CRO is not UX

Which matters more? CRO or UX? For that matter, what is CRO? What is UX? Do you need both? Should you ignore one and focus on the other? Ignore both?

Let’s begin with some basics to sort this out…

The acronym CRO stands for “Conversion Rate Optimization”, and is, essentially, the practice of increasing the number of people who convert during a visit to your website. When the people who visit your website convert, they do so by taking some action that is desirable to you organization—like placing an order, filling out a lead generation form, donating to a cause, subscribing to an email list, or more. CRO is how your business makes money.

The acronym UX stands for “User Experience”, and is a less specific a term than CRO. But, it generally means what kind of experience do the people using your website have—is it a satisfying experience or dissatisfying? Do people accomplish whatever it is they were intending to accomplish during a visit? To be clear, we’re talking about way more than the aesthetic appeal—experience is everything from the design to the content to the images to the way the code loads within a visitor’s browser. Everything comes together to create a particular experience for your visitor—and hopefully, it is a good experience.

Which Do You Need?

Very often, these two concepts are conflated.

People will tell me they are working on CRO so don’t need to bother with that UX thing. Of course, it is important to remember that every website has a user experience already. It is just a question of what kind of experience that is and whether or not you want to make that experience better for your visitors. So, if you make changes to your website to increase conversions you will alter the user experience, whether you are intentionally focused on UX or not.

Of course other people I’ve talked to realizing that CRO affects the UX. So, they are focused on improving their website’s UX solely for the purpose of increasing conversions. UX serves CRO—we’ll create a better experience to help people have an easier time converting. A good conversion rate must mean that people visiting have at least an okay experience…good conversion rate means good UX too, right???

While CRO and UX are related and important, and while both work interdependently to improve your website, they are separate concepts and require different types of approaches when deciding how to improve your website. Creating a good experience for your visitors isn’t only about increasing conversions. And just because you have a high conversion rate doesn’t mean you necessarily have a good experience. You need to be clear on why you need both of these so that you know which problem you need to solve—do you need to increase conversions or do you need to improve your site’s experience?

You need to be clear on why you need both of these and you need to focus on each separately. By doing so, you know which problem you need to solve—do you need to increase conversions or do you need to improve your site’s experience or do you need to do both? Let me break that down a bit more.

Conversions Are About You

A site’s conversion rate represents a way to measure the economic interests of the organization that is running the website. If you are a small business owner, you are likely very interested in the number of people reaching your website who then fill out a lead generation form. Or, if you are a non-profit, you might be interested in the number of people downloading key resources that drive fundraising or grants. Whatever that exact conversion is, the conversion helps your organization.

To be sure, you want people to be able to convert as easily and effortlessly as possible. You want the experience of converting to not be a painful mess. So, yes, you need to focus on improving the UX of your conversion process and, yes, websites offering a good experience to their visitors tend to have good conversions. This is especially true if the conversion point is something highly desirable to users. For instance, people come to your website to buy a new dining room table, your website gives them a great way to search dining room tables, and your site delivers a great experience helping people purchase that dining room table…people will have a great experience and your company will have lots of conversions.

However, you can also get heavy-handed in pushing conversions on your site for conversions that visitors don’t want. We’ve all visited sites that are coercive and manipulative in encouraging you to convert. Returning to the example of a visitor looking for a dining room table…people came looking for a dining room table, the website beat the visitor over the head to get people to give up their email address in exchange for the dining room table catalog. Sure these sites might end up with a high conversion rate—especially if this website is the only source for a rather desirable product or service. But rarely do people feel satisfied with their visit to their site. Conversions are good, the experience itself isn’t.

How do you know when you are focusing too much on conversions at the expensive of the experience?

There Is More To A Site Than Conversions

No website is all about driving conversions. Sure, you would like for 100% of people to visit your website but, in reality, some percentage of people are going to visit your website for other reasons. You can have many different lead capture systems in place, triggering pop ups every time a visitor clicks or moves the mouse, and animated features calling attention to your greatness. But even at their best, these systems aren’t going to get you to that 100% conversion mark (or often anywhere close).

Some people are simply visiting to research what you offer without converting. Visitors might be there to read resources you published—this is especially true if you write a blog or have a content-heavy website. Others might be considering converting, but just weren’t convinced by your website and chose to convert elsewhere. Others may want to convert at some point, but need a little more time—no amount of high-pressure CRO tactics are going to change their mind.

In other words, a small percentage of your visitors will convert. With work (i.e. CRO), you can likely increase the number of people who do convert. But the greater majority of visitors will never convert. For all of those people who chose not to convert, how do you want them leaving your website? Satisfied by what your site delivered and willing to return in the future? Or irritated and frustrated?

This is where you want to focus on the broader experience people have during the visit to your site. Sure, a satisfying experience with a website that is easy to navigate and understand will help conversions, directly and indirectly, but it will also help people who don’t convert as well. A good experience helps improve the visit for everybody who comes to your website.

Naturally, this raises the question I’ve been asked by many clients: I only care about driving conversions and I don’t really care what happens to the people who are on my site who don’t convert. Put another way, I care about CRO and not UX (or, rather, I only care about UX to the extent it can improve the experience people have while converting). Why should you invest money, time, and energy in creating a good experience for the people on your site who don’t convert? If a visitor isn’t interested, aren’t they just kind of wasting your time?

Where CRO & UX Conflict

Let’s take a common example where CRO and UX conflict: asking for people to give up their email address in exchange for some type of content (like a video or PDF or email). The content people get after the email capture isn’t anything your organization directly monetizes—you don’t get paid for this content, you don’t have ads or sponsorship on it. But, the hope is by getting the person’s email address, you can make money from that person later on since they’ve expressed interest in what you do and you now have a way to contact them.

The CRO approach is to drive more people toward providing their email address. A common approach is to offer just enough of a tease so people are curious and motivated enough to provide their email for more. And with some work, you can get a decent percentage of the people who visit providing their email address. If you deliver strong emails after the fact, this can drive a fair amount of revenue. So far so good for your organization…

…but what kind of experience does this create for people? Balanced correctly, this type of system may help to improve the experience people have on your website. For the people who don’t want to give up their email, your site may still provide enough information in the teaser so that they can still leave satisfied even though they didn’t access that other content. The experience remains strong since the website isn’t forcing people to provide their email. For the people who do provide their email, your website also offers a good experience—you are giving these people an easy way to access the other content and the teaser has given them plenty of reasons to see why they genuinely want it. If the content they get is helpful and useful, people will be satisfied. You have a great user experience. Everybody wins.

In the most extreme cases, though, websites hide virtually almost all the information people want to see, burying it in the extra content leaving only the briefest of teasers that are more sales pitch than helpful information piquing interest and curiosity while still being helpful. In these situations, people are forced to choose between leaving with their question unanswered or giving up their email address in hopes this extra content is worth it. This often seems rather frustrating to a visitor and means many visitors are going to be dissatisfied with your website.

In those extreme cases, the conversion rate might be high since people resign themselves to giving up their email—they really do want an answer to the question and this content you are offering might just contain the answer they seek. But the experience people have on your site will be of poor quality. That is going to lead people to not want to work with your organization or return in the future. Those emails you’ll send them will end up in junk mail, unopened and ignored. In other words, even if you do capture an email, people won’t have a great experience.

Of course, on the other extreme, if you didn’t push people to give you an email address at all and just give away all of your material for free, that might create an incredibly satisfying experience since visitors could answer every question they need. But that great experience comes at the expense of your organization’s success. You have to focus on CRO at some point, but you want to do it in a way that doesn’t create a bad experience for visitors.

CRO & UX Go Together

Trying to separate CRO and UX is tricky given how interrelated they are. You need to create a site with a good experience in order for people to want to visit and, once they are visiting, to stay on your website. If you continually push for conversions, you are almost assuredly going to drive people away. But if you only focus on creating a great UX, ignoring CRO altogether, your organization will almost assuredly never see a return on the investment in the website (assuming you can stay in business).

As you look at your website, you want to consider both the experience people have during a visit and the way your organization is pushing for conversions. With every change you make, ask yourself what impact does this change have on conversions and what impact does it have on a visitor’s experience? Just because you improve the experience doesn’t mean it will be good for conversions and just because you increase conversions doesn’t mean it will be good for the experience people have while visiting your website.

Ideally, you want to improve both. You want people to have a good experience on your site, so that they are able to leave satisfied with a positive outlook on your organization, with a willingness to return to your website in the future. This great experience will often help to make it easier for people to decide to convert as well and, if people do decide to convert, a great experience will help make the conversion process satisfying and easy.

Now time for my conversion pitch… If you are looking for ways to improve conversions while also improving your user experience, please check out my book, Elements of a Successful Website, which digs deeper into both topics with tons of tactical and practical advice.