What’s Design Got To Do With It?

Aesthetics, and Conversions

If you want to skip to the meat: Before and After website makeovers!

Most web designers are mostly graphic designers. That is to say, many web designers value aesthetics very highly, and consider this their reason for being. However, their clients often have a different perspective: the only reason someone is going to pay you money is because they consider your services an investment, and believe that you are going to make them more money.

Unfortunately, money-making and beauty don’t necessarily go hand-in-hand, not in the real world. Money comes from sales, sales come from visitors. More visitors, more sales. Now the designer has to learn something new to provide the money-making his client wants: Search Engine Optimization.

SEO is not popular among designers. Whenever possible, it’s outsourced, and when it isn’t, it’s an afterthought and a chore (made easier by my handy SEO checklist, I might add). Often, designers ignore SEO entirely. But, if there’s anything a graphic/web designer hates more than SEO, it’s designing for conversions.

The conversion rate is the number of site visitors that actually complete whatever the site is attempting to accomplish. If the site is hoping you’ll sign up for their mailing list, a conversion is when someone fills out the form and clicks the submit button. If a site hopes to sell custom waffle-irons, when someone buys one it’s a conversion.

More conversions = more money. But if SEO has nothing to do with design and aesthetics, conversion-jockeying seems positively antithetical to it.

Design vs. Conversions

I’ve spent the day reading the back posts of the blog of a man named Eric Graham, also known as the “Conversion Doctor.” Eric Graham does not care for pretty websites in particular, and it shows as you move down the page. In fact, his attitude towards designers can be fairly vitriolic at times. His posts are something I would only recommend for brave designers. Some of them are very thought-provoking, some eyebrow-raising, and some downright terrifying to the designer’s eye.

Most of these techniques fly in the face of any notion of beauty and/or usability. These stomach-churning observations are made all the worse by the lingering suspicion that he’s probably right.

Most users don’t have the discerning eye of a designer, and are willing to tolerate a little ugly. Craigslist and Plenty of Fish count on it. And when it comes to conversions, sometimes, ugly sites just work. It’s a lot like negative political campaign ads: nobody likes them, but somehow they work anyway.

The good news is that conversion-engineered sites need not be ugly – at least not in theory.

The Science of Aesthetics

In a paper entitled “Assessing dimensions of perceived visual aesthetics of web sites,” Talia Lavia and Noam Tractinsky attempt to parametrize the concepts of aesthetics in order to gain a meaningful measure. In this attempt, they split the concept of “aesthetics” into two: “classical” aesthetics and “expressive” aesthetics.

Classical aesthetics are those which have been followed, in general, since the ancient Greeks. Things like typography, white space, overall layout, overall clearness and cleanliness, all fall under this category. Expressive aesthetic elements include artistic elements, special effects, originality, and other such items.

As the study goes, classical aesthetics turn out to be more correlated with usability, as well as an impression of professionalism. The paper has a lot of other interesting insights, but this is the point I wanted to make for today.

Aesthetics + Conversions

Mr. Graham posits here that the three primary factors affecting conversion rates are:

  • Usability
  • Persuasion
  • Trust

The good news for designers is that of these factors, two exhibit strong correlation with “classical” design principles: usability and trust (leave the persuasion to copy writers).

Usability is something every designer should have as a main focus anyhow, and it goes hand in hand with classical aesthetics. Are your buttons easy to see? Is the navigation logical? How fast can a user find what he/she is looking for?

Trust includes such things as privacy policies and hacker-safe logos (ugh!), but it also is impacted by the professionalism and organization of the design, both of which had a strong correlation with the classical aesthetics factor in the aforementioned study.

A Contrived Demonstration

Besides demonstrating that I don’t really know what “contrived” means, I hope this will demonstrate my postulation that design and conversions are not mortal enemies. And to get good and appropriate copy, I will steal the content for this demonstration from Mr. Graham himself and rework his page in a way that will be more pleasing; and, I hope, at least equally effective. If Mr. Graham takes issue with this, he can just leave a comment or send me an email or something and I will of course take it down.

Before: This is a fairly faithful recreation of Mr. Graham’s home page, as it exists.

After: This is the exact same html, with re-organized css to make it look nicer.

Both pages have similar visual weights on similar parts of the page. Both pages have that dreadful submit button, too. But, and I hope you will agree, one of these pages projects a more professional, more honest facade than the other.

If Eric were to read this, he would probably point out that I can only prove such postulations through a regime of testing. I’d love to do so, and I happily invite him to, or to provide some testing ground; as it is, I’ve not got access to anything with enough traffic to show many results.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that most of a freelancers’ clients’ concern is with the bottom line. If you make fantastic art, you might make beautiful pages, but they may not be effective.

Do make an effort to improve the bottom-line performance of your clients’ pages, as well as making them pretty, and you will be rewarded.

Leave a Reply

  • I promise I'll be nice to your email address