The College Startup

I don’t think anyone argues that designing for conversion is important.

But is there more to it than just A/B testing button colors and copywriting?

Great design isn’t just a luxury of high profile websites anymore, in fact it’s more critical.

Good design is now the price of entry, just like having great content. Tweet This

Sound Testing ≠ Good Design

Well tested sites that still have lots of images, tons of plugins dragging down their load times and copying everyone in their field are really just optimizing what is known as their “local maximum” instead of their “true maximum”.

This theory has been exhausted in design circles when talking about the Google example where they used 41 shades of blue to determine which received the most clicks by users.

The reasoning behind what Google is doing is sound, however it is very unlikely that Google is left with the best possible solution.

What Google has instead found is their local maximum. The best possible solution given their current framework.

That is vastly different than the absolute maximum.

Click to continue…

No one is a more rabid A/B tester than Google, yet it’s no secret that they haven’t been very prolific designers. With their iconic spartan search page that hasn’t changed much for many years and many of their products following suit, when Google dives head first into taking design seriously this should be the final wake up call for those of you who have been using them as an excuse for a owning a website that looks and performs like crap.

Being concise and muted

With the launch of Google+ we started seeing upgrades cropping up all over the Google suite, and even more recently we are seeing a consolidation of their branding by dropping the brands of Blogger and Picasa and instead calling those products Google Blogs and Google Pictures which will bring a more continuous look and feel to their suite of products. These brands lend themselves to being concise and much more easily articulated to consumers seeing as how the Google brand is now one of the most coveted, recognized and valuable brands on the earth.

Being ‘muted’ is all about delivering a compelling experience without overselling it through too many flashy objects (an in a lot of cases actually avoiding the literal use of Flash) and instead using soft color tones, unique feeling typography and a clean spartan design that give a clear call to action and leave plenty of white spaces for your users to distinguish between various objects and compartments of your website design. This will allow them to understand what they are being asked to do and what your value proposition is without being overwhelmed.

Earning your visitors trust

For many sales online, sales are essentially the arbitrage of trust you have built with your audience. What this means is that people are willing to buy from you because they trust you, and each time you ask them to buy something you will lose a few “followers” and feel less valuable to your users in the process. Most marketers get over this by keeping a steady stream of fresh visitors and providing as much value for free to their audience in between asking them to buy stuff to at the very least balance out the trust arbitrage.

But what is the difference between this and simply having good design? Of course you need to provide value to your audience, they need to trust you and feel good about the relationship – but even if you are giving away the world in a package that looks like ass your sales are going to suffer. This is where the time and resource investment of quality design comes into play. Your audience will trust you more as well as be more willing to buy your products when you have good design because it articulates what you are selling, what the value proposition is and it feels like it has the polish that only the highest quality product would have.

To put it simply, every audience desires and is willing to pay for the following:

1. Something of value (it solves a problem or perceived problem they have)

2. Something of quality (fit and finish that they feel they deserve)

3. Something of scarcity (an item, service, or experience that is not easily replicable)

Knowing this, how is your website design hurting your conversions? What aspect of your value proposition is lacking because you weren’t willing or able to put in the additional resources to articulate in a way that solved all 3 of the above requirements for a successful consumer product?

So as you may (or if new, may not) have noticed I have done quite a bit of housecleaning around the blog.  What used to be a rounded blue and orange template heavy with added graphics and other extras is now a clean and spartan white design that tries to focus on the key aspects of this blog that people seem to enjoy.

“Why switch it up? The other blogging format seemed just fine?”

I felt that I owed the (2 actual) readers I have a better reading experience that was easier to navigate, more pleasing to look at, and offered a much improved commenting platform. I understand that new visitors are going to likely be annoyed by the lightbox pop-up added to the site, but it needs to be understood that in order for this blog to exist in its current form (minimal advertising) it is important to build an strong communication channel through the 7-week course.

What do you think of the new design? The code is supposed to be clean and SEO friendly out of the box and it has given me a chance to learn some CSS and PHP, although it has also reaffirmed that I will never be a coding professional myself, and instead will hire out the right people to make sure it is done right and done in a timely manner.

I love how the web as we know it is much like a living organism that we are able to watch evolve at a breakneck pace. It has been particularly interesting to see how services and products have been in a tug-of-war over what shifts are trendy to be doing, and what adds the most value for the end user.

As far as I can tell, here is how the web has evolved so far…


As the web was just coming about into the consumer space, the most important thing was just getting something out there. We had no real way of cataloging great content and cool new websites which made domain squatting overly profitable given the amount of time effort required to snatch them up. If you wanted to buy t-shirts online, you would simply try typing in and hope for a reputable vendor. These were truly the days of the wild west online where pretty much anything was kosher and there was limited to no oversight. These were for all intensive purposes the dark ages of the internet.


As more and more content based (read: informational/brochure) websites cropped up, we started to see the need for finding this content and thus search engines were born. Search hasn’t really changed all that much since inception, but we all know that Google was a game changer with their Page Rank system to help bring order to the chaos. We also started to see more and more transactional/e-commerce based websites pop-up and sites that offered package services for end users to try and make their lives better.


When information became even more overbearing for consumers, social sharing services like Delicious, Facebook and now Twitter have sprung up for friends and new connections to share the best content across the web with. This has worked well at driving traffic beyond the tried and true e-mail, forward, repeat method of sharing information. It has helped bring “social proof” to particularly good articles, and sites like funneled new and interesting stories into social graphs that would have otherwise never seen the content.


But now we are seeing a much more subtle but equally important shift in what will make new products interesting and much more useful for us. We have entered the Age of Design for web services. What I mean by this is that web services now have to make something beautiful, instead of just something that “works”. The introduction of the new after yesterday’s announcement is living proof that in order to more useful, you have to be more usable. It seems simply in logic and in theory, but creating a truly gorgeous user interface is paramount to a web services success in today’s marketplace. Being attractive to the eye, and folding in rich media to the user experience also allows impressive split testing to understand the usage pattern of your users.

So while winners just ship products, how are you making the usability layer of your web services gorgeous? Additionally are you actually separating the functionality teams from the design teams? Functionality should be handled by your engineering minds, and graphical designers should be handling the interface layer. Make something usable, make something great.