, etc.
  • Notice, absorb and be reassured. Your special offers, guarantees and overall tone have a cumulative effect. Even the mere fact that you’re not asking them to do the entire form at once tells them something about you.
  • Understand what they’re doing. Multi-step forms can seem easier and clearer to visitors, allowing them to focus.

Above all, remember time flies!

From fast to slow, we’ve managed to touch on a number of areas where the time factor can have an impact on conversions. The use of time in conversion optimization is a fascinating area to me, and there are, of course, many more applications than I’ve included here. If you have a time-related experience or case study to share, I’d love to hear about it in the comments section below.

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Conversion

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About The Author: is co-author of the popular book Web Design for ROI and VP UX of Closed Loop Marketing, an online marketing agency that's been making websites more profitable since 2001.

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