Let me tell you an inconvenient truth – your baby is ugly.

No, I’m not offending your family genes. The “baby” I’m referring to is your website. The design elements that you’ve invested tons of time and money into have created severe problems that are contributing to your low conversion rates. To make matters worse, this predicament was completely avoidable: you have been a willing accomplice in your own undoing.

How did this happen?

You were led down the garden path by your internal creative team or outside interactive agency. Because of the limitations of their unique perspective, you have been forced to sacrifice conversions in the name of “coolness”. So you have actually come to think that your baby is beautiful and have probably grown very fond of it.

Let’s take a look at the origins of this situation, and begin with the end in mind. The “end” should be pretty obvious – to have the most efficient sign-up or registration process possible. This requires putting aside your own corporate and personal needs and considering everything from the perspective of your visitors. Only they matter, and without them you would not have a business. You may have in the past paid lip service to the notion that “the customer is always right”, but have probably not done anything about it.

The key to effective landing page design is clarity.

The purpose of your landing page must be clear. The visitor should be focused on taking a simple path that leads to the desired conversion action. This simple path should arise out of the Zen-like stillness of your landing page.

Worst Practices

Unfortunately most website landing pages are at the opposite end of the spectrum from this desired state. They scream and demand the visitor’s attention. They are a visual assault on the senses that force the visitor to determine which of the many striking visual elements on the page are the important ones.

Graphic designers are rarely trained in maximizing conversion. The best ones pride themselves on their ability to be non-conformists, and their ability to “think outside the box”. They are bored with doing regular production-oriented graphic design work and like to keep themselves entertained by doing something new and interesting on every project.

Here is a short list of the more common website design transgressions:

Wild background colors – Many landing pages use dark and dramatic color themes. Often the background of the page or large sections of it are black or fully-saturated bright colors. Unfortunately these kinds of color choices often create a dark and brooding atmosphere, or imply something so exotic that it would only appeal to teenage male adrenalin junkies.

• Garish text – Page text and headlines are haphazardly placed on the page and often use very large font in high-contrast colors. Font sizes are often enormous, and are further emphasized by the use of edging effects, drop shadows, color transitions and fades, and fill patterns.

• Visual embellishments and flourishes – Even simple page elements such as box edges are emphasized y drop shadows, glow, or other effects. Simple round disks in bullet lists are replaced by colorful graphical checkmarks or other icons. Neutral background space to the sides of the landing page is often filled in with intricate patterns or photographic images.

• Animation or video – All of the other design sins on the page pale in comparison to the aggressive use of motion, animation, and video. Images and text pulsate or revolve, image slideshows use wild fly-in transition effects, intricate animation sequences draw the eye, and full-motion video auto-plays on the page. These attention-grabbing tactics are very powerful. Unfortunately they are rarely tied to the desired conversion goal on the landing page, and only serve to squander a few precious seconds of the limited visitor attention.

• Too many choices – The landing page usually has a single immediate conversion goal of downloading software or activating a free-trial account. However, the landing page tries to be all-things-to-all-people and also includes content about cash bonuses for depositing cash in the account, or other downstream premium services that will likely not be seriously considered by a new visitor who is considering signing up.

Best Practices

It’s not too late for you and your baby. You are not doomed to suffer from low conversion rates.

However it is going to take some “tough love” in the form of keeping your creative team on a very short leash. You should repeatedly ask a simple question:

Does the graphical element in question directly support the desired conversion action?

If the answer is “no”, you should not allow it to clutter up your page. Here is a quick guide to the best practices:

• Clear page headline – Each page on a website (and each stand-alone landing page) must be about something. It must have a clear purpose, and that that purpose must be spelled out in a headline that spans the top of the page.

• Well-defined “action block” – There should be a single place for the visitor to interact with your page and that place should be visually called out with a subtle background color. This action block should draw the eye towards the desired activity on the page. The rest of the page should be plain and visually restrained.

• Sub-headline in your action block – The purpose of the action block must be clearly stated. What are you asking the visitor to do in the action block? What specifically is going to happen within it?

• Clear call-to-action – Within your action block, you must have a single clear call-to-action. The call-to-action must describe what happens next and what the visitor can expect when they are done interacting with the action block. It should not be general or generic like the “Continue” or “Submit” text that is commonly used on websites. The wording of the call-to-action must be from the visitor’s viewpoint, and not your company’s. To put yourself in the visitors shoes try using button text that completes the following sentence – “I want to …”

• Well-designed forms – Very little thought is given to the details of the form. In fact, designing effective forms is a very subtle art, and can have a dramatic effect on conversions. The form information should be grouped into clear high-level section to help the visitor understand their purpose and information flow. Unnecessary fields should be removed from the form. For every field you have to ask yourself “Is this information absolutely necessary to complete the current transaction?” If you cannot answer yes to this question in the affirmative, the field should not be on the form. Don’t leave “nice to have” field on your form, or collect information that can be gathered later in your interaction with your visitor (perhaps even on a subsequent visit).

• Page purpose tied to user intent – Your visitor did not just materialize out of thin air. They came from somewhere. This “somewhere” could have been another page on your site, a search engine result, a link in a blog post, or a banner ad. Regardless of the origin, some kind of expectation had undoubtedly been set. It is critical to match the visitor’s upstream experience and intent to maximize the conversion rate. The way to do this is to align your page with the messaging and promises made upstream, and create a clear information scent trail that makes the visitor feel that they are making progress towards their ultimate goal.

• Proper use of credibility and trust symbols – Unless you have a trusted world-wide brand working behind you, you must overcome the fears and anxieties that the visitor brings with them. Before they will transact with you they must know that you are trustworthy and credible. Several techniques can be used to do this – testimonials & other “social proof”, client or partner company logos, media mentions, and trust seals (such as safe shopping indicators, or guarantees that you offer). Although trust symbols are important, their role is supporting and they should not become an unnecessary distraction that competes with the primary call-to-action.

So if you want to improve your conversion rate, forget about all the “cool” design elements and make your page more boring. You’ll be amazed to see how much easier it is for your visitors to transact with you o