We Live in a Post-Truth World, and Conversion Optimization is Paying the Price

Alright, that title might sound a little apocalyptic. And indeed, CRO is far from the only part of our lives affected by the ‘post-truthiness’ of our environment. But, to me at least, this assertion was a key takeaway from my interview with Dr. Nick Fine, currently Lead User Researcher at Greater London Authority, and self-proclaimed UX architect and consultant ‘unicorn.’

A scholarly chat before Dr. Nick Fine’s talk at our quarterly CRO on Tap event in London’s Glaziers Hall.

So, what did Dr. Fine mean when he told me, ‘We’re living in a post-truth world, where corporate myths and legends are constantly kicked around?’ Essentially, we function in an Internet Age, where anyone with a DSL can assert whatever claims they like, free from the constraints of peer review or verified references. Couple this with an ad monetization system that rewards clicks and views, regardless of the factual accuracy of the content being promoted, and you’ve got a full-fledged disinformation crisis on your hands.

What does all this have to do with website optimization? “CRO practitioners are looking for a playbook, one guide that will tell them what to do to get quick revenue results. But this playbook doesn’t exist,” explained Nick. They end up looking for this holy grail online, where advertisers are more than happy to provide quick fixes and so-called facts and figures to help them work CRO magic. The problem is that most of it happens to be spurious.

And there’s another issue. “CRO, when it came about, was originally the domain of e-commerce heads of marketing and digital. They have since frequently remained those that lead CRO teams, and yet their way of thinking often hasn’t evolved an inch. Dinosaur mentalities continue to micro-manage and limit CRO and UX teams, very much to the detriment of performance.” In other words, the opinion of the ‘legacy HIPPO’ is overrepresented, at the expense of true user research professionals.

And this brings us to the heart of the issue: the user has been removed from User Experience.


No More ‘User’ in User Experience

The user has very much been removed from the profession of User Experience and CRO. One part of my job is affecting change management with my clients, changing C-level expectations. User needs must be the center of an optimization strategy, not short-cuts that promise to increase revenue. And indeed, UX that truly puts the user first will drive conversions, and by extension, profits.

As a UX architect and consultant, Dr. Fine is well versed in both researching user needs, as well as designing the interfaces that best serve those needs. The bane of his existence is CRO setups in which ‘user needs’ are determined without ever consulting or observing a representative sample of actual users.  When CRO came into its own and started to gain traction in digital strategies, the temptation was to hire a jack-of-all trades, master of none ‘CRO specialist’. They would often go on to apply a thin layer of optimization to a website, only ever tweaking cosmetic elements like CTA color or headline copy, instead of digging into the structural issues. To make matters worse, they often go on the (unfounded) assumptions of their bosses about what their end users wanted. As Dr. Fine explained,

Most people think that CRO is the domain of the web analyst or the data science team. But conversion is a function of your entire digital department, and it starts with your user experience people, researchers and designers. They are building the car. If you want it to go five miles faster, they all need to be working together. CRO changes can’t just be superficial, like the car’s paint job.  You need to make the big fundamental changes to address user needs, like getting at the information architecture of a site, the frame of the car.

So, what can CRO teams do to address these issues? Get back to science.

Science is a Way of Thinking. And CRO Practitioners Should be Scientists.

During the CRO on Tap talk that followed our interview, Dr. Fine made it clear that, if there was a single quote to remember from his presentation, it was one paraphrased from the eminent Carl Sagan:

Science is more than a body of knowledge, it is a way of thinking.

If there’s a ‘cure’ for the current state of CRO practice, it’s to apply a scientific way of thinking. Why?

The scientific method is a rigorous way of identifying problems and testing to find accurate solutions. In a UX or CRO context, it allows the practitioner to identify genuine user needs, not practitioner assumptions. It also allows them to cut out their own biases, and those of the users themselves. It allows the CRO methodology to be cleaned up and frees practitioners of functional errors that muddy the waters and invalidate results.

The ‘statistical reliability’ of CRO tools is part of the picture, but again, we’re talking here about the entire process of how CRO ideas are ideated, tested, validated and rolled out. It’s not just running an A/B test with 99% reliability within the black box of any given CRO Platform.

Being a scientific CRO practitioner is, in general terms, being objective, rigorous, humble and impartial. Or, you can follow Neil deGrasse Tyson’s five rules:

Question authority: no idea is true just because someone says so, including me

Just because you read it online, just because your boss say they’re sure about it, or just because an important influencer promotes it, does not make it true. Testing it with science will make it true.

Think for yourself: question yourself, don’t believe anything just because you want to, and know that believing something doesn’t make it so

If you’ve never heard of ‘cognitive biases’ before, it might be worth reading up on them a bit. As Dr. House quips, we lie to others and we lie to ourselves. In other words, despite our best intentions, we’re not rational decision-making begins, we’re prone to error – or bias – in our judgments.

Test ideas by the evidence gained from observation and experiment: if a favorite idea fails a well-designed test, it’s wrong – get over it.

I’m sure we’ve all been a victim of this one – wanting so badly for our precious idea to turn out to be a brilliant one. Hubris is always detrimental to your CRO results.

Follow the evidence wherever it leads. If you have no evidence, reserve judgement.

Convinced that pop-up is a bad idea? Sure that color palette is a bad choice? You don’t know anything until you start to follow your evidence. No matter how many years of experience or number of degrees you have.

Remember, you could be wrong.

This one speaks for itself.

We may indeed be living in a post-truth world – or at least, a partially post-truth world. But science is all about distinguishing fact from fiction. As a process, a method and a way of thinking holistically about CRO programs, science might just be the antidote – if all of us CRO practitioners would just embrace it.

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