Optimizing Conversion Rates: It’s All About Usability


In eCommerce usability improvements usually have a huge impact on conversion rates. However, usability doesn’t only mean better visual guide or better site hierarchy. It also means a better communication with potential customers using a professional, trustworthy design, delivering the right information at the right time and communicating with users instead of throwing ad-slogans at them.

In this article you’ll learn what to consider when preparing a perfect landing page for your product, how to focus user’s attention on the most important parts of your sites and also how you can use videos and user ratings to improve your conversion rates.

Professional Design Builds Trust

The most important rule for website usability is to keep it simple. Make your links speak for themselves. Make the structure of your website predictable. Provide clear and visible feedback. Comfort your visitors and make it hard for them to do serious mistakes.

However, while these (quite obvious) guidelines may help your readers to get a solid understanding of how your site works, they will not necessarily lead to more sales. Besides, you may have some goals that conflict with this paradigm of simplicity, the most important of which are probably up-selling and cross-selling.

Build Trust and Credibility

When it comes to building customer’s trust in your company, a professional, trustworthy design becomes crucial. In the Web, people are very likely to mistrust online-business, so you better make sure that you appear credible and serious. Inkd.com31 does just that with a professional look, a solid grid-based layout and following classic usability conventions.


For everything you do on your website, keep in mind that the user always has to be in control of what’s happening. This holds true for expert users, who will use your internal search to quickly access products they are interested in. They may want to be able to filter search results in a certain way. And it holds equally true for the users-newbies, who wants to see proof of the teasers on your home page and will likely use your primary menu to navigate.

When a user is attracted to the advertising campaign of a product, you have no alternative but to lead that user directly to the product page itself. The next click after that should lead the user directly to the purchase page. By the way, why should you use a shopping cart in this case, if the user wants to buy only one product? The cart becomes totally useless and creates more steps in the sales process. With each additional step, the risk of cart abandonment increases.

The rule of thumbs: if a user finds a product through your internal search engine, he or she shouldn’t have to click more than twice to find essential information about the product.

Deliver the right information at the right time

Speaking of good information, another important rule for leaving users in control is delivering the right information at the right time, whether the information is related to the product, shipping, credit card security risks, privacy or what have you. Because of the large amount of information you can deliver to the user, you need to sort it by priority.

Delivering the right information at the right time is important. Scribbles5: before users type in any data, the site informs them about payment methods, privacy and purchase opportunities for educational purposes. However, both privacy data and the “education”-link could be given more visual weight on the page.

The user will have certain questions at each stage of the shopping process; focus on the answers to these questions, and make them the most prominent on the page at that time. Additional useful information can be “hidden” behind a hyperlink (as the “education” link in the Scribble-example above).

Don’t advertise, lead the users

Be careful about using graphic elements to prioritize information; don’t make them look like advertisements. People tend to overlook page elements that look like ads. Of course, you can illustrate the advantages of your products with big pictures — really big pictures. Jakob Nielsen even recommends using full-screen-sized views: “If I click on a product image on a product page, I am certainly asking for a bigger version of that image. And as I intentionally clicked, I’m able to wait for the really great picture. I’m not only able to but I even expect to wait for some loading delay.”

The paradigm of simplicity means that store designers have to be very careful experimenting with new techniques such as AJAX and rich Internet applications based on Flash. If you use these, you will have to run usability tests. New studies show that many people are still unfamiliar with functions like dragging and dropping and do not know what words like “tagging” mean.


Newsberry87 uses a beautiful layout with attracitve design elements. However, it fails to attract readers to sign up for the service immediately – users need time to find the obscure, modest “sign up”-button. How much time do you need to find it? Probably making the button stand out would work better in this case.

Designing for the Web9
Be careful about using visual elements to prioritize information; don’t make them look like advertisements. Good example: Five Simple Steps1110

Mark Boulton’s Five Simple Steps1110 does a good job of focusing users’ attention to purchasing options while not making them look like advertisements. Clear visual design and layout reinforce the sales funnel effect.

Getting back to the questions that customers pose, one of their big questions on landing pages is, “What next?” Take a look around the Web. You’ll find tons of stores that hide their order buttons or label them with ambiguous terms. For example, the German store Werbemittelguide12 includes the terms “Order or ask for an offer” on a single button. While distinguishing between direct orders and solicited offers gives users more control, placing these two different ideas on one button is confusing. In this particular case, clicking on the button does nothing other than put the product in your cart. And the cart is positioned in the bottom-left corner: a clear violation of user expectations.

Highlight What’s Important And Use Proper Wording

Go to the website www.guut.de13, look for a second and then close your eyes. Open them again for a second and then close again. What did you notice? The big product picture on the left? The countdown? The huge orange order button? The label on the button says “Order now” — a couple of years ago, a lot of Web designers would have regarded that as outrageous, outdated design. Today, it’s state of the art.

“Tell people clearly what they should do next,” says US e-commerce expert Peter Blackshaw14. What works with online shopping also holds true for online communication, downloading a PDF brochure or any other form of conversion. Make the most important option the biggest. Links to “More information,” “Details” and “Technical data” are also important, but less important than the conversion itself. They should be displayed in a smaller font or in less aggressive colors.

The US agency MarketingExperiments learned first-hand how strongly wording can influence conversion rates. It tested its own campaign, which aims to convert readers to paid subscribers. Every single element of the email campaign was tested. The button that triggered conversions was labeled “Continue here,” which at first glance would seem to work perfectly. The outcome of the test surprised even experienced experts. A new button labeled “Continue to article” converted 3.3% better than the first; and a third version, labeled “Click to continue,” convinced almost 10% more users.

Coolest Gadgets15
After inserting an Amazon-style order button, Al Carlton doubled sales on his website16.

Video Is Often A Silver Bullet

It is becoming common sense for product descriptions and product pages to include videos that show the products in action. In Germany, almost 60% of all retailers surveyed by the BVDW indicated that they planned to increase their efforts with video.

The bike retailer Fahrrad.de17 invited sales agents from all brands to its new studio, which was built solely for producing videos for its website. The sales agents were advised to explain why their products were better than others. And most brands sent not only sales people but also cross-country world champions to stand in front of the camera. Some retailers might argue that their products are not suited to online video. By now, though, we can quickly find many products that are being advertised with online videos.

Design Trends 200918
Both Getbackboard.com19

Design Trends 200920
…and GoodBarry.com21 use prominent video blocks on their start pages. Videos are often used to quickly explain what the product is all about and what advantages it can bring to the customers.

What is very important to understand is that the videos don’t have to be full-throttle studio productions with enormous budgets. In many cases a hand-made personal video will do. It may even perform better than a traditional advertising video because it’s more honest. Websites that push new concepts, like eBags.com22, try to build community websites around their product videos, and users can vote on which video they like best.

A very nice idea was used by Pleo, a company that sells a kind of robot pet that looks like a dinosaur. Pleo hit the sidewalks in certain cities, put the dinosaurs on the ground and shot people’s reactions. You could hardly advertise with more authenticity.

And don’t let anyone fool you, there is only one format for online video these days: Flash. Only Flash allows video to be seamlessly embedded onto a Web page and integrated with other elements on the page. Because of YouTube’s success, most users are able to play back Flash video. And producing video is really not expensive, even if it is farmed out to an agency.

Don’t Underestimate The Importance Of User Ratings And Customers Reviews

This may be one of the most important topics of all these days. In tourism, about 60% of all travellers base their decisions on online research. They visit ratings websites to find the best destinations and hotels, free from the marketing overtures of the companies themselves. Similar websites can be found in the electronics and other industries.

This leads us to two questions:

  1. Should store owners build their own ratings system?
  2. How should one deal with criticism?

The first answer is pretty simple. In most cases the answer is, “No.” And there are a lot of reasons for that. The most important reason is that no retailer is trustworthy in this way. People would know that commercial interests are behind any recommendation; the cost and effort to maintain such systems are immense; and only the biggest websites attract enough users to build a valuable rating system. If a website owner decides to build his own system, he must provide the ratings right in the spot where users expect it: beside the products.

Take Thomas Cook Travel23 an example. After a lot of research, it built its own user ratings system, which is now one major filter in its internal search. An external system like Idealo.de24 (or PriceGrabber.com2725) might be a better alternative. Idealo gathers ratings from a lot of platforms and aggregates them with tests and reviews from websites and magazines. The plattform itself is neutral because individual retailers cannot influence the content.


The second question is also easily answered, but the consequences are significant. When criticism comes its way, a company would do well to leave it on its system, as long as it isn’t obscene and doesn’t violate laws. This is what experts recommend. It is a very sensitive issue for retailers, their suppliers, the producers and brands, all of whom are trying to cooperate for mutual benefit. If you face this kind of criticism, forward it to the relevant partner and allow them to respond.

Stay Tuned

This article is the second part of our 3-part-series “Optimizing Conversion Rates”. The third (and last) part will be published next week.

  1. Optimizing Conversion Rates: Less Effort, More Customers28
  2. The Conversion Is All About Usability29
  3. Use Conversions To Generate More Conversions30

Hence, you may want to subscribe to our RSS-feed31 Subscribe to our RSS-feed32 and follow us on Twitter33 Follow us on Twitter34. Any ideas or suggestions? Comment on this article!


  1. 1 http://inkd.com/
  2. 2 http://inkd.com/
  3. 3 http://inkd.com/
  4. 4 http://www.atebits.com/scribbles/buy/
  5. 5 http://www.atebits.com/scribbles/buy/
  6. 6 http://newsberry.com/
  7. 7 http://newsberry.com/
  8. 8 http://newsberry.com/
  9. 9 http://www.fivesimplesteps.co.uk/
  10. 10 http://www.fivesimplesteps.co.uk/
  11. 11 http://www.fivesimplesteps.co.uk/
  12. 12 http://www.werbemittelguide.com/php/page/shop/index.php?IDENT=1:20:2&id=629&complete=true&SPRACHE=
  13. 13 http://www.guut.de/
  14. 14 http://www.clickz.com/showPage.html?page=3628604
  15. 15 http://www.coolest-gadgets.com/
  16. 16 http://www.coolest-gadgets.com/
  17. 17 http://www.fahrrad.de
  18. 18 http://www.getbackboard.com
  19. 19 http://www.getbackboard.com
  20. 20 http://www.goodbarry.com
  21. 21 http://www.goodbarry.com
  22. 22 http://www.ebags.com
  23. 23 http://www.thomascook.com/
  24. 24 http://www.idealo.de
  25. 25 http://www.pricegrabber.com
  26. 26 http://www.pricegrabber.com
  27. 27 http://www.pricegrabber.com
  28. 28 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/05/05/optimizing-improvig-conversion-rates-less-effort-more-customers/
  29. 29 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/05/15/optimizing-conversion-rates-its-all-about-usability/
  30. 30 http://www.smashingmagazine.com/2009/05/23/optimizing-conversion-rates-less-effort-more-customers/
  31. 31 http://rss1.smashingmagazine.com/feed/
  32. 32 http://rss1.smashingmagazine.com/feed/
  33. 33 http://twitter.com/smashingmag
  34. 34 http://twitter.com/smashingmag

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The german journalist writes on webdesign and usability subjects since 1994. He worked in one of the first editorial portal teams at a forgotten service called EuropeOnline and co-authored ProSieben online which ist now one of the biggest media sites in Germany. Puscher wrote the first German book on Usability, his current publication "Leitfaden Web-Usability" is on sale these days.

  1. 1

    Nice list. Point 2 has a typo! Highight What’s Important And Use Proper Wording. Should be highlight

  2. 2

    Now if I can get my “know it all” boss/owner to understand this maybe we could get more returning customers than a constant flow of new ones.

    Thanks for the great info!

  3. 3

    Great article, some useful tips =]

  4. 4

    Great article once again!
    Really useful for the website i’m working on at the moment

  5. 5

    Extremely useful article…thanks SM!

  6. 6

    hmm, i like this ‘The most important rule for website usability is to keep it simple’ .. thanks great article

  7. 7

    Wow-this will be one of those posts that I will come back to 500 times. I love finding new how-tos! Thank you!

  8. 8

    some nice tips..Obviously not enough but useful to take care. Thanks Frank for the write up!!

    DKumar M.

  9. 9

    More of this please! :)
    Really enjoy to read these kind of posts.

    thanx SM

  10. 10

    Great article, but please copy-edit >.< It’s super-frustrating to see a good article on usability lose credibility points for using “The sales agents where advised to explain” instead of “The sales agents were advised to explain.” I also noticed at least one rhetorical question ending with a period.

    It’s sloppy; it also makes it hard to pass this on to the bosses.

    (SM) Thank you, the mistakes are corrected now.

  11. 11

    Good article, but too many typos man!

  12. 12

    Thanks for the excellent article. Some really useful knowledge, and I look forward to the next 2 in the series!

  13. 13

    Martijn van Vreeden

    May 15, 2009 10:51 am

    Excellent article! The importance of user ratings for conversions cannot be emphazised enough. I am already looking forward to part 2.

  14. 14

    thank you, thank you, thank you : repeat; …

  15. 15

    Looks like Idealo.de doesn’t read SM.

  16. 16

    Hey thanks for selecting us! We really appreciate the kind words!

    Kelly Smith

  17. 17

    Joshua Greenough

    May 15, 2009 4:30 pm

    Great tips and when we started as a smaller business we were always looking to knock out as many projects with one implementation as we can. This is the biggest advantage that we have gotten from multiple product implementations was from Google Analytics and Website Optimizer.

    We offer a review platform that is more fully featured solution than PriceGrabber’s stars and comments. Check out our SMB platform PowerReviews Express where you can get all kinds of features with one installation. You can get user generated images & video on your site at the same time. We also offer email marketing which is why I suggest trying to kill a few birds with one stone.

    Also we 100% agree with showing negative feedback. You can respond to it but you have to show it or users will notice and then it is worse when they spot you trying to do a cover-up. So your advice is right on.

  18. 18

    Permana Jayanta

    May 15, 2009 5:32 pm

    Thank you for the good article …. I like reading article like this …

  19. 19

    Nice post, cheers!

  20. 20

    Every site owner should read this. Clients are often so focused on using “innovative” design, that usability is given a low-priority. Showing how usability impacts effectiveness–and the bottom-line–is a great way to to help them understand how important this really is to the functionality of a site.

  21. 21

    all trivial rubbish.. sorry, fail.

  22. 22

    Thanks for the article. Some wonderful thoughts. I wonder if the exact same line of thinking would be used for a lead generation site. (So many usability discussions are focused on purchases for product or online service.) Where the end goal is to have a user submit their email address or call to talk to someone.

  23. 23

    A good article with key points

  24. 24

    Internetová agentúra

    May 16, 2009 7:41 am

    Nice, but should be more educational or specialized. I mean is likeable to read but on informative level. I am enjoying the third part! Thanks.

  25. 25

    I love these articles. Keep it up!

  26. 26

    We have always had a big discussion over the sales strategy and the content strategy, I think this article puts it to rest. Usability should come first. Thank your very much for the article we will surely use it. COngratulations on your content I declare myself totally addicted to your site.

  27. 27

    So nice again.

  28. 28

    Thanks for using Newsberry as an example. While I agree that you should always lead the user, we’ve found (through testing) that people want to know more about pricing and plans first. For this reason, we make the sign up link more obvious on the pricing page and let people explore the features on home page.

    With that said, our Beanstalk product is the opposite. Most people just want to sign up and start playing with it.

    We’ll be doing a lot of A/B testing soon to help confirm our findings and learn even more about the process.

    Thanks again!

  29. 29

    typo: In eCommerce usability improvements usually have a huge impact on conversion reates.

  30. 30

    “This article is the second first part of our 3-part-series “Optimizing Conversion Rates”. The third part will be published next week, and the last part will be published the week after that.”

    OK I´m confused, which part is this and how many parts are there exactly??

  31. 31

    Great article. Will be implementing some of these suggestion on my site.

  32. 32

    Impressive!! thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    I’m new to DIGG, sometime I can’t believe how much effort you put just to write this article for us, strangers(??) hehe.
    Thanks alot !

  33. 33

    “This article is the second first part of our 3-part-series “Optimizing Conversion Rates”. The third part will be published next week, and the last part will be published the week after that.”

    huh? ;)

  34. 34

    Very interesting article to be read…

  35. 35

    Very Interest Article to me.


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