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Conversion Design: the Real Purpose of Web Design

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What exactly do Toyota, Nike and Apple expect in return when they throw millions at their designers? “Something really pretty; something beautiful” one might say. True, but when we think about it, we all know that at the end of the day, what these companies expect in return is increased sales. They expect to sell more.

So do the same rules and expectations apply to the web? While the processes and tasks of a web designer may differ from those of an industrial designer, their core business goal ought to be the same: to increase sales. However, this is often not the case. A lot of websites are “over designed”, some websites being closer to a piece of art than a platform for sales or leads of some kind.

Perhaps consumer products are to blame. E.g. one might be lead to think that because a beautiful car sells better than its uglier alternative, a beautiful website will likewise sell better than an ugly website. However, there’s an important difference between the two: the car is a consumer product, whereas the website is a platform for selling products or services, directly or indirectly.

This difference is important to keep in mind because a beautiful web design often also translate into a broken website that’s difficult to use (unlike a car which rarely gets more difficult to steer just because it looks good). Some of the common offenders you’ll find on these beautiful but broken websites are: confusing navigation, breaking of web-conventions, decoration fluff, lack of clear directions and labeling, no call-to-action (or too many), and too small font sizes.

A web designer might interrupt me now and say “well, I have succeeded in creating a site that’s beautiful and sells a lot”. The key here is priority. What do you have in mind when designing a new website:

  • One that looks good or one that converts well?
  • And which of those two do you spend most of your time working on?
  • When you get an idea for an element for the site that looks really good, but makes the site a bit more difficult to use; do you implement it?

Truth to be told, most web designers focus on the looks part more than they do on the conversion/usability part, which is fundamentally flawed, because the business goal for the site is to sell more – something that’s directly related to the usability of the site. This is why I’m so fond of the word “conversion design”.

Conversion design essentially means you prioritize conversion over aesthetics. In conversion design, graphic elements are only added when they encourage the visitors of the website to complete a desired goal. The navigation menu is designed to be easy to use, not necessarily to blend in perfectly well with the look and feel of the overall design. And any element that doesn’t increase usability is removed no matter how flat or bland the site end up looking.

Some may say this doesn’t have much to do with design. I beg to differ. Design is about achieving goals, not decorating elements for the sake of making them pretty. Web design is about influencing the behavior of your visitors, structuring every element on the website around an overall goal, typically selling a product or having visitors sign-up for something. You use design as a tool to achieve and maximize the ultimate strategic goal of your site: to turn visitors into customers.

Conversion design is about fulfilling the business goal of your website: to sell more.

What is your opinion on conversion design?

Dave Keys September 30, 2009 Reply to this comment

Since one of my sites is a photography site, the right balance is hard to find!

Christian - Baymard Institute October 1, 2009 Reply to this comment

@Dave;
In a photography site I would say the photographs is the ‘product you sell’. So showing large photographs is still within conversion design. But having a fancy, but not optimal navigation menu (from a usability point of view), just because it is a photography site, is not the right call. Just because the audience is geared towards ‘looks’ they can’t avoid the need of have to use the navigation menu (hence it needs to be optimized for usability, not looks, if you want to convert as good as possible).
But it is a balancing act (especially) if you design for clients that haven’t grasped that creating something ‘artsy’ hurts the business.

Dave Keys October 7, 2009 Reply to this comment

I’ve run into that frequently in the real estate sector. Many agents seem to focus on the fancy or the most “corporate looking” image, not realizing that the very appearance of that kind of site could drive away potential leads who have grown weary of the corporate approach and might just be looking for a human being they can comfortably work with. (even ones who end a sentence with a preposition!)

January 17, 2010 Reply to this comment

I agree with you 100% that most web designers do over design and they, including myself, should be looking at 37signals site to see a simple functional site. My site is a bit over done I’d say as well, I need a new design that is super simple and functional.

Sarah Graveling February 5, 2010 Reply to this comment

Good blog and I agree with a lot of your points. We work a lot in the financial industry so all our projects are based around conversion design, building robust, practical web sites that convert, but would still question that the design “fluff” is not needed.

Users are driven and react by the emotional part of their brain as well as the more practical, so the look & feel of the site can also help sales. Sometimes it’s the little elements or fluff that designers may include that can make the difference, so I don’t think that this attention to detail is superfluous to conversion.

Focusing on what the user CAN do (usability) is obviously fundamental, but stylish and high quality design can encourage interest and trust and is about what the user WILL do, so aiding the conversion process.

Robert June 11, 2010 Reply to this comment

Good looking and usable are not contradictions. You can easily imagine good looking things that are usable. I would more differentiate between usable vs. made just to be looked at.

For example big type isn’t ugly. But it is there to be read. Small type is there to fit into the overall picture(to be looked at).

Btw: I like the design of this site.

Christian, Baymard Institute June 30, 2010 Reply to this comment

@Robert, yes usable websites can certainly also look good. The rant here is mainly against the many web designers that prioritize the looks higher than usability. Great example with large vs. small font.

Thanks for the compliment, we spend quite some time one getting the proximity between the different elements right → http://baymard.com/blog/designing-a-new-website-part-three

Web Designer by Trade July 9, 2010 Reply to this comment

Sounds like bad excuses for a poor designer. It’s the responsibility of the designer to ensure the site is functional. Prioritizing conversion over looks is ridiculous, in this case you can have your cake and eat it too. A talented designer doesn’t have to choose between one or the other, best practices and ideas behind conversion change constantly, Using the color red on call to action buttons was a no-no a few years ago because of “stop-light mentality” now its prefered.

In fact, I’ve seen it a million times where “conversion” experts screw up a perfectly functional site with trust symbols, marketing jargon and other crap that research would say improves conversion. It only ends up cluttering up the site, distracting the user from the experience and ultimately hurting conversion.

Marketing experts should stick to just that and remember while you guys are certainly allowed your opinions, you are not designers and have very little grasp on form and functionalty.

October 28, 2010 Reply to this comment

great post i agree with you 100% look at google… ;)

Stockholm November 21, 2010 Reply to this comment

That is so true. We often tend to forget about the real purpose with a nice web design, to make money for our clients. Good article and worth reading

Caz February 17, 2011 Reply to this comment

One problem is that the goals of a website often aren’t spelt out in the first place, so conversion isn’t really thought about by the client or the designer. This is especially true for websites that sell services or ideas rather than products. It’s a designer’s responsibility to get a clear brief – ask for measurable objectives, then design the site to help achieve those.

With just about every client, especially small businesses, I have to ask “so what do you want the website to actually DO..? And how will you know if it’s working for you?”. Sometimes the visual design is an important part of those objectives, especially when building a new brand, so it should be possible to design a site that converts business goals AND looks good (or at least looks appropriate for the brand and target audience).

Christian, Baymard Institute March 22, 2011 Reply to this comment

With just about every client, especially small businesses, I have to ask “so what do you want the website to actually DO..? And how will you know if it’s working for you?”

Thanks for sharing, I’ve heard multiple web designers telling me about how they often have to ask their clients for this.

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