Apply these principles to your own business.
Our clients include many of the web’s most successful companies. In fact, as far as we’re aware, no other company has had the privilege of designing pages for as many of the world’s top 500 websites as we have. We say privilege because these companies are, by definition, already great at creating websites, and many of them (e.g., Google, Facebook, and Amazon) wouldn’t normally ask an external company to design pages for them.
When we look at how those companies improve their websites, it’s striking how their practices have almost nothing in common with the way that most other companies do it. Their approach is perhaps best described as “Scientific Web Design.” In this article, we describe how Scientific Web Design differs from most other web design, and we explain why it’s much more effective.
What you’ll get on this page
- Principle 1: Functional Design beats Aesthetic Design
- Why not design for function and aesthetics?
- Principle 2: The top companies carry out experiments on their websites
- Principle 3: For reasons that are subtle, the top companies make frequent, small changes, and rarely (if ever) have huge site redesigns
- Why some people wilfully ignore these principles
- How we follow all three principles—and why it makes life hard in the short term but easier in the long term
- How can you use these insights?
Take a look at the following two hammers:
Both hammers have been meticulously designed, but for different goals. Karl’s mother’s hammer was designed for beauty. The Stanley hammer was designed for hammering.
They represent two approaches to design:
- Aesthetic: Karl’s mother’s hammer represents good design to people who believe that design means “optimize for beauty.” It’s not good for hammering, so Karl’s mother uses her other hammer instead.
- Functional: The Stanley hammer represents good design to people who believe that design means “optimize for the product’s core function.”
Similarly, there are two approaches to web design:
- Aesthetic: Most web agencies design for beauty, paying little more than lip service toward the goals of the business and its customers.
- Functional: In our opinion, good web design means understanding your visitors—and your business—deeply, then designing to meet both of their needs. And by “deeply” we mean not obeying an executive who says “I know my customers,” but instead gaining deep insights through extensive research.
Which approach is most effective? Take a look at the homepages of Google, eBay, Amazon, Craigslist, LinkedIn, Facebook, Wikipedia, YouTube and other sites in Alexa’s Top 500 list and decide for yourself. Are they designed for beauty, or does their form follow their function?
It amazes us how few people have noticed this.
To be clear, it’s fine to optimize for beauty if your insights indicate that your visitors will buy more as a result. At that point, functional design and aesthetic design become the same thing, and you should test making your website more beautiful. The mistake happens when companies think that pure aesthetics are a substitute for research and testing.
Scientific Web Design is functional.
Some people ask why they shouldn’t optimize for function and aesthetics. Even if their visitors are perfectly happy with the current appearance of the website, what’s the harm in being beautiful regardless?
It’s like asking “What’s the harm in giving Usain Bolt an egg and spoon to carry while he runs?” They don’t realize that beauty, like an egg and spoon, tends to slow progress to a crawl.
One of our first clients had one of the most beautiful, polished sites we had ever seen. We first noticed a problem when we asked the head developer to italicize a particular word. “That’s not just a 15-minute job,” he replied, “it will have to wait till next week.” We were amazed. We had just come from working in-house, where we had tripled our employer’s sales in 12 months. We were used to making changes quickly. Putting a word into italics would have taken us 60 seconds. We had taken that agility for granted.
Imagine if your site were as easy to edit as Wikipedia, Google Docs, or this page (which we urge you to read). How much more work would you get done? How quickly could you iterate? Typical web marketers could edit a Wikipedia page in one minute, but would take at least a day to make a similar change to their own site. That’s over a thousand times longer. Much of that time difference is because their own site is more complicated for aesthetic reasons: Fonts are substituted, decorative images are included, layouts are complicated, and ornamental graphics are included. The technical burden soon becomes immense: changes must be checked on multiple devices running multiple browsers on multiple operating systems; plug-ins conflict; fonts don’t render…
…and before long, you’re no longer outraged that it takes seven days—seven days!—to turn a word into italics.
Meanwhile, Facebook has pushed live several thousand more changes.
If your website is already more beautiful than Amazon’s, and your customers are happy with its appearance, are you sure that the best way to grow your business is to make it more beautiful, or have you just run out of ideas? Beauty can lead to sluggishness, and sluggishness can lead to economic death.
If you do make your website more beautiful, ensure your designs are minimalist—visually and technically. Keep them elegantly simple and easy to update. And don’t forget that—like the Stanley hammer—good functional design has a beauty of its own.
“Being able to figure out quickly what works and what doesn’t can mean the difference between survival and extinction”—Hal Varian, Google Chief Economist.
“If you double the number of experiments you do per year you’re going to double your inventiveness.”—Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon.
When top companies change their websites, they measure the effects of the changes, using split-testing software or some other type of experimental technique. They want to know if their changes worked.
When you split-test, you get the following benefits:
1. You get to keep the effective changes
2. You get to discard the ineffective and even downright negative changes
One of our first clients, whose sales we more than tripled, stopped split-testing after we finished working with them. Their marketing manager then began making radical changes and persuaded his team that there was no need to split-test them, because they were “obviously better.” Within a year, the company’s sales had plummeted, and no one in the company knew why. The marketing manager was fired. Had he split-tested his changes, he wouldn’t have broken the company.
The following story from Microsoft’s Senior Statistician, Roger Longbotham, describes how Microsoft avoided a similar disaster: “We ran an experiment for a site where the management was reluctant to run the test because they considered it a “no-brainer” that the Treatment would win. We agreed the value proposition looked quite promising but proceeded with the experiment. The Treatment had some unexpected and subtle negative aspects that would not have been detected had we not run the experiment. If the Treatment had been launched we estimate the annual loss to the site would have been in the millions of dollars.”
3. You learn what you should be doing more (and less) of
Split-testing is like a compass: It tells you which direction to move in. One of our clients, a company in the telecoms industry, was debating whether to lower the price of its top-selling phone. The phone was already the lowest-priced in the marketplace. To measure how price-sensitive the company’s visitors were, we split-tested the existing price against zero dollars (completely free-of-charge). To everyone’s surprise, the zero-dollar offer didn’t sell more phones. Our research revealed that users were concerned that the free-phone deal was “too good to be true.” Concluding that the visitors weren’t sensitive to the price of the handset, we went in the other direction by split-testing higher prices. The winning page featured two higher-priced premium versions of the phone alongside the standard product. We then obtained a further win by offering optional upsells including accessories, insurance, call credit and 24-hour customer support. So not only did split-testing save the company from pointlessly destroying its margins, but it revealed an unexpected opportunity for growing its profits.
Scientific Web Design involves experiments, not arbitrary, unmeasured changes. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos said: “Successful invention is inventions that customers care about. It’s actually relatively easy to invent new things that customers don’t care about. But successful invention, if you want to do a lot of that, you basically have to increase your rate of experimentation and that you can think of as a process—how do you go about organizing your systems, your people, all of your assets, your own daily life and how you spend time, how do you increase those things to increase your rate of experimentation? Because not all of your experiments are going to work.”
Principle 3: For reasons that are subtle, the top companies make frequent, small changes, and rarely (if ever) have huge site redesigns
“Every work day Facebook is safely updated with hundreds of changes including bug fixes, new features, and product improvements. Given hundreds of engineers, thousands of changes every week and hundreds of millions of users we have worldwide, this task seems like it should be impossible.”—Facebook’s Engineering Team.
The top companies update their sites frequently—often weekly and sometimes daily. The changes are usually improvements to parts of pages rather than complete page redesigns or website redesigns. If you update your site in small iterations like this, you get three benefits:
- You get to see what’s working (and what’s not working) on a granular level.
- Your site-improvement process stays nimble because it’s always in use, and is not mothballed until the next mega-redesign.
- Your work-in-progress decreases.
Work-in-progress is the toadstool of business; it looks harmless but is poisonous. For example,
- Any work-in-progress is wasted money until it sees the light of day.
- Managing work-in-progress is work in itself, particularly with large projects. Large projects constipate companies.
- Problems aren’t seen until the eleventh hour. Some companies hire us after having had a sitewide redesign that actually decreased their conversion rate. In fact, at the moment we are rescuing a website for which one of our clients had paid tens of millions of dollars. You might expect that a website that cost that much would perform extremely well. However, using this approach, we are redesigning it page by page, and our pages are considerably outperforming the existing ones.
- The longer a project takes, the greater the expectation for a massive win once the redesign goes live. This results in the additional inertia of deliberation, double- and triple-checking, and design-by-committee, all of which erode speed (a dangerous practice in highly competitive markets). It’s no surprise then, that:
- Many projects never complete.
That’s why Scientific Web Design entails carrying out frequent, iterative changes.
Some people choose not to follow the three principles of Scientific Web Design, for several reasons:
- Some people avoid accountability.
- People who work for agencies may not want their performance to be measured soon and frequently. There’s good money in quoting for huge white-elephant projects, delaying that moment of truth until all the money is in the bank.
- To uninitiated buyers, aesthetic design is easier to sell. Whether it’s hammers or websites, some people buy beauty.
How we follow all three principles—and why it makes life hard in the short term but easier in the long term
The three principles of Scientific Web Design are embedded into our methodology as follows:
- First, we analyse our clients’ websites and visitors. Through intensive research we identify the biggest opportunities for improvement.
- Next, we implement the changes in frequent, small, targeted iterations.
- We put our necks on the line by insisting that the changes be split-tested to prove (or disprove) that they have grown the business.
This makes life challenging, because of course not every experiment results in a win; but there’s a strength in it too: Our clients and team members get immediate feedback, so they discover what works (and what doesn’t) for their specific marketplace.
That’s rare in business.
By taking this approach, our clients’ internal processes over time get re-engineered for speed and profits—a hallmark of the top online businesses we have helped to grow. This is perhaps the most important aspect of our service.
If you are a regular reader of this site, you are likely to already be sold on the principles of Scientific Web Design. If so, here’s what you can do:
- If you are a marketer or designer, ensure that you follow the three success principles: Design pages that fulfil their primary purpose; measure and test everything you create; and minimize your work-in-progress. If you are new to conversion, you can easily bring yourself up to speed by reading our articles and downloading our free reports, which provide a fascinating (we think) introduction to making websites ultra-effective.
- If you are a manager, director or company owner and you are struggling to persuade your team to show any interest in conversion rate optimization, we urge you to first set the “ground rules”: Insist that they always follow the three principles. (1. Design pages that fulfill their primary purpose. 2. Measure and test everything you create. 3. Minimize your work-in-progress.) Pushing conversion knowledge upon someone is futile unless they are hungry for it. By insisting that your team follows the three principles, you align their goals with those of your business, and your team will devour any information that will be useful to them. Then, when they measurably grow your business, your challenge becomes to pay them enough to keep them. Conversion skills are in short supply.
- Whoever you are, spread the word. We estimate that, worldwide, fewer than 1% of marketing decisions follow the principles of Scientific Web Design. Much of the web-design industry actively avoids them. So when you see people violating the principles described in this article, speak out. Write your own articles about this subject. Be the child who dares to tell the emperor that he’s wearing no clothes (and is carrying an egg and spoon). You don’t need to have a scientific background—you just need to have the diligence and discipline to follow the principles. And when you encounter people who dare to follow the principles of Scientific Web Design, encourage and support them. They haven’t chosen the easy path.
What you should do now
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