Practical Ecommerce

Web Conversion Strategy: When Design Dominates

A local business magazine had written an article reviewing the website designs of various local companies. As you may imagine, I read with dismay as the three-page article focused solely on graphic design. There was no mention of usability, conversion rate or site effectiveness (using actual metrics).

Unfortunately, I think this is all still fairly typical. When I meet people in a social setting and they ask what I do, I get the distinct impression I am instantly pigeonholed as a web designer. Granted, “web conversion strategy consultant” is somewhat of a mouthful, and an earful, but as soon as people learn I’m involved with making websites effective, they decide I must be a graphic designer. In the same sense, many business managers/owners I speak with spend 90 percent of their web budget (as well as energy and focus) on graphic design and only 10 percent on “the other stuff.”

To some extent, I understand this. Graphic design is obvious; it’s the part everyone sees. There’s no particular expertise required to appreciate good graphic design, and as we’ve discussed before, the all-important “first-impression” remains key. But beyond that, I think it’s a real shame. This attitude is the web equivalent of buying a $1,000 suit to make an important presentation, but only spending a few brief minutes planning what you’re going to say.

It’s not that I think graphic design is unimportant, I just think it’s less important than the attention it gets. Actually, I consider graphic design to be of critical importance, but I have some specific criteria by which I measure the effectiveness of graphic design. Essentially, I believe graphic design can (and should) accomplish three distinct goals:

  • Create instant affinity.
  • Establish credibility.
  • Provide focus.

Instant Affinity

As web users, we’ve all experienced landing on a site and feeling right away that it was the sort of thing we were looking for. We’ve also rushed for the “back” button as we’ve hit a site that seems to repel us (anyone older than 25 who has landed on a site designed for teenagers knows exactly what I mean). This is the concept of “affinity.” It’s that somewhat un-quantifiable feeling the site we’re on may contain what we’re looking for.


We’re all wary of scams, unfulfilled promises and poor craftsmanship, and there’s plenty of that available online. We tend to use graphic design as an indicator of trustworthiness. Good design sends a message of believability and reliability. Poor design sends a red-flag warning.


You probably recall a few years ago when Flash websites were all the rage. Sites that were highly interactive and highly conspicuous became somewhat commonplace. You might remember moving your mouse around in order to send icons flying, bouncing, whirling, and swooshing across the screen. Now don’t get me wrong, I have no problem with video games for the over-40 crowd, but are you sure you want your website to play that role? You see, when design gets too heavy, it crowds out the message, and that’s rarely a good thing.

Good design compliments the message, making copy easy and attractive to read. Headlines, subheads and calls to action are all pleasantly crafted to attract and not distract us. In other words, the visitor experience is actively enhanced by effective design, but the experience is not about the design. It is good design that compels us to spend more time considering the message of a product and service, which is why we believe graphic design supports rather than replaces a well-defined and well-implemented web marketing strategy.

Mat Greenfield

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  1. Legacy User June 13, 2007 Reply

    Design is a bit of a sand trap. Elegant and eye-catching design is a lot harder to implement than folks might imagine. Matt's point is well taken; thoughtful integration of look, usability and function make for a 'sticky' shopping experience.

    Store owners, like their customers, love powerful visuals. We're a very visual society. I’ve designed FX and animation for feature films, countless commercials and short animated films. It can be hard to fight the urge to go full throttle with design, but often less is more. Especially if your priority for each visitor is conversion.

    That said, B&M retailers like Nordstrom's, Banana Rep., Gap, Abercrombie spend a fortune on the environment/visuals. Not a requirement if you’re site is a pricecutter, dollar store type online shop. But if you are brand conscious, want to stand out from the pack and cater an increasingly sophisticated demographic, then an effective blend of form and function are critical. And that type of shopping experience can be mighty hard to achieve.

    Figure out what turns you on when you feel the urge to bookmark a new site, ask you friends. Find the shared threads or observations that make you want to return to a online store, or a B&M. In those observations, you may find some clues as to what would make your customers want to bookmark your site.

    Brendan Gallagher,

    — *Brendan Gallagher*

  2. Legacy User June 12, 2007 Reply

    It's refreshing to see someone of some "clout" saying what we've practiced for the past seven years. "WOW – Whiz bang" web design doesn't do anyone any good if it doesn't produce sales (conversion) on a retail web site.
    Michael Wise,

    — *Mike Wise*

  3. Legacy User June 13, 2007 Reply

    I'll have to throw in my opinion on this thread even though I am not a web designer but a software developer.

    Over recent years, I have seen many job titles that emerges in the Internet industry. Some title advises people how to use their mouse. Some advises people how to filter certain unwanted emails using their email-client program, one advises how to locate graphics exactly x inches from the top-left-hand-corner and exactly y inches from the left-frame, once advises on the web-users attrition rate, and never ending blah, blah, blah.

    There are too many unnecessary experts everywhere that are trying to advise on problems that they don't really need advise on. The experts come in with their huge expensive fees really to advise on very simple things but really made it out that it is a huge issue.

    There is nothing wrong with developing a website in its simplest form and deployed so that it is up and running in a reasonable time-frame. This is the way, that real researchers (not so called internet expert) have found out. Keep the website simple, and EXPERIMENT all the time. This means, that the site owner has to monitor the log-files and see which version changes of the software that made it more effective (number of visitors, page impressions and so forth). The effective changes, then adopted. There is no guarantee that the first adopted design is the best, since this assumes that the graphic designer, programmer or whoever expert that involved in the project, have a prior knowledge of what each web-surfer would do when they surf. The only way to find out the behaviour of surfers is to analyse the log-files by using analytics and data-mining tools. I repeat it here. The only way to find out the effective way to a site is to mine the log files. The behiviour of users that mined from the log file, is then used to tune the website that make it more user-friendly and easy to navigate around, etc…

    This sort of experimentation is what researchers at Amazon are doing from time to time. They keep changing the site's look although unnoticeable to the regular users all the time, because the behaviour of the users that were mined from the log-files, tell them to.

    If you (developers and experts) want to find out more, then look at the following publications from former head of data mining at Amazon, Dr. Ronny Kohavi, where he's outlined some good hints about looking for the best design.

    #1) "Lessons and Challenges from the World of E-Commerce"

    #2) "Amazon's Data Mining and Personalization"

    #3) "Emerging Trends in Business Analytics"

    #4) "Real-world Insights from Mining Retail E-Commerce Data"

    Finally, for any developer who is interested in web-mining, l would highly recommended this Java open source in Data-Mining, which is the best out there, even far better than commercial tool.

    "Weka 3: Data Mining Software in Java"

    You have to pre-process the log-file before feeding it to WEKA to mine out the surfing patterns. Weka has got a user guide and a published book (available from Amazon or any bookstore) on using the software, by the WEKA authors.

    If you don't want the hassle of manipulating data for use with WEKA, then the best commercial tool in web-mining are ones from SPSS and SAS. These commercial tools are very expensive.

    — *Falafulu Fisi*

  4. Legacy User June 15, 2007 Reply

    While "WOW – Whiz bang" design may not increase conversions, a simple aesthetically pleasing design will. An amateurishly designed site will sends the wrong message to your potential customers. I'm sure a site like a previous poster mentioned, Santa Fe Decor, would see an increase in conversions simply by using a workable color scheme, making better use of space and other design elements in their layout.

    — *Ross Grant*

  5. Legacy User June 17, 2007 Reply

    Here is a useful paper for developers. I had posted it in other thread but it is also applicable in this thread:

    Visitors enter a website through a variety of means, including web searches, links from other sites, and personal bookmarks. In some cases the first page loaded satisfies the visitor’s needs and no additional navigation is necessary.

    In other cases, however, the visitor is better served by content located elsewhere on the site found by navigating links. If the path between a user’s current location and his eventual goal is circuitous, then the user may never reach that goal or will have to exert considerable effort to reach it. By mining site access logs, we can draw conclusions of the form “users who load page p are likely to later load page q.” If there is no direct link from p to q, then it would be advantageous to provide one. The process of providing links to users’ eventual goals while skipping over the in-between pages is called shortcutting.

    Existing algorithms for shortcutting require substantial offline training, which make them unable to adapt when access patterns change between training sessions. We present improved online algorithms for shortcut link selection that are based on a novel analogy drawn between shortcutting and caching. In the same way that cache algorithms predict which memory pages will be accessed in the future, our algorithms predict which web pages will be accessed in the future. Our algorithms are very efficient and are able to consider accesses over a long period of time, but give extra weight to recent accesses. Our experiments show significant improvement in the utility of shortcut links selected by our algorithm as compared to those selected by
    existing algorithms.

    Download the full paper below:

    "Ten Supplementary Analyses to Improve E-Commerce Web Sites"

    — *Falafulu Fisi*

  6. Legacy User June 17, 2007 Reply

    Here is another paper by Dr. Ronny Kohavi (former Amazon head of Data-mining who now works for Microsoft) that would be useful for both developers & designers:

    The full paper can be downloaded from here:

    "Practical Guide to Controlled Experiments on the Web: Listen to Your Customers not to the HiPPORon"

    The following is the abstract of that paper.

    The web provides an unprecedented opportunity to evaluate ideas quickly using controlled experiments, also called randomized experiments (single-factor or factorial designs), A/B tests (and their generalizations), split tests, Control/Treatment tests, and parallel flights. Controlled experiments embody the best scientific design for establishing a causal relationship between changes and their influence on user-observable behavior. We provide a practical guide to conducting online experiments, where end-users can help guide the development of features. Our experience indicates that significant learning and return-on-investment (ROI) are seen when development teams listen to their customers, not to the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion (HiPPO). We provide several examples of controlled experiments with surprising results. We review the important ingredients of running controlled experiments, and discuss their limitations (both technical and organizational). We focus on several areas that are critical to experimentation, including statistical power, sample size, and techniques for variance reduction. We describe common architectures for experimentation systems and analyze their advantages and disadvantages. We evaluate randomization and hashing techniques, which we show are not as simple in practice as is often assumed. Controlled experiments typically generate large amounts of data, which can be analyzed using data mining techniques to gain deeper understanding of the factors influencing the outcome of interest, leading to new hypotheses and creating a virtuous cycle of improvements. Organizations that embrace controlled experiments with clear evaluation criteria can evolve their systems with automated optimizations and real-time analyses. Based on our extensive practical experience with multiple systems and organizations, we share key lessons that will help practitioners in running trustworthy controlled experiments.

    — *Falafulu Fisi*

  7. Legacy User December 11, 2007 Reply


    Thanks for this discussion on the pertinence of design in online branding and messaging.

    While there are many criteria to judge design in general and web design specifically, I believe universally it's a matter of whether the design is complementary or detrimental to the final product.

    Unfortunately, many producers, whether WYSIWYG or hard coders, place design ahead of usability in their development process.

    Properly done, a well planned and structured site will be more effective when basing its design on clear strategy that engages and serves the intended user.

    — *Kent Looft*

  8. jenny88 July 21, 2008 Reply

    Well said Mat. I hope a lot of businesses read your post as we at face similar resistence from companies who don’t recognise the value in talking the time to develop efficient information architecture. Not knowing that this is the fundamentals of how you develop a successful website. Too many companies are hung up on creating fancy graphics and not on selling their brand and products.

    The number one priority should be user experience and with that incorporates good design.

    Jenny Orr