Daniel Kirby
Daniel Kirby 15 April 2016

Why Charles Darwin Would Hate Your Web Site

Employing scientific design principles will make your website work much harder for you over time. Marketing Technology Association co-founders Ben Salmon and Dan Kirby give you some simple tips to get started.

Digital marketing is a dog eat dog world, the survival of the fittest. Somewhat Darwinian. So why don’t more people take a leaf out of Darwin’s scientific notebook and use evolution as a way to thrive in a competitive environment?

The world is changing faster, and nowhere faster than online with digital disruption coming out of nowhere driven by highly-funded smart young things. Yet often brand’s web sites seem to (as Alan Partridge would say) “revolve” rather than “evolve”. They are produced, launched with fanfare, then sit there while content is updated and the odd new section added.

As long as the Google Analytics graph goes up and to the right, then everyone seems pretty chilled. That’s until a few years later and the design looks terribly dated and the agency gets a new brief. In internet evolution terms this is like an amoebic frog trying to compete with a sharp eyed and hungry harrier hawk. You have to evolve faster, otherwise you’re the one that’s lunch.

evolutionary insight
The Galapagos turtle helped Darwin decide on evolution.

Darwin would be shaking his head at this lack of evolutionary insight. Why? Because you’re most likely losing money and frustrating your customers, while letting the competition get the edge. Your site needs to improve and evolve with it’s users as well. People are browsing on many different devices, learning new user interface patterns daily and ultimately becoming less forgiving of bad web experiences:

“A wired, connected world is all that Millennials have ever known and they will demand industry to work under these trends.” 

From working on projects for brands like BBC Children in Need, IKEA and Honda we’ve found a way of approaching your web site’s development based on the scientific method. It works really well, and is repeatable and scalable. We think that web design needs some science, so grab your lab coat and goggles – and let’s get to work.

Design is guesswork

It’s worth watching this one minute video of Richard Feynman – world renowned scientist and Nobel Prize winner – in which he explains The Scientific Method:

Feynman says “first, we guess it”. Now (and this is the point when we may need protection from angry bearded chaps…) design – even design by an experienced designer, complete with user feedback and best practice – is guesswork. Until people – at scale – have used your design (not in a lab, but on the train or watching TV or whatever) then you do not know how well it works. It is a hypothesis. And you have yet to prove your hypothesis.

As Feynman says (our emphasis):

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are who made the guess, or what his name is… If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Isn’t that almost exactly what happens with a web design? It’s beautiful, all the team love it, it’s fixed in the brand guidelines….but maybe it’s wrong. Or maybe not wrong, just not as effective as it could be – but by the time you find out (if you ever actually do) then you’ve wasted a lot of web traffic.

Treat failure like a scientist

Unlike the traditional “monolithic” approach to web design, marketers need to get comfortable with small, focused, iterative changes based on data. This working method should become ‘what you do’ every day, in effect treating failure like a scientist would – a data point on the way to success.

This approach to web design evolution has three distinct stages in our experience. If some of this sounds simple, it’s because it is – it’s just that not many people actually get around to doing it.

Step 1: In the beginning

Before you do anything, and assuming you have an existing web site, you need to understand where your digital world is at. By looking at your site traffic, and more advanced analytics like heatmap data, and undertaking qualitative discussion with site users, you achieve a more rounded picture.

How exactly do customers buy from you? What parts of the site are confusing? How is the copy written (remember that ‘copywriting is interface design’)? What do you actually WANT the customer to do? What are customers frustrated with? What could we do to make customer’s lives easier?

Once you have a good grasp of what you want, and what the real experience of your web site is, you can start the evolutionary task of marrying them together.

Step 2: Man’s red fire

It’s fine knowing what to do – but that list may be a very long list (it usually is). And undoubtedly your budget isn’t similarly endless (no-one’s is). So rather than spending money on web design or user experience ‘improvements’ and hoping for the best, we prefer to narrow our options upfront.

We do this by focusing our resources based on the business priorities, to do the right things in the right order, from the perspective of profit or site objectives.

How do you find this out? By mapping your sales funnel you can do some math on the value of each person in each part of the funnel. Not all site visitors are created equal (for example, people dropping out at the checkout would usually warrant more urgent attention than people bouncing from your home page). If you understand the value of each customer at each stage, you can plot design improvements against the customer’s potential value. You therefore can see how to achieve more bang for your buck.

This means that you can prioritise your workload with far greater precision, focusing only on the activity which should get the best results most quickly. Success breeds success, and a better performing site will unlock more budget for future investment.

Step 3: Eat, sleep, test, repeat

Wearing your scientific lab coat, you will by now be expecting to start running tests. And this is when you do. In Step 2 we have identified the activity to prioritise, in Step 3 we measure its success.

You can measure any aspect of your site, and employ a variety of methods to do so. For example, you may want to increase click-through on the home page to visit a promotions page. You can test this by A/B testing (that means sending traffic simultaneously to two different pages) a red button and a blue button. Data will show you which performs best, then you move all traffic to the best performing colour.

We’d recommend focusing on what are called (in Silicon-Valley-startup-land) ‘actionable metrics’. That means data that you do something about when you learn of it. This again requires focus – as you should only have a handful of actionable metrics, the most important data points for the business at this time. Any more than that and you risk drowning in data: too much noise and not enough signal.

We like to create “Measurement Scorecards” for clients that focus and record results in a single page, and that can be evolved themselves over time to address the different recommendations identified in Step 2, or based on test results.

To summarise this as have broken the process down further.

Identify the area of the site with the biggest opportunity:

step one

Review the results to identify amount of opportunity left for the initiative.

step two

Identify the next step. Option 1, move onto the next area or Option 2, further optimise the existing initiative.

step 3

The appliance of science

With resources continually strained and with an ever-lasting list of web fixes, is it really possible for organisations to implement this kind of approach? Yes it is, and here’s why.

We worked with a leading online grocer that was struggling with customer sign ups. They knew if they could get customers to shop with them five times then they became loyal customers. But a significant drop-out rate of people signing up – let alone shopping once – was a major roadblock for the sustainable growth of high value customers.

We mapped the customer journey through the entire website from homepage, to sign up, to the shopping experience itself. We then compiled a list of recommendations all linked to each stage of the web site journey. This allowed us to identify exactly what the business benefit would be, by correcting the parts of the customer journey which most directly linked to specific design proposals.

The results? After implementing the changes the drop off rate reduced significantly and increased the sign up rate by 50%.


One small step for marketers

With such great potential results, the question shouldn’t be “can I do this?” but “when can I start?”. Like any Darwinian journey it starts with a single – simple – step. If you follow our 3 stages above then you will be on the path to a more scientifically managed web site.

It’s a brave new world out there, but there are sound ways to handle this dynamic digital landscape. Look at the the customer journey to create what the ideal picture could look like in terms of user experience. Quantify what needs to be fixed first to have the biggest impact on the business. Validate those changes and keep changing them until the tweaks have optimised that part of the customer journey. Then move onto the next part of the customer journey to continue to make a beneficial change for the business.

These are principles which are established best practice in every tech startup in the world – because they focus resources, and make your offer better and better for your most important person – your customer.


Written by:
Ben Salmon & Dan Kirby

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