Shopify 04/28/2008

Lance Loveday Answers Your Questions!

Happy Monday! To start your week off right, I am extremely pleased to bring you our Feature Interview with the co-author of Web Design for ROI, Lance Loveday.

Many thanks to Lance for taking the time to do this for our Shopify community. I provided him with several questions, and in addition he answered almost all of the submitted questions – the couple that weren’t answered were Shopify specific, and you can look for an answer from our team shortly.

Read on for the virtual interview. At the end, find out the recipients of the two books we gave away for submitting questions, and learn about how to get in on another set of free books if you didn’t win the first time around. Enjoy!

What inspired you to write the book?

We were struck by how many of the sites we worked with suffered from the same design and usability problems. But that was really a symptom of the way people think about and manage their sites. So in addition to providing some concrete design guidelines, we wanted to try to change the way people think about web design. Personally, I wanted more people to see the money they’re leaving on the table by not designing their sites well.

How the Book Was Born

I had just finished a presentation on Designing for Conversion at Web Design World in Seattle in July 2006 and was answering some audience questions in front of the stage afterward when a kind but serious-looking gentleman handed me his card and said “I really enjoyed your presentation. How’d you like to write a book about it?” A quick glance at his card identified him as Michael Nolan, Sr. Acquisitions Editor at Peachpit Press/New Riders. After a stunned silence while my mind fixated on the long-held perception that ‘I don’t write so good’, I smiled crookedly at him and said with all the gravitas and certainty I could muster “Ummmmm… Sure?” After that inauspicious start I managed to write a book proposal, get it approved by the editorial team at New Riders, and built out a schedule and outline. I was on my way. Then it hit me: “Writing a book is hard. There’s no way I’m going to be able to write a book while managing a business, keeping clients satisfied enough to continue paying me, and being a decent husband and father to my 2-year old son. And I’m certainly not going to get it done on my own before my twin-pregnant wife delivers seven months from now.” Fortunately, the obvious solution to my problem was sitting in the next office.

I’ve been fortunate to have Sandra Niehaus, our VP User Experience and Creative Director here at Closed Loop Marketing, as a friend and colleague for the last three years. In that time, she’s bailed me out of more jams than I can count. And when I proposed the idea of coauthoring this book together, she did it yet again. In retrospect, I can’t imagine trying to write a book like this without Sandra. She brings a designer’s eye and real-world Web design and programming experience that is crucial to conveying so many of the concepts in this book. She also art-directed the whole thing, no small thing for a graphic-rich book about design. In a nutshell, anything good in this book was probably Sandra’s idea. I take full responsibility for everything else.

You have a great approach in the book – you talk about what you’ve seen; you say what will help people with these issues; then you say “stop reading and try this!” and give examples to really bring it home to the reader. Where did this approach come from and what’s the feedback been on it?

I wish I could say our approach was the result of a grand vision we had from the start. But the reality is that we iterated on it for months. We wanted the book to reflect the design philosophy we advocate, so it seemed appropriate to have a strong call to action component. In trying to come up with a name for that section, one of us said “The effect we’re going for this is to have people stop reading and try whatever it is we’re recommending.” So that’s how we came up with that heading. Incidentally, the hardest part of writing the book was figuring out how to structure the content – just like designing a good site.

What were some of the biggest website design “fails” that you’ve seen in your career? (naming no names, of course)

My favorite one is when we were reviewing a client’s shopping cart and got to step 3 of their 4-step checkout process only to find no way to get to step 4. They’d inadvertently commented out the ‘Continue’ button a few days earlier, so it was impossible for someone to actually buy anything on the site. And they wondered why sales were down…

You’ve had a very diverse background before you got to the web space. How do you think that influences the way you look at web design?

I’m not a designer or a programmer, so I don’t see the same things that most Web professionals see when I look at a site; I only experience the interface itself. In that way I think I’m more representative of most Web users. But my background in economics compels me to think through the implications that the user experience has on the web metrics and the business metrics of the organization behind the site I’m reviewing. So I sort of reverse engineer the business model of every site I see and think of ways to tweak the site to help them improve their metrics.

What’s next on the horizon for you?

I’m most focused now on growing my company. We do a lot of Search Engine Marketing and Conversion Optimization work, which is a lot of fun and fulfills our goal of helping organizations get more business benefit out of their sites. On the publishing front, we’re starting to play with video. My sense is that some well-produced multimedia videos would do an even better job at conveying the principles we recommend than 2-D static book format. I’m also speaking at various conferences, which I really enjoy.

Have you seen any Shopify stores that exemplify good design?

I just bought a T-shirt from the Tesla Motors site because I can’t afford one of their cars just yet. There was one unique element of the checkout process that really stood out as a best practice. When I was entering in my payment information there, a nice green check image that said something like “OK” dynamically appeared when I entered the last digit of my credit card number. I thought that was a brilliant way to minimize the risk of typos and reassure people that they at least had entered the right number of characters into that field. I hadn’t seen that before, but it was a really nice touch that I think reinforces credibility at a critical point in the checkout process.

And now, good readers: Here are Lance’s answers to the Blog Submitted Questions:

Melany Gallant : Is it better to have a PPC ad link to a landing page or a product page? Or does it really matter? I hate to sound like a consultant, but it depends. I’ve seen situations where product pages worked best, cases where custom landing pages worked best and instances when there’s been only a negligible difference between the two. There are too many variables involved for there to be a hard and fast answer that applies to everyone. But it absolutely matters, because the potential gain in conversion and revenue can be substantial. The only way to know is to test. Fortunately, the PPC engines make it extremely easy to test. Just run two identical ads in the same Ad Group, link each of them to different landing pages you want to test and see which page converts better. Note that you may need to change your Campaign settings to have each ad rotate equally. After you’ve run your test for a while, you can use this tool to make sure you’ve captured enough data to achieve statistical significance.

Regardless of where you’re sending your traffic, there are almost always some things you can do to increase your conversion rates.

Jonathan Briggs: Do you think the choice of payment partner (PayPal, Protx, Google Checkout etc) affects users willingness to purchase? Assuming you have a reliable provider, I don’t think it makes much difference who your payment partner is, so long as the checkout functionality a) works, and b) works the way people expect. The problem I see with some sites is that they play up their payment partner too much, assuming that doing so buys them some credibility. But I think that does more harm than good in most cases, as it risks of introducing doubts for users they wouldn’t otherwise have. So a user’s inner monologue might go something like this: “This site seems otherwise professional and credible, but why do they feel the need to tell me who processes their payments? I’ve never really thought about that before. Should I care about it? And I don’t recognize the name of that processing company. Who’s the company behind this site again? Maybe I should shop somewhere else.” Payment processing is a utility function, like electricity. So I’d talk about it as much as I talk about my local utility with guests to my house (not at all). I’d argue that your customers shouldn’t even be aware of who your payment partner is, because most people just don’t care.

Marcelo Alvarez: Can you please talk about websites bounce rate and what to do to avoid this common problem? Could you give some tips on how to deal with this issue in Blogs? Great question. High bounce rates drive me crazy, because they’re usually easy to improve once you understand why they’re happening. But doing so involves putting yourself in the shoes of your customers. And most of us aren’t wired to be able to see things through other peoples’ eyes very easily. At a high level, a high bounce rate is usually indicative of a user making a snap decision upon landing at a new site that the site doesn’t have what they’re looking for. The problem is that people make these judgments almost instantly, based on visual cues and the presence or absence of trigger words (the words they expect to see that indicate “Aha! That’s what I’m looking for.”). So how do you reduce bounce rates? There are countless ways, but I’ll discuss two important ones. First, we recommend simplifying the design as much as possible. Too much busy-ness and visual noise easily overwhelms people and requires them to think, which is bad. See my favorite book on web usability: “Don’t Make Me Think” by Steve Krug. It may seem counterintuitive, but fewer more obvious navigation options and use of white space can reassure people that this site is easy to use. So resist the temptation to cram as much as possible on to your pages and cut out the clutter. Second, think about creating a visual hierarchy and flow to your content that reflects the relative importance of each content element to the customer. This requires prioritizing your design and content elements so a user can quickly tell which information is most important without having to read everything on the page. Think about how the content is prioritized on the front page of a newspaper, with a few large headlines, more smaller headlines and subheads, and then story copy. Try to achieve that level of easy scannability with your web pages. Because like it or not, very few people actually read everything on your pages. And in many cases, they won’t even try unless you make it easy for them.

Chelsea Bell: What is considered to be a ‘good’ bounce rate for a hard-goods e-commerce site? That’s impossible to say (that too many variables thing again). Also different analytics systems report the number differently, so a 50% bounce rate on Google Analytics might be reflected as a 60% bounce rate on HitBox, for example. I try not to focus on a fixed goal for an acceptable bounce rate. My goal is always to improve from where we are using whatever analytics we have available. The absolute number is less important than having a benchmark against which to measure progress.

Ryan: What are your 5 top tips for designing a website to be more ROI friendly? What’s the 1 thing that everyone should take the time to do? Read Chapter 3 of my book…? :) I’ve provided a few tips above. The one thing everyone should do is sit down and write a web site strategy. That simple act of getting your goals, strategies, target audiences, tactics, key success metrics, etc. down on paper is extremely powerful. To make it super easy, we’ve created a web site strategy template for you to use, available here. There are also some sample chapters of the book on that site, if you want to get some more design tips.

Aydin Mirzaee: How Important is Google PageRank for shopping websites and what is the best strategy to up ones page rank? If you’re trying to attract organic search traffic, then getting your pages indexed by Google is definitely key, as is gaining link popularity (inbound links) to your site as a whole and to key pages in particular. But I don’t obsess about the PageRank score that the Google Toolbar provides, as Google has stated it is not accurate and the score it provides is based on data from roughly six months ago. Better to track your rankings for your most important keywords and keep an eye on your link popularity overall. There are some free tools at HYPERLINK “” that can help.

Bill Hall: What is the best way to turn people who need a website into clients? We know a lot of people need sites, but they are hesitant to have one built. I don’t have as much experience with that, as we only work with clients who have sites already. In fact, my company’s unofficial tagline is “We don’t make web sites, we make web sites better.” Which I think is a ripoff of an old BASF commercial… If you haven’t figured it out already, I’m a contrarian. So my natural tendency is to avoid selling to people generally. There is so much business to be had that I’d rather focus on tapping into the huge and growing demand that already exists for help moving online rather than try to persuade the recalcitrant few who need to be convinced of the obvious. On those occasions where I do have to convince people why they need to have an online presence, I demonstrate how their competitors are eating their lunch. For whatever reason, that ‘s a much bigger motivator than all the charts, industry data and general business case. And if I really believe they need to be online and there’s a decent revenue opportunity, I’m not afraid to work on a pay-for-performance/revenue share basis. A willingness to put some skin in the game to reduce the level of risk for a client can be pretty compelling as well. But that gets risky pretty fast, so we’re very selective about when we offer to work on a P4P basis.

Tom Scott: Now that we have services such as Shopify, which make delivering a simple e-shop to market so quick, how important is market research is in this context? The cost of trying and failing is certainly a lot lower than it’s ever been, which is good in that it encourages some risk-taking. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do your homework ahead of time. Know the market, the pricing, the competition, and so on. That research is pretty easy to do. You can do most, if not all, of it yourself for free. But beyond the basics, the biggest way to differentiate yourself online is via the user experience. And to deliver a truly compelling user experience requires you to understand your customers intimately. In my experience, the best way to do that is to conduct live usability testing, a form of research that doesn’t get nearly the attention it should. The simple act of watching someone use your site while thinking out loud can be profound. The insights you can gain from testing as few as five people can make the difference between a site that does well and a site that leads its category. If there’s one common factor between the sites we’ve worked on that have done the best online, it’s that they’ve all done some form of user testing.

John Rawsterne: We hear a lot about semantic XHTML, W3C standards, tableless designs etc. How important do you think these ideas? Will the underlying XHTML, CSS and Javascript affect conversions or is it just the visual appearance of the site that is important? As with the choice of payment processor, the technology behind a site is less important from a conversion standpoint than whether it works and how well it helps users achieve their goals. What bothers me is when I see the gratuitous use of an advanced technology when it isn’t really required and doesn’t contribute to the site owner or users’ goals. For example, a major technology client of ours implemented AJAX expand/hide controls on long blocks of text on a few pages of their site. When we asked why, they hemmed and hawed for a while before finally admitting they just wanted to use AJAX because it was Web 2.0 (I’m still not sure what that really means). But in doing so they broke a decades-old convention in human computer interaction (scrolling) and likely confused the heck out of most of their visitors. Lest you think I’m against using the latest technologies, here’s an excellent use of AJAX.

Thanks for the opportunity to speak with all of you. And thanks to Shannon and Shopify for bringing us together and making it all happen.

And thanks to you, Lance! What do you think, Shopify users? What’s striking you the most out of all of these responses? Is there anything you think deserves further attention? Leave a comment and start the conversation.

The recipients of the books we had available for submitting questions are Jonathan Briggs and Troy Davis. Congratulations!

Disappointed you didn’t get a book? Don’t worry. We have more books to give away! If you’re interested in receiving a free copy of the book compliments of Web Design for ROI, simply comment on this post. We’ll let the recipients know by the end of the week! Or if you must have the book in your hands immediately, then head on over to Web Design for ROI’s website.