Want To Win Fights With Your Web Designer? Use These CRO Tactics

When should you take off the gloves and have a dustup with your designer? Columnist Jeremy Smith shows you how to make your CRO case in a powerful way.


Normally, I’m a pretty peaceful person. But sometimes there are things worth fighting for.

When conversion optimization faces off with other forces in the digital marketing world, sparks will fly.

As conversion rate optimization pros (CROs), we need to understand that we are the spear tip of Web marketing. Design is important. Social media is enormous. SEO is essential. UX is critical. Content marketing is imperative. All those things are clutch. But when it comes down to it, conversion optimization is what makes the whole effort turn into money.

Every aspect of marketing is entirely useless unless it produces conversions.

And that’s why some things are worth fighting for. In particular, I want to focus on several aspects of Web design, and how they aid or conflict with conversion optimization.

A Word About Web Design, And How It Applies To Conversion Optimization

First, allow me to set the stage for the discussion that will follow.

What does Web design have to do with conversion optimization?

The answer is, a whole lot. Web design forms the entire landscape where conversion optimization takes place. If the user can’t understand, use, view, operate or experience a website, then the user can’t convert, period.

Crappy design means crappy conversion rates.

For example…

Crappy design means crappy conversion rates

I’m positive that this design is going to get amazing conversion rates, but only after 99 percent of users claw their eyeballs out with their fingernails.

But CROs aren’t designers. How do we handle the importance of design in the conversion optimization space?

Here’s what ConversionXL’s Peep Laja wrote on his blog:

Great optimizers are polymaths…Optimizers have to be multidisciplinary, and very good at at least 2-3 disciplines (and good enough at others).


Laja went on to explain that conversion optimizers should “know good design and user experience.”

A critical skill an optimizer has is the ability to tell good design apart from bad design, and be able to articulate the difference. Anyone can say “this sucks.” What specifically? What would be better and why? What does the data say? How are users currently using it? What kind of problems do they run into?

Like the proverbial T-shaped marketer, a conversion optimizer should have some familiarity with Web design. If a CRO and a designer happen to sit next to each other on a subway, they should have a few things to talk about.

an awkward conversation is coming

Should a CRO know how to create a wireframe or whip out a mockup in Photoshop? Nah. But should a CRO understand the basic limitations, processes and tools of Web design? Yes.

How much power does a CRO have?

This brings up an important question. Is it truly the CRO’s place to boss people around like this?

Yes and no. A CRO doesn’t need to be bossy. Why? Because the CRO has data to back up his points. One can be persuasive without being bossy. The CRO can communicate using authoritative information, not with anger or force.

In other words, CROs don’t operate on behalf of their own power. A CRO is someone who can show the designer the results of the split test: why A is not working, and why B is better.

The CRO should understand human behavior and psychology to explain to the copywriter why headline A is superior to headline B. The CRO should be able to communicate the basics of mobile conversion principles to a UX designer who is redesigning the mobile checkout.

The CRO holds immense sway in his or her organization, because he or she can assess how all the disciplines together are impacting revenue.

Remember what I told you about CROs being the spear tip of marketing? It’s true. A conversion optimizer fills a critical function where it really matters. For that reason, the CRO should have the ability to make calls on things as important as Web design.

Now, let’s get into those things that you should be willing to fight with your designer about.

1. Make Incremental Design Tweaks, Not Huge Sweeping Changes

[Stay tuned, because I’m going to clarify this point with a completely contradictory one coming up next! Yeah, I’m tricky like that.]

One of the core truths about conversion optimization is that it relies on continual improvement. That’s the whole premise of split testing. You take a single element — let’s say the image on your landing page — and produce two versions to see which one improves conversions.

When image A wins the test, what do you do? Swap out the headline, move the button, change the form fields, and rearrange the bullet points, right?

No! You change the freaking picture to the one that got the best results. You don’t touch anything else!

Split testing shows you which single element is doing better.

Split testing does not give you license to change the whole website.

Designers need to understand this, and you need to enforce it. A designer’s dissatisfaction with a Web design is not his or her excuse to go changing around the whole website. “Creative license” has its place, but if it messes with the exacting science of conversion optimization, then you need to snatch that license away.

For example, if I were the CRO for Treehouse (which I’m not), then I would look at this website, and think to myself…

Not bad. Let’s go ahead and split test a new headline for starters. Instead of “learn,” let’s try something more imaginative and expansive — like “discover” or “gain.”

Treehouse home page to test

What would I not do?

  • I would not tell the designer to change the color scheme to fuchsia.
  • I would not tell the designer to add a picture of an attractive person.
  • I would not tell the designer to put all the course choices above the fold.
  • I would not tell the designer to add a video.

I would start small, improve carefully, and gradually make this website better.

Most of the time, conversion optimization deals in micro-changes, not mega-changes. Designers must understand that conversion optimization is all about making systematic and small changes.

2. Make Huge Sweeping Changes, Not Teeny Designs

[This is the point in the article at which I totally contradict the above point.]

There are times when the whole website needs to be redesigned.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

desperate times called for desperate measures

For example, let’s pretend that Arngren.net called me and needed some help optimizing their website.

I visit their website.

bad web design

I gasp, grab my heart, and drop dead.

(Or, more realistically, I simply pass out, and my loved ones come in, close the computer, take me to the ICU, and help me recover on bed rest and viewing therapy.)

What would I propose as the CRO for such a site? I would propose radical, sweeping, earthshaking, outright, revolutionary, shocking and totalitarian change.

This can be a tough conversation when you’re standing face-to-face with a designer. He designed this. He poured his life into it. He loves it. He has become attached to it.

And now you’re proposing that he ditch it and start all over again?!


When should you suggest incremental changes versus demand sweeping changes?

How do you know when it’s time to tear it down and start from scratch with a redesign? I hate to rely on simplistic answers, but you just know.

I mean, seriously, the above website? You simply know.

Other times, it’s hard to tell. For example, I’ve always thought that Salesforce’s landing pages were downright horrific.

Testing might surprise you final desing

But maybe, after rigorous testing and thorough analysis, this is the best possible landing page on the planet for its product and user base.

It just depends.

There is no simple test that can tell you when to demand sweeping change versus making incremental adjustments. However, I can give you several pointers.

Know the user.
The user gets to decide what’s best. This is the underlying principle of testing, and it is the theory which guides conversion optimizers. Know the user, understand where they are coming from, assess their awareness, and comprehend usability before you make a decision.

Know the history.
Maybe the site has already undergone lengthy redesigns, multivariate testing, and expensive optimization to get it where it is. Or, maybe, the company doesn’t have a clue. Find out before deciding.

I’ve worked with clients who are operating vintage 1980 CMSes. I’ve had people who weren’t allowed to change a single pixel without permission from the CEO and the unanimous support of the 200 board members, an act of the Sudanese Congress, approval by the Italian and Russian mafia leadership (and their spouses), and a UN executive committee agreement (slight exaggeration). Sometimes, you have to work within the constraints of technology and the limitations of politics.

Know the goals/KPIs.
A company’s goals determine the direction of your conversion optimization work.

If the goal of a website is to shock users into thinking “CRAPPIEST WEBSITE EVER,” then don’t touch a thing. If, however, the goal is to sell a widget, get a newsletter sign-up, or have a visitor read an article, then this fact will guide your decision.

3. The Designer Should Follow Your Basic Advice, Not His Webby Dream

Here’s something I’ve learned about designers. They have dreams. They sometimes have topknots and tattoos. They want to win awards. They innovate. They are artists. They are restless souls.

Echograph Example

[/Offensive Stereotyping]

CROs on the other hand? They have very hard noses. They eat numbers for breakfast. They hail “split testing” as if it’s the panacea for human depravity.

Stereotypically speaking, they are quite unlike designers.

So what happens when the dream collides with the anal number-crunching CRO?


I hyperbolize, but I speak words of wisdom.

When it comes to the basic design and construction of a webpage, you should make conversion recommendations to the design process.

Conversion optimization involves a holistic perspective of every area of the digital experience. Design is part of this experience — a very significant part. Although there are certain “design best practices,” these should mesh with a conversion optimization strategy.

One important principle to keep in mind is the familiarity principle, also known as the mere-exposure effect.

This principle states that the more you are exposed to a certain thing, the more you like that thing. For example, the more often you see a person, the more attractive they become to you.

This is from Changing Minds:

The more exposure we have to a stimulus, the more we will tend to like it. Familiarity breeds liking more than contempt. Things grow on us and we acquire tastes for things over time and repeated exposure.

To apply this to design, this principle makes us comfortable with websites and models that we’ve seen before. If a certain design practice is considered customary and familiar, then this is the principal or design that will most likely best resonate with users.

For example, your designer wants to make the homepage look like this:

cool home page

It’s cool, yes. But here’s the thing: This is for a bank’s website.

A bank.

The above screenshot features a killer design, but not for a bank. Why not for a bank? Because for years, people have been looking at bank websites that look like this:

wells fargo home page

Does it look good? No. But is it familiar? Yes. Therefore, will it convert better? Probably, yes.

The principle holds true for smaller design elements such as buttons. The omnipotent CTA button is, to conversion optimization, what the trigger is to a gun. If, however, the button doesn’t look like a button, then people won’t convert as readily.

They’re used to pulling a trigger. You’ve designed a lever. They don’t know what to do.

Take a look at the image below. This doesn’t satisfy the principle of the mere-exposure effect. Why? Because it doesn’t look like a button. Most people are used to clicking a button when they decide to add something to a cart:

add to cart

But this image? Yes. That’s more like it.

design add to cart cta

Whatever your specific situation, keep this principle in mind. You are focused on conversions, not Webbys. Make it look like what people are used to.

If you win a Webby, but lost conversions, then you lose.

If you have to fight about it, go ahead. You have my permission.

4. You Get To Approve The Wireframe

A website’s wireframe is important for all kinds of reasons.

Among those reasons are conversions. When it comes to the wireframe phase of Web design, you must put on your best conversion optimization face, step into the ring, and start making recommendations.

A wireframe provides layout and functionality, not design. Therefore, the wireframing phase is the best opportunity for you to make design recommendations that influence the conversion flow.

5. You Have A Say In The Color Choice

Color is part of conversion optimization.

It’s likely that a client has a predefined palette that is approved for use in Web and print publications. While you may need to work within this palette, you should also work with the designer to make sure that these colors are applied in the correct way.

Selecting button color, background color, text color, image color — this is all part of shaping a Web experience that drives conversions.

The color black, for example, should be used sparingly. If, however, you are selling a high-end product with a luxury feel, then black is perfectly appropriate.


Does the designer know this principle about the color black? Only if you tell her.

Buttons, those crucial conversion creators, are another area where color is essential. A strong, vivid, differentiating color helps to draw attention to a CTA button.


6. It’s More Than Looks. It’s About Usability

Design and usability normally go hand in hand.

Occasionally, however, designers and usability experts have widely varying perspectives on such issues. I recommend getting a usability expert involved in the process of creating a website. Ideally, you as a CRO should possess some experience in usability.

According to Closed Loop’s Sandra Niehaus, the No. 1 essential trait of a conversion-optimized design is usability.

I agree. Usability may not be sexy, but it is foundational to conversion optimization. When you lack usability, you lack conversions.

7. Make It Simple. No, Simpler

One drum that I beat on a regular basis is the simple drum.

Why do I insist on simplicity? Because simplicity is better.

Some of the Web’s most popular, enduring and effective designs are starkly simple.

Have you ever seen this website before?


That’s what I thought.

Complex websites, on the other hand, slay conversions.

Thankfully, most good designers are aware of the difference between complicated and simple websites. Most likely, they will be able to develop something that is elegant and simple.

If not, then you need to help them do it. Some designers of the old-school persuasion rely on worn-out templates to create a design. These templates often have unnecessary elements, obtrusive menus, redundant features, and lack of negative space.

If your designer loves mind-numbing complexity in design, things need to change before you can have a successful conversion optimization experience. Wrap your mind around the conversion power of simple websites, and teach your designer a thing or two.

If It Ruins Conversions, Don’t Do It. Fight!

Question: When should you take off the gloves and have a dustup with your designer?

Answer: When the design threatens to ruin conversions.

shutterstock_polar_bears (2)

Still, you should play nice. By using facts, studies, statistics, metrics and proof, you can make your case in a persuasive and powerful way.

Conversion rates speak louder than design panache. I’m convinced that killer design can coexist with killer conversion rates. But sometimes, designers need to grow in their awareness of what is truly successful for conversions.

It’s your job to teach them.

Some opinions expressed in this article may be those of a guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Jeremy Smith is a serial entrepreneur, trainer and conversion consultant, helping businesses like IBM, Dow Chemical, American Express, Panera Bread, and Wendys improve conversions and strategically grow their businesses. Jeremy’s experience as the CMO and CEO of technology firms has given him a powerful understanding of human behavior and profit-boosting techniques.

(Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)


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