Should You Blame Your Designer For Poor Conversion Rates?

Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the conversation rate optimization (CRO) community—blaming low conversion rates on web designers. Designers are being caricatured as either “clueless” or unable to restrain their conversion-killing creative impulses. How valid is this view? In my experience, there’s plenty of blame to go around for poor CRO performance. Let’s name some names.

Blame Expectations

Admit it: nobody really knows what a “web designer” does. Does she code? Set up e-mail accounts? Create logos? Write copy? Personally I know web designers who do all of the above and more, as well as those who specialize in a single, thin disciplinary slice.

The point is that web designers come with a wide variety of skills and training, and yet, somehow, there is a general expectation that all web designers should know how to design for conversion. It’s simply not realistic, and here’s why:

Conversion design is an advanced competency. It requires not only technical skill but also strategic thinking and a solid understanding of many disciplines. To use an analogy, for conversion design you need a general contractor, not a carpenter. A conductor, not a violin player… you get the point.

The successful conversion designers I know seem to encompass, to varying degrees, all of the following topics:

Conversion Designer Skills

Depending on the project and the particular designer’s experience, the designer may execute in certain areas—such as incorporating usability principles into the visual design, and lead execution in other areas. But their cross-disciplinary way of thinking supports and influences all aspects of their work.

Blame Web Design Training

This is an aspect of expectations: we tend to expect web designer to have acquired conversion optimization training as part of their education. Well, think again. Unlike other, more established design specialties, there is no standardized training for conversion design. Shocking, I know.

As one example, take a look at the curriculum description for the “Web Design & Development” Bachelor’s program at Full Sail University:

“The Web Design & Development degree covers both front end and back end development. You’ll learn to concept, code, and publish your own standards-based content for a variety of formats, including the Web, cell phones and PDAs. Working on these projects you’ll be able to master the multiple languages used in interactive design such as XHTML, CSS, XML, ActionScript, JavaScript, and more in order to develop a well-rounded skill set. In addition, you’ll take courses that teach you how to design and produce the visual elements for a site. This includes the development of raster and vector graphics for the web, as well as how to draw and animate your own digital content using Flash.”

What’s lacking in this description? Almost everything that distinguishes conversion design. There’s no mention of usability, persuasion, testing, tracking or designing towards business goals. A secondary page throws in the words “accessible,” “intuitive” and “user-friendly” in passing, but the emphasis is on the what and the how, not the why. Strategic thinking—the why that guides CRO design—is missing.

Blame Yourself

I might as well get this one out of the way: If you’re a site owner or manager, and your designer isn’t producing what you need, the first place to point the finger is at the mirror. There are at least three managerial solutions to poor conversion design work:

Hire a different designer (or agency)—one who’s experienced in conversion design. This can be the quickest path to better results, but just make sure you know what to look for as a replacement. See “blame the agency mindset,” below.

But what if you’re nurturing an in-house creative team, or you’re loyal to (or stuck with) your current designer or agency? Try the next two options.

Feed your designer conversion food. Just as nutritional intake impacts athletic performance, conceptual intake affects creative production. So take a careful look at what information you’re serving your designer. Too often, designers are given guidance that’s too vague (i.e. “more webbish“) or too specific (“make it bluer“)—none of which is very constructive or actionable.

So ask yourself: have you provided solid, conversion-related input to your designer, or are you serving him rehashed marketing fluff? Here’s some of the conversion food designers need:

  • Talk through your specific business goals, and what each is worth to the business
  • Define exactly what will constitute success, and how it will be measured
  • Provide background research about your primary audiences
  • Share examples of successful conversion design
  • Show the results of the last test(s)—especially if it’s one the designer worked on

Experienced conversion designers know to request this information—but the majority of designers will quickly get into the right mindset, given clear project requirements and constraints. And if that’s not enough, it might be time for the next option:

Educate your designer. Most designers don’t receive any conversion optimization training (see “blame web design training,” below). So send them to—or encourage them to pursue—education that fills in the gaps—usability, analytics, persuasion, testing—whatever areas they’re missing (see “blame expectations”). Of course, this depends on the business relationship you have with your designer.

Blame The Agency Mindset

Creative agencies have been called many things, but “pragmatic” and “ROI-oriented”—essential characteristics of a CRO mindset—usually aren’t among them. From what I’ve witnessed, clients are more likely to be steamrolled by agencies into a “rich experience” that’s vivid, cutting edge and award-winning than they are to have their business goals addressed.

Luckily, this isn’t true of every agency, and in others it’s changing. Slowly. More large agencies have staffed up with usability and analytics personnel, for example. It’s a good start, but too often UX and analytics resources are trotted out as agency assets that then never actually get applied to your project. There’s still no guarantee you’ll be working with a designer with the breadth of knowledge and experience you need.

So how can you tell whether a designer or agency understands CRO? One way is to examine the questions they ask you. Real conversion designers will ask a sheaf of questions that, on the surface, have nothing to do with design at all. For example:

  • What are your business goals?
  • How do you track and measure success?
  • Who are your most valuable audience segments?
  • What conversion issues does your site have?
  • Have you done any prior usability research (and could I see the results)?
  • Have you done any prior A/B or multivariate testing (and what were the results)?

Sound familiar? It should—this list is a near mirror-image of the “conversion food” you should serve your designer. If your designer or design agency doesn’t seem very curious about these concerns, you’re probably asking for serious conversion trouble.

OK, Blame The Designer

We need all kinds of designers. We need technical illustrators to summarize how our product works, and hand letterers to create unique branding. But if a designer chooses to generalize in web design, I believe they owe it to their clients to self-educate in conversion optimization right along with color theory and JavaScript. Hey, it’s only one more topic to master, right?

It’s not all about the client, though: in a sea of talented designers, conversion optimization skills are a competitive differentiator. Knowing how to come up with a concept and execute on it in a way that makes the client money? That’s something to brag about. And charge more for.

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

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | Search & Conversion


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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  • Johan Micheelsen

    Great post! it illustrates many of the different approaches to webdesign.

    In addition to what you’ve mentioned I think it is important to flag up the difference between a webshop that are focused mainly on sales and a webshop, that to a certain degree, is focused equally on branding and sales.
    I’ve worked with a company that has spent a great amount of money on redesigning their webshop, using Magento as their hosting provider. Visually, the webshop is exquisite, however, looking at usability and CRO it is dreadful. The reason is that there is far too much happening on the website which drags the focus away from the products. In terms of PPC we manage to have an average CTR of almost 15% across product and brand adgroups, however the conversion rate is below 1%.
    In comparison, their UK webshop, which is a basic webshop only focusing on the products, we are seeing lower CTRs and less traffic 8most likely because the UK is not one of their major markets) but the conversion rate is almost 2%. Yes, the website is not as good looking as the new website but it converts much better and generates a higher revenue than their webshop on their main offline market.

    Their branding department has been in charge of designing the new website, and really, they’ve done a GREAT job seen from their perspective, however, from a sales and usability aspect they’ve failed. So focusing on branding in a webshop seems to be a no go.

    What are your thoughts?

  • Kristine Schachinger

    Good article. I wrote something with some similar points for another publication and just would like to add that IMO often the biggest issue is using graphic, NOT web designers to create websites.

    Graphic designers now how to make pretty pictures (mean that in a very positive way), which means they should be designing your icons, on page elements, ads, buttons or any other factors that go into your page. HOWEVER, web designers know how to make design into functional, converting, accessible, user-friendly, converting, SEO ready WEBSITES and here-in-lies the VERY large difference.

    As someone who has designed and built websites for over 11 years, I know how every design element will effect every aspect of a site build from what technologies it will require to how eliminating a simple line will eliminate 40 hours of trying to get the site out of CSS/HTML browser compliance hell.

    I also know how this design will affect site structure, conversion rate and your SEO. You can also top this off with accessibility compliance and mobile readiness. This is why WEB designers get paid more. It is not because we design for a different medium, but because we have a unique blend of creative, business and technical skills that allow us to create the blueprint for the best house.

    Now it is rare to find one of us, that is why so many companies have a designer, an html person, a css person, a conversion specialist, a usability person etc etc. But even so, your WEB designer will ALWAYS have a working knowledge of all these. (Course now I am a consultant) Your graphic designer will not. They will build you a beautiful unusable house that does not convert or do the million other things that are needed. Is it their fault? No, because they should not have been hired to create your website, just as you do not hire a fine artist to create your house plans.

    The issue is usually one of the three though – someone in charge won’t 1) get this 2) want to pay for it 3) or this is the biggest.. always fancy them somehow a designer too and will argue every point w the designer no matter how experienced..

    But I think you covered those points pretty well :)
    Thanks for letting me share.

  • Sandra Niehaus

    Hi Johan,
    Since this isn’t a true apples-to-apples comparison, I’d hesitate to blame only branding for the lower conversion rate. I’ll take your word for it that the new site has poor usability & CRO — but even so, you also have a different audience mix (US versus UK), and it sounds like a different ecommerce platform (and hosting provider?) as well. We’ve worked with many clients who run multiple ecommerce sites (under separate brands) and in each case the traffic mix and technical site performance (response speed, etc.) were major factors affecting conversion rate.

    That said, honestly I’d never let a branding department be totally in charge of a site redesign. Seat them on the team, certainly – their viewpoint is important. But they should not have final say.

    Be curious to see the sites, if you’re able to share – e me at sandra (at)

  • Sandra Niehaus

    Hey Kristine,
    I like your distinction of “web designer” versus “graphic designer”. But in my experience even many web designers with all the skills you describe don’t always have the strategic vision to prioritize effort effectively (should I fine-tune display for IE6, or change the cart functionality?). I think that only comes with adequate in-the-trenches experience.

    Your last points about the “someone in charge” really hit home, as well — I’ve been there many times, both personally as a freelancer and also while with Closed Loop Marketing, big and small clients. So there’s another area that doesn’t necessarily come naturally to web designers – managing the project stakeholders, building the business case, and when all else fails, knowing when to fire the client & move on to someone more deserving of your expertise :)

  • cdorob


    I’ve been writing why it’s important for a Web Designer to know a bit of SEO , a bit of increasing the conversion rates via usability and if it makes sense to learn CSS if you only do small websites.

    It looks like it’s not in the job description, but to stay competitive, you must at least approach and implement the basic elements. Here is what I wrote:

    * the first thing will happen when the customer will go to a SEO company is that he’s going to receive a report how bad the site is. Which basically means that the customer “finds out that his brand new site is bad and to blame is the … Web designer that built it in the first place”. And that’s unlikely to help you get good references from that customer later.
    * there might be some changes that the SEO company would like to do on its own (yes, overwriting your code and work). And that means the future work on the site might go directly to the SEO company instead of going your way.
    * customers don’t just need a web page, they need a marketing tool. If the tool “doesn’t work” as expected, attract visitors and convert them into buyers it doesn’t serve its purpose. And that’s unlikely to get you more design work from the customer.

    And here I tried to answer if the designer should also learn coding.

  • Sandra Niehaus

    Hi cdorob,
    I totally should have included SEO and SEM as part of the conversion designer’s skillset. It’s important for designers to understand at least how to meet the expectations of visitors arriving via different traffic channels – and, yes, at least the principles of an SEO-friendly site.

    Having been a “do-it-all” web designer myself, I know it’s often very challenging to cover all the topics with the client. Especially small- to medium-sized business owners who aren’t very web savvy, don’t understand the complexities involved, and very possibly don’t share the vision of a website as a “working” marketing tool. But you’re correct – to do right by the client as well as protect your professional reputation, web designers should minimally make the client aware of the need for, say, SEO, analytics, and other non-design items.

    Thanks for the comments, I look forward to reading your article!

  • Mark Simpson

    Companies with this blame problem should consider hiring a conversion management specialist. With the right conversion management platform, companies can test and optimize their websites on an ongoing basis to ensure that they are always producing the optimal website for their visitors and therefore, the highest conversion rates – no blame, or guessing at which design works for that matter– necessary.

  • Sandra Niehaus

    Hi Mark, I agree in principle – having a specialist managing a company’s conversion optimization effort can make a huge difference. What I often see is companies buying a subscription platform service, then failing to use it effectively or at all. It’s important to prioritize optimization efforts, plan a testing strategy, then test among good options (“TAGO”, as my colleague @loveday would say).

  • Naomi Niles

    I love this. Thanks, Sandra! I completely agree that it’s totally unrealistic for a web designer to handle so many roles. I’ve written about it several times on my blogs too.

    Personally, when I decided to get into this industry 8 years ago (web design and internet marketing), I knew that it was fast paced and I would constantly have to gain new skills and improve my existing ones to stay ahead.

    I came into web design from a prior biz and with a somewhat strategic perspective. But, when the time came, I learned standards-compliance and usability. I took courses in SEO. I learned a bit here and there about copyrighting and persuasion. I learned how to work with every popular cms and e-commerce software under the sun. I learned how to do the crazy little things clients requested.

    I just think all these things influence each other enough that it doesn’t make sense to at least not have a general knowledge so that you don’t leave big gaps. Or, hire the people to fill in the gaps in knowledge you don’t have, at least.

    All that said, have I felt tired and stretched at the seams more times than I care to admit under the title “web designer”? Oh yeah. But, is it worth it now? Heck yeah!

  • Manuel Ressel

    Thanks Sandra for this great article!

    I think a big thing you pointed out is the old agency mindset. André Morys also mentioned that topic in “Manifesto for Conversion Optimization Excellence”.

    Kristine Schachinger mentioned another point of discussion. What is a webdesigner and what should they know and do? The same discussion is in the UX field.
    I think a webdesigner should know about surrounding topics of UX and CRO but in fact most people who call themselves webdesigner don’t know anything about that topics. So it’s just legitimate to differentiate and build new fields of competences like UX Design or Conversion Design.

  • Sandra Niehaus

    Hi Naomi, and thank you!
    It sounds like you and I have similar background experiences, and I’m very glad to hear it’s paying off for you, too. Part of the expectation issue I didn’t really touch on is that web designers themselves often don’t know what’s reasonable for a client to expect – so they don’t know when or how to push back, or bring in additional help, and/or charge more. That is an area I hope to illuminate for more web designers.

  • Sandra Niehaus

    Hey Manuel,
    Yes, Andre’s article states it quite well – that’s an insightful post. The relationship between agencies and clients is complex. Is it up to the agency to educate the client, if the client knows nothing about CRO? or should the agency just give them what they want, make the client happy, and pocket the check? An agency isn’t a school, it’s a business. So clients have a responsibility to self-educate. It may sound harsh, but if clients put themselves blindly in the hands of an agency, they quite simply deserve what they get.

    Regarding role titles, we’re already seeing Interaction Designer, User Experience Designer, and other titles that indicate specialization. But there’s still no standardization of these titles, or of the training & skills required for each. I think I was one of the first to use “Conversion Designer” to indicate web designers with CRO expertise, and I hope it becomes more widely used and understood. Conversion designers deserve their own specialty title that distinguishes them from the general field!


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