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Do Prettier, More Professional-looking Web Sites Increase Conversions?

January 19, 2015

Some Web sites look as though someone has cobbled together a few clip-art images and some text. Conversely, other Web sites look extremely professional and, in some sense of the word, beautiful. Design is art after all. Then, there’s everything in between. Some have taken the position that everyone craves more beautiful Web sites, [1] but do these more beautiful Web sites result in an increase in conversions? Not necessarily.

Tread Carefully in Creating a Pretty Web Site

In my experience, doing a Web site redesign in the hope that the site will look prettier and more professional can sometimes result in lower conversions. When we take an archaic, ugly Web site and turn it into something that looks slick and sexy, but it delivers underwhelming results, we need to understand why this is the case. There are lots of examples of such unintended effects of redesigns, where conversions have decreased despite a site’s visual impact and the changes’ getting a positive qualitative response from visitors. Here are just a few:

  • In 2010, Digg.com launched a radical redesign that resulted in a 26% loss in site traffic. [2]
  • In 2011, Target’s redesign [3] suffered from myriad technical problems and reduced revenues.
  • After spending about £150 million and two years in development, in early 2014, Marks & Spencer launched their new Web site, only to see online sales plunge by 8.1% in the first quarter after the site’s launch—despite the site’s looking classier, as shown in Figures 1–3. [4]

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Figure 1—A Marks and Spencer product page, before and after [4]
A Marks and Spencer product page, before and after
Figure 2—The Marks and Spencer category page for Dresses, before and after [4]
The Marks and Spencer category page for Dresses, before and after
Figure 3—The Marks and Spencer category page for Dresses with filters, before and after [4]
The Marks and Spencer category page for Dresses with filters, before and after

The Association Between Pretty and Likable

People like better-looking products and sites and even associate perceived usability with aesthetics. Take ATM machines, for example. When the participants of a study were asked to assign perceived usability and aesthetics scores to a series of ATM screens, the findings showed that their usability scores were more closely related to their aesthetics scores than to the screens’ actual usability—even across cultures. [5]

We even like better-looking people. Daniel Hamermesh talks about how aesthetics affect opinion in his book Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. [6] He says that attractive people are likely to earn an average of 3 to 4% more than a person with below-average looks.

Plus, Dario Maestripieri, a professor of comparative human development, states that a door-to-door insurance salesman is better able to sell to customers who find him attractive. Maestripieri calls this principle “the pleasure of dealing with good-looking people.” [7]

We can apply these same principles to a Web site. People prefer better-looking Web sites because they associate beauty with perceived trust and credibility. If you walked into a restaurant that looked run-down on the outside, the staff struck you as unprofessional, and there were a few scuff marks on the walls, would this affect your opinion of the likely quality of the service and food that restaurant would provide? You would immediately deem this restaurant not credible and would not trust them to make you food in exchange for money.

Jason Putorti, Head Designer at Mint, said about the redesign of Mint.com: “A big part of it was just does it look credible. Does it feel credible? A lot of it’s visual. A lot of it’s being a good copywriter, writing friendly copy, making people feel comfortable as they go through the process…. It’s our job really to figure out what makes it trustworthy.” [8]

Design Affects Structure—Sort of…

Let us not forget that a good site design should result in a better structure and organization. For example, grouping, renaming, or reducing the number of choices a user needs to make at any point are all design decisions that you might try to improve.

But there are notable exceptions to this rule. Lings Cars—a famous UK, car-leasing company—is popular for all the wrong reasons. As you can see from the busy and overwhelming site shown in Figure 4, they’ve tried to put everything on one page, in one area, that flashes and literally sings in your face. It’s a designer’s nightmare! However, the considerable success that has come to this multimillion-dollar site may change your mind about the importance of a beautiful design. In Paul Rouke’s article “Lings Cars and the Art of Persuading Visitors to Buy,” he states, “If for a minute you take the very concept of usability out of the equation, this site is absolutely packed with a wide range of persuasive design techniques.” It’s not all about aesthetics. [9]

Figure 4—Lings Cars Homepage
Lings Cars Homepage

Defining Good Design

There are some issues of vernacular that I should clear up. What we refer to as good design is, in many respects, subjective. However, Dieter Rams pointed out ten principles of good design that have not changed much in the 40 years or so since they were published. He said that good design is aesthetic—and only well executed designs can be beautiful. [10] His principles directly link design to usability, but more important is this statement: “Good design emphasizes the usefulness of a product while disregarding anything that could possibly detract from it.”

One of my favorite quotations about design is from Josh Porter, who said: “Don’t make something unless it’s both necessary and useful. But if it is both necessary and useful, don’t hesitate to make it beautiful.” While aesthetic design and usability are inextricably interlinked, usability is most important to good design.

Conclusion

More professional-looking, prettier Web sites do not always result in increases in conversion rates. However, despite the examples of failed designs that we’ve seen, beautiful Web sites can be successful in increasing conversions.

Human psychology dictates that people prefer anything that is better looking and, more importantly, associate what is good looking with what is more trustworthy, usable, and likable, so pretty Web sites can work. But a professional-looking, aesthetically pleasing design is just one factor of that makes a site successful. Only by improving your site’s overall user experience can you increase its conversion rates. 

Endnotes

[1] Lehrer, Jonah. Imagine: How Creativity Works. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012.

[2] Lardinois, Frederic. “Digg Redesign Tanks: Traffic Down 26%.” Readwrite, September 23, 2010. Retrieved January 4, 2015.

[3] UserTesting. “Target.com Redesign Misses the Mark.” UserTesting.com, August 29, 2011. Retrieved January 4, 2015.

[4] McDonnell, Kathryn. “Where Did the Marks & Spencer Website Relaunch Go Wrong?Econsultancy, August 25, 2014. Retrieved January 4, 2015.

[5] Kurosu, M., and K. Kashimura. “Apparent Usability vs. Inherent Usability: Experimental Analysis on the Determinants of the Apparent Usability.” In Conference Companion on Human Factors in Computing Systems. Denver, CO: ACM, 1995.

[6] Hamermesh, Daniel S. Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2013.

[7] Maestripieri, Dario. “The Truth About Why Beautiful People Are More Successful.” Psychology Today, March 8, 2012. Retrieved January 4, 2015.

[8] First Round Capital. “Head Designer of Mint on Why Great Design Isn’t About Making Things Pretty.” FirstRound.com, publication date unknown. Retrieved January 4, 2015.

[9] Rouke, Paul. “Lings Cars and the Art of Persuading Visitors to Buy.” Econsultancy, February 5, 2012, Retrieved January 5, 2015.

[10] Rosenfield, Karissa. “Dieter Rams 10 Principles of ‘Good Design’.” ArchDaily, 2012. Retrieved January 7, 2015.

UX and Optimization Freelance Consultant

Manchester, UK

David MannheimAn experienced UX consultant, David has focused on UX strategy and conversion optimization since 2011, working in the buzzing digital hubs of Manchester and Liverpool in the UK—and beyond, on occasion. He is one of just a few people in the UK who Human Factors International has qualified as both a Certified Usability Analyst (CUA) and a Certified User Experience Analyst (CXA). His aim is to create and improve Web site user experiences for visitors to ensure that businesses can increase their online profits and get a good return on their investments.  Read More

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