When it comes to improving user experience, Conversion Rate Optimisation (CRO) is often viewed as a go-to solution for many businesses. However, it may not be as effective as we think. In fact, it may even be a poor driver of improved user experience.
To understand this, let’s take an analogy from a department store. Imagine a store manager who is solely focused on increasing sales. They achieve this by placing all their best-selling products in the front of the store. While this may indeed increase sales for a short term, it’s not necessarily the best way to improve the long-term overall experience for the customer. A better approach would be to focus on creating an efficient, persuasive customer journey, with products and services promoted and displayed in a manner that speaks to specific needs of each individual customer.
Similarly, CRO often focuses, by definition on increasing conversions and revenue in isolation, rather than on improving the hollistic user experience. It’s business-centred design. It undeniably frequently results in the commercial dopamine hit of a higher conversion rate, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the user has had a better experience, a consequence which perhaps imperceptibly begins to erode the brand and the opportunity.
Furthermore, by relying too heavily on iterative solutions, without deep insight into well-researched human-centred design, businesses find themselves trapped in the Local Maximum Problem. This is where incremental improvements reach a peak and fail to achieve further progress towards a better outcome. In the context of CRO, this means that businesses may become stuck in a cycle of making small tweaks to their website, trying in effect to iterate their way out of a problem, rather than addressing the deeper, underlying issues that may be impacting user experience.
Consider also perhaps CRO’s greatest flaw. The high likelihood that the data it’s based on lacks integrity and that it’s a poor predictor of future behaviour (a topic I have visited before). The former is due to inconsistent implementations of tracking and the fallibility of those implementing it. As for the latter, even when the data is accurate, it’s unlikely ever to be an effective predictor of human behaviour. Psychologists insist that to be predictable, a given behaviour has to occur rather often, but in digital web journeys, the behaviour may be infrequent and intermittent. The prediction is most accurate if based on a short time frame, but in digital web experiences, the time frames vary wildly and unpredictably. The predicted situation must be a close match for the past situation that the observation was made from, yet in digital, these situations vary significantly across devices and contexts. The behaviour must not have been influenced by negative or corrective feedback, which of course can never be identified or eliminated through web metrics. Finally, the person must be generally consistent with their behaviours, which is impossible outside of empirical settings.
Returning to the methodological problem, privacy regulations like GDPR also compromise at least some of the data that CRO is based on. The technical complexities of tracking across multiple devices and with more user autonomy in terms of privacy awareness make it increasingly difficult to gather accurate data and to confidently assert that it is so.
So where does CRO, when applied lead us? Let’s take a look at Booking.com, a site that uses CRO extensively. Critics have pointed out that the site’s aggressive marketing tactics can lead to a cluttered and confusing user experience. The site bombards users with pop-ups and urgency messages, which may increase conversions but do little to improve the overall user experience. Even anecdotally most of us will have expressed disdain for it’s ‘thirsty’ tactics and a sense of grubbiness that there must be a better way to find a hotel in Chicago in September. Booking.com’s focus on conversions means that it prioritises short-term gains over long-term customer satisfaction. While this may lead to a higher conversion rate, it can also lead to frustrated and disappointed customers who feel like they’ve been coerced with deceptive patterns or simply made to consider way too much along the journey, resulting in resentment and decision fatigue.
In conclusion, while CRO may seem like a quick-fix solution for improving user experience, it may not be as effective as we think. Can we ever really look away from an approach that focuses on well-researched human-centred design, creating a better customer journey from end to end, one that addresses the underlying issues that may be impacting user experience?
Rather than simply increasing conversions, businesses should aim to create a positive and memorable user experience that leads to long-term customer satisfaction and loyalty, something the most successful and loyal bricks-and-mortar brands have known for some time.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author, John Gibbard, in a personal capacity and do not necessarily represent those of the author’s employer or any other associated individuals or organisations. The information provided in this article is for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as professional advice.