This is an interesting discussion posted by conversion rate expert Sandra Niehaus on and an issue I feel strongly about – and as a website owner/manager you’ll find this interesting reading too… Here’s an excerpt from her article to set the scene:

Recently, I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in the conversation rate optimization (CRO) community—blaming low conversion rates on web designers. Designers are being caricatured as either “clueless” or unable to restrain their conversion-killing creative impulses. How valid is this view? In my experience, there’s plenty of blame to go around for poor CRO performance. Let’s name some names.

Blame Expectations

Admit it: nobody really knows what a “web designer” does. Does she code? Set up e-mail accounts? Create logos? Write copy? Personally I know web designers who do all of the above and more, as well as those who specialize in a single, thin disciplinary slice.

The point is that web designers come with a wide variety of skills and training, and yet, somehow, there is a general expectation that all web designers should know how to design for conversion. It’s simply not realistic, and here’s why:

Conversion design is an advanced competency. It requires not only technical skill but also strategic thinking and a solid understanding of many disciplines. To use an analogy, for conversion design you need a general contractor, not a carpenter. A conductor, not a violin player… you get the point.

Who’s really to blame?

Niehaus goes on to discuss whether design training is to blame for poor conversion rates -  should you (the client) take the blame or is it the agency’s mindset that’s at fault. Personally I think it’s not a question of blame but rather a matter of designers learning how to work with their clients in order to get the best result for them. Of course this is quite an idealist way of looking at things but why shouldn’t this be the case?

Then I got to thinking, I worked in marketing agencies for many years but I have to be honest it wasn’t until I started my own business that I really started to get into the nitty gritty of branding, marketing, sales and ROI. The difference was that whilst in the shelter of an agency there was someone else to do the marketing strategy and to understand how businesses were run, but once out on my own it was just lil old me – I had to take responsibility for the whole caboodle. And I guess therein lies the fundamental difference for you, the website owner/manager,  between working with an agency or a freelance designer.

So back to your conversion rates, I think that you as the site owner/manager have to shoulder the responsibility of knowing and defining who your target audience is, what your core marketing message is, your brand personality, your points of difference and what your results are to date.

As a designer, I consider it my responsibility to ask you about these (and a lot more besides) so I can get under the skin of your business and your audience to create a website that talks to your customers in a language they understand. So it directs them to the information they seek with the minimum of fuss and then leads them gently to take the action you want them to. This way everybody wins – we share the vision of your website as a working marketing tool – one that has a good chance of converting visitors into leads.

How can you tell if a designer understands CRO?

Further into the article Niehaus gives some tips on how to spot a good conversion rate designer:

So how can you tell whether a designer or agency understands CRO? One way is to examine the questions they ask you. Real conversion designers will ask a sheaf of questions that, on the surface, have nothing to do with design at all. For example:

  • What are your business goals?
  • How do you track and measure success?
  • Who are your most valuable audience segments?
  • What conversion issues does your site have?
  • Have you done any prior usability research (and could I see the results)?
  • Have you done any prior A/B or multivariate testing (and what were the results)?

Sound familiar? It should—this list is a near mirror-image of the “conversion food” you should serve your designer. If your designer or design agency doesn’t seem very curious about these concerns, you’re probably asking for serious conversion trouble.

She rounds off her article by saying:

We need all kinds of designers. We need technical illustrators to summarize how our product works, and hand letterers to create unique branding. But if a designer chooses to generalize in web design, I believe they owe it to their clients to self-educate in conversion optimization right along with color theory and JavaScript. Hey, it’s only one more topic to master, right?

I have to say I completely agree with her, I too think that as a web designer I owe it to you, my clients to build you the best website for your needs and yes, it is up to me to effectively write my own brief. You know your business, I know websites, and if we combine that knowledge we end up with a website that not only looks great but that makes you money too.

I personally commit at least one hour per day to learning more about marketing, running a business, design, colour theory, analytics and/or conversion rate optimisation. Perhaps you should ask your web designer/agency when they last learned something new to help them build a better website for you… and if they can’t give an answer, point them towards my recommended reading list and politely suggest they start there. Conversion rate optimisation skills could well be the thing that differentiates your designer from the many other talented ones out there – and ultimately spell the success of your website.

The full article  Should You Blame Your Designer For Poor Conversion Rates? by Sandra Niehau was posted on on December 8th 2010.

Sandra Niehau is also co-author of Web Design for ROI: Turning Browsers into Buyers and Prospects into Leads

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