[HOW TO] Have a Gorgeous Website Design AND Great Conversion Rates at the Same Time

Love at first site

A website that gets bad conversion rates is usually the web designer’s fault. At least, that’s what many marketing experts will have you believe.

Web designers do all kinds of crazy things, like put all of the text on your site in images, code your site using nested tables, and *gasp*, the evil of all evils, use flash to develop your site.

Well, worry no more! I’m here to tell you how to get that spiffy website design you’ve always been wanting AND get great conversion rates at the same time. Yes… it can and shall be done!

Here’s how:

Look for a designer who is standards-compliant

Any good web designer or web developer who is worth her salt knows how to design and build a standard’s compliant website. Basically, what this means is that they develop the site using best practices according to the standards set out by the W3C. This includes developing your website using proper (x)html and css.

You don’t need to understand what all of this means, but you do need to be aware of it because it’s vital in order to have a well-performing website that most people can easily browse. If the designer doesn’t mention they code to standards on their website, it would be a good idea to ask before you decide to work with them to be sure.

What you should do now

Make a checklist of the minimum requirements that you should expect from a designer. You can include things like making sure they use (x)html and css to lay out documents and also require that they don’t use tables for layout.

Feed your designer good brain food

Web design is hard to define because it can include so many difficult things. But, if I had to define it using a quick and simple way, I’d call it the act of problem solving. I haven’t met a really good designer yet who doesn’t love sinking their teeth into a big fat juicy problem. It’s what keeps their work interesting, engaging, and worthwhile.


Don’t present the solution, but let them help you come up with one. All you need to do is figure out what your problem is, what the guidelines and restrictions are, and let your hungry web designer have at it. You might be surprised at the result you get when you have a great partner helping you think “outside of the box”.

Here are some examples of succulent problems you can present to your web designer:

  • Our customers are having a hard time figuring out how to order our product. What do you think we can do to solve this?
  • We’ve had some older customers tell us that our text on our website is difficult to read. We love the design, but we need to make this easier for them. How can we solve this?
  • We need to present our new service on the homepage of our site and make it both engaging and easy to understand. But, it must not adversely affect the rest of the offers on the home page. How can we do this?

What you should do now

Do you work with designers regularly and use creative briefs? How about expanding those out to include problems that need to be solved and any restrictions? Perhaps you can also include business objectives and customer behavior data?

Bring your designer into the project as early as possible

Often, what happens during a website design project is that everything gets planned and confirmed and then it’s all thrown at the designer at the end with instructions along the lines of, “Here, do this.”.

There are two problems with this. First, the designer doesn’t have enough knowledge to make good decisions about the direction of your website. As I mentioned above, a good designer loves to help solve problems and you’ve essentially taken their problem-solving capabilities away and replaced them with robot tasks. That’s no fun.

Secondly, it’s possible that much of what you need done is impractical when it comes time to bring it into a functional and user-friendly website. That means your designer and/or developer will have to come back to you and say, “We can’t do x, x, or x”, which means you have to go back to the drawing board and figure things out again.

After being through several projects looping around in circles this way, I can tell you that it’s not a very time or cost-effective way to work. It’s much better to get your whole team involved from the beginning so everyone’s on the same page throughout the whole project.

What you should do now

Develop new processes that allow you to bring your designer in early. For example, if you use a project management system, you can add them in as team members from the start and let them be in on the conversation.

Develop wireframes for your site

I love wireframes. It’s a little embarrassing how much I love them actually. Wireframes are not appropriate for every website, but the benefits to using them are so great that it would be a crime to not mention them here.

Basically, a wireframe allows you to get a general feel of your website layout or landing page without stylistic treatment. They can be simple or complex as long as they get the job done. They might be thought of as similar to a blueprint for a building, but without the exact measurements. Here’s an example of a simple one we prepared for a client.

(Click for full size image)

You may also want to check out Unbounce’s template gallery for ideas and inspiration.

The main benefit of having a wireframe in place is that it allows you to make sure you have everything on the page that needs to be there and in the spot where it needs to be. The hidden benefit is that provides an extra opportunity to communicate objectives. This is a very good thing.

For example, if you want to make newsletter subscriptions a priority on your blog site, putting it on the top right column like we did in the example is a good idea. As soon as your designer understands this and the reasoning behind it, they can find a way to design it well for you.

What you should do now

Invest in a simple wireframing tool like Balsamiq. It allows anyone to put together basic wireframes and layouts quickly and easily.

Share your customer persona and demographic data

In the end, what makes a website design good is if it works for your customer and guides them to do what you’d like them to do. What you prefer or what your designer prefers doesn’t matter much if it’s not getting you conversions or working for your business in other ways.

It's all about Eve

For this reason, it’s extremely important to know exactly who your target audience is and develop at least one persona of your ideal customer.

Much of the time people assume that designers will be more creative if you give them less information because they have more freedom that way. In reality, that’s usually the most detrimental thing you can do because you’re forcing the designer to take random shots in the dark.

However, if you have a clearly defined customer persona, it makes everything so much more straightforward and easy when it comes time to make decisions.

In your persona you can include a photo, a biography, and keywords about their personality and what types of things appeal to them. The sky is the limit really. And if you want to take it a step further, I highly recommend Bryan & Jeffrey Eisenberg’s book “Waiting for Your Cat to Bark?

What stylistic treatment would Eve like? What colors would Eve like? Does Eve use the internet often to buy clothing? It’s all about Eve.

What you should do now

Read your copy of “Waiting for Your Cat to Bark” and let the ideas start flowing!

Getting a gorgeous design and a good conversion rate can be done! Remember, finding a professional designer, offering juicy problems, collaboration, and good communication will get you both.

— Naomi Niles

About Naomi Niles
Naomi Niles is the founder of ShiftFWD, a full service conversion rate optimization agency. She moves businesses forward by working with them to get the most out of what they’ve already got and fixing the things that aren’t working for them. She loves juicy problems almost as much as juicy t-bone steaks. Almost.
» More blog posts by Naomi Niles


  1. Harold Verhagen

    In your third paragraph at the very top:

    Well, worry no more! I’m hear to tell you how to get that spiffy website design you’ve always been wanting AND get great conversion rates at the same time. Yes… it can and shall be done!

    it should be Well, worry no more! I’m HERE

    By the way – we’re just starting our company so our website is in development…

  2. Marcus Miller

    Wise and sage words. :) The problem with many a website designer is that they don’t understand this concept and many website designers are essentially print designers who have bolted on a ‘web design’ service.

    It really is important to get a designer who can work with you to understand your business and your prospects and for most projects profiling and wireframing should always be done.

    We are essentially an SEO company grown out of a website design company and we still offer websites but the SEO strategy for the site is baked in at the very start.

    Then, optimising conversion is the final part of the SEO, design, CRO holy trinity. We find that just mocking up a rough version of the site in WordPress or Joomla can often be enough to really help diagnose potential problems and get an idea of what is going to be on the page, where it is going to be and how we are going to make it as simple as possible for people to do exactly what we want them to.

    Sadly, all to often people want short cuts, don’t want to spend the time developing something that will work so it can be preferable to pick up a client with a failed website behind them who is more open to doing things the right way this time.

    Anyhow, great article Naomi, I will look you up on Twitter.

    All the best,

    • Naomi Niles

      Thanks, Marcus.

      I love how you mention the SEO, design, and CRO as a holy trinity. Ideally, I’d love to see them all working together in conjunction on every website. It’s difficult to do, but possible and well worth it, as you say.

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  4. Angie Schottmuller (@aschottmuller)

    Good design brain food? Love it! That’s worth a whole ‘nother article! =)

  5. Guillaume

    You totally read my mind! This is exactly how web projects should be run to avoid catastrophies… I’ll be sending this post to potential clients to make sure they understand how i want to work :)

  6. Tracy O'Connor

    Naomi, I’m going to bookmark this post and hand it over to friends/acquaintances when they ask for advice about building their own website. I’ve found a great resistance to paying for design when after all you can get a free template that looks just as good!
    I love how your post reminds readers that a website should have a purpose and goals and a great designer can help make those a reality. Many times I think business owners think no further than “need a website” without asking themselves what they want to get out of it and how they will leverage traffic.

    • Naomi Niles

      Thanks, Tracy!

      That’s a very good point. When we consider taking on a new client, we always ask what their goals and objectives are. Many a time we’ve gotten the deer-in-headlights look on that one, lol!

  7. Igor B.

    Nice. I would add that, in addition to sharing demographic data, it can be a good idea to involve your designer in the metrics behind the conversion funnel whose makeover they’re working on.

    Get specific.

    If, for example, a bolder call to action or a security seal increased the # of prospects who jumped to the next step of your conversion process, share that data. If you’re trying to redesign the billing page because abandonment rates are high, share all those #s. When you implement the changes and start to see results, they’ll appreciate that you’re keeping them in tune with the analytics.

    • Naomi Niles

      That’s a great suggestion Igor. I’ve always believed there should be a “why” for all decisions. Backing everything up with specific data is an excellent way to do that.

  8. Kristi Hines

    One way to see if a designer is standards compliant is to take some websites from their portfolio and run them through the W3C validator to see how many errors they have. Or run their portfolio itself through it. Make sure they are practicing what they preach!

    • Naomi Niles

      Good idea, Kristi!

      The only drawback I see is that many sites are in CMS’s nowadays that the client’s manage themselves. So, it’s easy for the client to input content that then invalidates the site code of no fault of the designer.

      But, that definitely applies to the designer’s own portfolio. If they are advertising it, their own site should be squeaky clean!

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  12. Michael Currey

    Love the article… but a competent web designer is a hybrid of art and science…

    If someone puts your text in images then they should be fired and stripped of the title of web designer.

    • James St. John

      Amen to that. I am still amazed at the number of sites I evaluate for prospective clients that have valuable keywords embedded in an image.
      I often tell them, “I try not to be critical of a designer, but…”

    • Naomi Niles

      That’s true. Then they could be a graphic designer. But web designer, they are not.

  13. Chris Burns

    I can attest that people often pick a designer solely based on price. Sometimes you get what you paid for and sometimes you get ripped off. The best option is often something in the middle.. but more often than not they go for the cheapest. They don’t bother to concern themselves with the great point you make in this article.

    • Naomi Niles

      I think this is because a lot of the time, web design is considered a commodity, rather than a professional service. There’s certainly a big difference.

  14. sanjay

    Really diggin’ the article! I will send this to our clients who think web designers are magicians, glad you post this!

  15. Monos con dinamita

    Lucky you! You have designers with interest in business. It’s very hard to find people, specially designers, with enought interest in your business to make them help you to achieve your goals.

    • Naomi Niles

      That’s a good point. I think things are moving in the general direction that professional designers need to have at least a basic interest in business. It’s still hard to find them though, I agree.

  16. James St. John

    You are spot-on about the problem with not giving sufficient guidance to the designer. There is something especially frustrating about a client who says something like, “Your the design expert. Why do you need me to give you ideas?”
    I also like wireframes. I’m a visual learner and there is something about having even the crudest sketch to get the real creative juices flowing. I also find that clients appreciate the ability to see the skeleton of the design. I believe it gives them confidence that you have caught their vision.

    • Naomi Niles

      Yes, that happens a lot. I think web design looks mysterious and magical and in some ways, the creative process sort of is. But, it’s still important for the client to make sure their business goals are taken care of. I think it’s the client’s responsibility to do that.

  17. Shelly

    Great article – I agree 100% with Marcus- designers and developers do not understand the marketing aspect while designing, iam visual designer myself, we are so conditioned to work in certain way that we avoid the bigger picture. Website should work as “Marketing hub” for the company or business. It’s very cost effective marketing tool if planned well, sad part is designer’s role always was to design, but someone who has to give online life to your business need to know about it.

    We recently did post on ” Top 6 question to ask before hiring designer or developer” http://www.57pixelmedia.com/2011/06/top-6-questions-to-ask/

    This article was for all the business to understand the concept behind the website, its just not brochure or email list builder, but way to reach to your market,audience and build long lasting relationship hub.


    • Naomi Niles

      Loved your article, Shelly. Thanks for sharing that! I especially liked your mention about using checklists for quality control. We’ve created quite a few over the years and I agree, they help a lot. Amazing what you forgot to check if you don’t have one, especially near the end of a project when you’re tired.

      • Shelly

        Hi Noami,
        Thanks for the feedback and appreciate your time for reading our post. Please keep coming those great informational articles.


  18. The Outdoor Fire Pit Guy

    This is something I struggle with all the time. Sometimes with the design of my site, conversions are okay, but other times it is pitiful. Hiring a designer at this point (a good one that is) would be rather expensive I imagine.

    • Naomi Niles

      If you hire someone who can make careful assessments and test, you can find ways together to increase your conversions enough to get a good ROI from your time spent. So, it’s really a matter of doing the numbers and then finding the right person to work with.

      Good luck! :)

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