UX (user experience) and CRO (conversion rate optimisation) are two commonly used acronyms in the digital world. There are times I’ve heard them used interchangeably but they’re not the same thing, and it’s important to understand the relationship. In this blog I’m going to discuss how UX skills like behavioural analysis, user-centered design and prototyping are an integral part of a wider set of website optimisation techniques encompassed by the term CRO.
First, let’s start with some basic definitions, in the context of a website, to frame the discussion. Please note these are my definitions, influenced by how UX and CRO experts talk about their disciplines. I’m not saying these are perfect definitions as both disciplines are nuanced and encompass a wide set of skills but for me high-level definitions have to be easy to understand.
User experience covers all elements of an end user’s interaction with your website, from the behaviours they display to the way they engage with site elements and marketing content. To be a UX practitioner, you have to understand user needs and design user interfaces that seamlessly deliver against those needs across all relevant devices and channels.
Conversion rate optimisation is a structured approach to improving the progress through and completion of user journeys, whatever the end goal may be. It’s the process of using data and user insight to identify conversion blocks/issues, define logical hypotheses for why this might be happening, create tests to prove or disprove these hypotheses and then use the learning from testing to continuously improve your website.
UX is a key component of CRO so how can UX help drive CRO?
1. Providing insights into user behaviour
To improve a website, you first have to identify what needs improving and why. Otherwise, where do you start? Web analytics data can tell you the ‘what’, as in what is happening, for example which pages are driving the most site exits. What it can’t tell you is why; for that you need to overlay user insight.
UX specialists carry out real user research before creating any designs. There are many ways to do research but the core focus is understanding why users behave they way they do. A good example is form studies, watching how users interact with forms and the reactions they have as they complete the form.
One example of user research is usability studies, which can be done in person or remotely using tools like Whatusersdo. Usability studies typically take place after the initial research has been done and website performance issues have been identified.
A better understanding of user behaviour helps inform optimisation plans, for example shaping test hypotheses. If you know why someone isn’t converting, it’s much easier to come up with suggestions for how you can tackle the problem.
2. Re-engineering task flows
Each website has a set of user journeys and each task that a user seeks to complete (e.g. adding a product to a basket, submitting an enquiry form) has a user flow, and the flows can vary depending on the user type, for example new users may have a longer task flow than an existing user who knows the website well.
Once research has been done and insights into user behaviour analysed to identify why problems are occurring, UX designers can then set-up about systematically restructuring task flows to remove barriers.
This approach requires a blend of skills because the designer has to keep the user needs front of mind when adapting flows, not just design something functional that aligns with the underlying business process. Task flows need to make life easy for users and remove friction to improve conversion.
I worked with a retail client to rectify an address management problem in the checkout. The business was getting a higher level of drop off for non-UK customer because their validation defaulted to UK address search. So each time a non-UK user tried to type their address, it didn’t match and in some cases a ‘No results could be found’ message appeared.
After some simple data research and remote video testing, the UX team decided to change the task flow to put the country selector field first, which then switched the country level validation in the address field to the appropriate country. Form completion rates increased.
3. Providing user-centred designs for tests
Testing changes is a scientific method for validating hypotheses and learning if changes positively impact KPIs or not. Putting changes live without testing adds risk, as well as reducing learning because you’re not comparing different options to see which one performs best.
UX designers will evaluate current page designs in the context of user research, and help the business to define clear hypotheses for testing. Based on these hypotheses, they will then design solutions that aim to tackle known user problems/address user needs. The designs will be based on what the user needs, not what the business thinks will work.
4. Optimising designs based on device capability
It’s still common for business teams to think desktop first when considering improvements to a website, and to see the improvement as a one size fits all solution. However, smart UX designers understand that device usage patterns and device capability play a key role in solution design. What works on a desktop resolution may not work for smaller touch screen devices.
Optimising based on device capability ensures design outputs focus on the end user in the context of how they will interact with the website, not just on a simple problem/solution scenario.
5. Continuous feedback loop
Once a test has been completed, that’s just the start of the journey. Testing isn’t a one-off hit; it’s an evolutionary process that needs to continuously review user behaviour and needs. Just because you’ve run a successful test and improved KPI X, doesn’t mean you’ve found the best solution. You need to move on to the next hypothesis.
Good UX teams are borderline obsessive over how the end user interacts with the website, and how effective the site is at conversion. They stay on top of latest trends and as technology advances, they will be thinking about which changes are relevant to their audience and why. This is illustrated by mobile devices where enhancements to the OS and browsers continue to open new doors for UI design. For example, geo-detection used to be the preserve of apps but mobile browsers can now support this, so UX teams in multi-channel retailers have improved the task flow for store location to reduce user friction and automate the process for finding your nearest store. The end goal is to drive conversion.
The dedication to continuous improvement generates more data and insight, and this learning provides a continuous feedback loop into the wider CRO programme.
Alex Birkett’s post on ConversionXL interviews leading UX professionals like Jeff Gothelf, author of Lean UX, and Laura Klein,Principal at Users Knows, to get their view on conversion optimisation.
Disclaimer: I was also interviewed for this post, though I don’t claim to be a UX/CRO expert as my focus is digital strategy.
Comments and questions
In your experience, how important are UX skills to CRO programmes? What learning can you share to help our readers?
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