A List Apart


Design Choices Can Cripple a Website

Design Choices Can Cripple a Website

I admit, it’s a provocative headline. But it’s true.

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However compelling the message, however great the copy, however strong the sales argument… the way a page is designed will have a dramatic impact on conversion rates, for better or for worse.

Before I go any further, I want you to look at three versions of the same offer page:

I know, they won’t win any design awards. They weren’t intended to. But they are functional and familiar. A reader going to any one of these pages will be able to quickly figure out what the message is, and what they are being asked to do.

Version A is the original.

Version B follows the same basic layout, but we made some minor copy changes.

In version C, we changed from a one-column format to two-column format. We wanted to test the impact of bringing more of the page content onto the first screen.

Be honest with yourself and decide now whether B or C beat A, and by what percentage

Don’t scroll down and look for the answer. You’re a designer, an expert in web design. So put your money where your credentials are and write down some figures now.

Write down a percentage by which B did better or worse than A. And a percentage by which C did better or worse than A.

The design choices you make have a profound impact on results

I imagine you have some way of measuring the success of your site. Maybe it’s about sales. Maybe it’s based on readership. But one way or another, your site has a purpose.

But I don’t think most designers truly understand the effect their design choices can have on achieving that purpose.

And yes, I’m sure you do some usability testing. And that likely gives you some broad, if sometimes confusing insights into what’s working and what isn’t.

But do you test different page designs?

By testing, I don’t mean asking a few folks around the office; I mean doing a live test that demonstrates—with hard figures—what site visitors actually do.

Testing like that is a beautiful thing. There is no space for fancy arguments. An expert’s credentials and opinions mean squat. When you serve alternative versions, one after the other, and measure reader actions, you get the real deal. You get what is.

Do you do that? It’s a scary thing.

But if you are serious about achieving your site’s purpose, and if testing can show you which version of a page does best, then where is the argument not to test?

Here’s how design choice can make a difference

Here are just a few of the design elements we have found can make a significant difference to the performance of a web page:

  • The position and color of the primary call to action
  • Position on the page of testimonials, if used
  • Whether linked elements are in text or as images
  • The amount of “white space” on a page, giving the content space to “breathe”
  • The position and prominence of the main heading
  • The number of columns used on the page
  • The number of visual elements competing for attention
  • The age, sex and appearance of someone in a photo

OK… now for the results of the test.

A/B/C Split Test
 Page APage BPage C
Percent of traffic34%33%33%
New sales244282114

Version B, with the minor copy changes, resulted in a 15.57% increase in sales—that represents a big revenue jump for a site with high sales volumes.

Version C, in which we changed the regular, one-column format into a two-column format, resulted in 53.28% fewer sales.

That’s an astonishing reduction in sales and revenues, resulting from a design change that was intended to improve the performance of the page.

Now, just pause for a moment and think of all the design choices you have made over the last year, and the reasons why you made them. And think about the huge impact those choices might have had on the performance of the sites you worked on.

Some concluding thoughts…

The figures from this test are shocking. But they are not exceptional. Design changes really do have a huge impact on conversion rates.

Here are a few things to consider:

If you have some pages on a site which are critical to its overall success, instigate a program of A/B split testing. You cannot afford to guess; you have to know.

Be aware that however strong the copy and text on a page, its performance is very much dependent on the way in which it is presented. In other words, design choices can enhance or diminish the power of the words.

Talk with your writers. Ask them how they think the message would best be presented. Then test some different versions. A good writer should have some strong instincts when it comes to the layout of the text.

One way or another, it’s important to accept that none of us—neither designers nor writers—know what the “best” page design or copy is until we test.

In a business environment where marketers demand an accountable performance from every web page, it’s time to put aside the assumed expertise of design and copy “gurus.”

The way forward is to test, and let our readers show us which designs work best, and which copy works best.

While this may be uncomfortable for some, the end result is that we will become much better web designers and writers.

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