Creative Director of Closed Loop Marketing, Sandra Niehaus, has a phenomenal record when it comes to conversion optimization projects. She has worked with brands such as Hewlett-Packard, and is also the co-author of the book, ‘Web Design for ROI‘. We ask Sandra about her golden rules for conversions, as well as how it is possible to over-optimize a website.
Hi Sandra. You have written about the golden rules when it comes to conversion optimization. Can you sum up the top three points for us?
Be bold. The very first rule comes from remembering that conversion optimization tips are commonplace. By the time you hear about a technique at a conference or read about it in a blog, your competitors are probably already using it. Given this, marketers and business owners have to be prepared to go farther, persist longer, and be bolder than ever before to succeed, because ‘Top 10′ lists only scratch the surface.
With that in mind, I’ll semi-ironically give you the rest of my list.
Beware the invisible hand. A great martial arts master named Burt once told me to ‘beware the hand you don’t see’, meaning that it’s the invisible things, the ones you’re not paying attention to, that’ll knock you sideways. And the same is true for online ventures. You should be outrageously obsessive about perfecting your key hidden processes such as fulfillment, signup, and checkout before you waste all your Kickstarter funds on a fancy homepage design. Make sure your – usually invisible – error messages are specific, friendly, and helpful. Smooth out those cross-system transitions; I’m talking to you, Apple! Anything that affects your site’s technical performance, anything your customers see – but you usually don’t – deserves your undivided attention.
Big Buttons. Evidently this can’t be said enough: make sure your buttons are large, have high contrast, and are well-differentiated so that the same design isn’t used for every single button. Not only is this helpful from a conversion optimization viewpoint, it also helps make your online presence more mobile-friendly. The one thing to watch out for here is making buttons so big that they look like ads or non-clickable design elements. Possibly by next year I’ll be urging everyone to make their buttons smaller.
What are your thoughts on the debate about design being sacrificed for usability (and vice versa), as both are crucial elements for conversions?
I actually think it’s a bit of an artificial tempest, like rooting for Team Edward or Team Jacob. Are designers really cheering for interfaces to be unusable? Do conversion specialists truly want interfaces to be ugly? No, to both. What’s happening is that the disciplines of design and usability are still imperfectly meshed. New media requires a new breed of designers, those who have training not only in visual design but also understand usability, psychology, business, and marketing. Of course, what happens is once designers have all this great understanding they just go out and start their own business, mysteriously being unwilling to keep designing websites for $35 an hour.
You have also spoken about optimization having gone too far. How is this possible?
When I last spoke at a conference about optimization going too far, I was ranting a bit about over-imitation and how there were too many orange buttons in the world. To me, orange buttons everywhere represents how optimization ‘best practices’ have become common knowledge, and may actually reduce a business’s competitive differentiation. Is any optimization guideline so powerful that it is worth losing your brand over? Maybe in the very short term, but for the long run I don’t think it’s worth it.
Another aspect of optimization going too far is that too many businesses get fixated on a single optimization method and pursue it without stopping to research, plan or prioritize. Let’s take multivariate testing, for example. The vast majority of sites simply don’t have enough traffic to conduct robust multivariate tests. And in my experience even those that do, seldom have the discipline to implement the winning elements and continue testing. And yet, the method continues to be held up as a way to optimize.
What are some basic things that people can do to optimize their website without getting expert help?
I have some pretty boring, unsexy and highly effective answers to this. Which may be why I don’t get quoted a lot.
For example, if a business owner could do only one single thing I’d advise him or her to improve their website response time by following the rules here. Some of these are easy, some are more technical. But if their pages responded even a half-second faster, they’ll see improvements to their bottom line.
Next, I’d go back to big, clear, differentiated buttons. Make your page headlines bigger too, while you’re at it. Then, spend the time to develop a strong unique value proposition statement, which is harder than it sounds. Finally, talk directly with your customers, and often. Get to know them, watch them try to use your website, and fix the things they can’t figure out.
Lastly, has the process of optimization changed at all in the last year in ways that have taught you any lessons?
Yes, what I’m seeing now is more clients that are very conversion-savvy – they already understand how conversion optimization works and how it can benefit them. This is very exciting to me personally, because it means I can spend a ton less time creating slide decks full of spreadsheets and percentage signs, and more on the real work of optimization. With savvy business owners looking for more insights, optimization is starting at a much deeper and more strategic level. We’re conducting user research instead of redesigning buttons, for example; and planning optimization roadmaps instead of individual tests.