Conversion Rate is not a User Experience Metric

Imagine you work for a business that offers a line of products. You create a new webpage to help increase sales. The page looks good. It passes through user testing with flying colors. It’s time to launch it to the world. A month later, you check the metrics and your heart sinks. Rather than increasing conversions, you have actually decreased conversions. Fewer people bought your product than they have the previous months. It’s time to panic. You need to explain to your boss what went wrong. You consider going into the office with your hat in hand, trying to explain away the results, offering a dozen recommendations to get the conversion rate back up.

Or you can take another approach. You explain that the new page worked perfectly, and that conversion rate going down is actually a sign that the design is great. Think you can pull that off?

Collecting Data

The past few years have really seen an increase in using metrics to understand the impact of UX. The have been an astounding number of articles and conference talks about data driven design. If you want to understand if your product is any good, you must find a way to measure this.

A popular measurement to collect is conversion rate. This works in many places, especially on sales or sign up. Management wants to know where they are losing people in the funnel. The thinking is that pages where conversion is low have some fundamental design problem. And this is often a pretty good guess. If your customers are abandoning mid-process, it’s often for a very good reason.

But focusing on conversion rate comes at a cost. It may signal where there is a problem, but it’s not really measuring the quality of that particular flow or of a particular page/feature. Conversion rate isn’t a User Experience measurement; it’s a business measurement. It reflects the completion of the process (or lack thereof), but provides no insight into the process itself.

Why is it so frequently collected and used? Simple. It’s easy to collect. It can be gathered automatically through the code or analytics software, so companies collect it. And it does have its value. For UX though, it only serves as a poor proxy for the real information that we are trying to get — clarity, simplicity, and usability. These are much more difficult, if not impossible, to collect through the analytics software. Defining clarity, simplicity, and usability in the interface takes much more nuance and requires talking with actual users.

The problem with focusing on Conversion

If you can’t convert potential customers into actual customers, then a problem does exist. But by itself, it doesn’t tell you why the customers don’t convert. Yes, sign-up (or check-out, or lead sheet, etc…) may be poorly done. But another likely possibility is that the product you are offering does not provide the necessary value to the customer. When you continually try to refine the UI with no impact on conversion, it becomes clear that this is the case. No matter how good you make things for the customers, they still do not see the value in the product. In fact, in some cases, by increasing the clarity of the design, it’s possible that your customers may finally understand that your product does not offer enough value. In these cases, your conversion rate will decrease, despite an improved design.

By increasing clarity, it’s possible your users may finally understand that your product does not offer value.

This is exactly why the UX designer should never have increased conversion as a goal. When the goal is conversion, the designer may end up making different decisions than if the goal is clarity. If you ever wondered how ‘dark patterns’ come about, this is one way. Dark patterns almost always try to make you buy something of low value through obfuscation. The goal is conversion at all costs, regardless of customer need. This may increase sales, but generally at the expense of long-term customer satisfaction.

The goal of any company should be to provide a service or product that has value to potential customers. In doing so, customers will pay the company for that value. It takes an entire team effort — marketing, sales, product team, etc — to help customers see that value. And if you’ve done everything you can to increase the simplicity, clarity, and usability of the design, and customers still aren’t converting, there is only one option: It’s time to start making a better product.