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 […]

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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 this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Sandra Niehaus

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