Redesigning Your Website for Conversion Optimization & User Pathways

Never redesign your website without understanding how users navigate your current one. Use existing analytics and behavioral data to funnel users precisely where you want them.

Have you ever made the mundane observation that rivers and streams always flow along the same winding and indirect channels, year after year? Apparently, this is due to the fact that gravity is pulling the water down, having the effect of attracting each section of river to its nearest relative basin—whether or not that basin is in the direction of the river’s final destination. This process occurs continuously and simultaneously to every molecule of H20 in the river, until—finally—they all reach ocean. Science—crazy, I know.

The way people interact with websites is similar. Certain sections of a website have more “gravity” than others, consistently attracting more users than other sections. And, just like how rivers don’t flow straight towards the ocean, these sections might not necessarily be the ones at which you want visitors to end up. Fortunately for web designers, redesigning a website is easier than changing the earth’s topography. We call the “rivers” by which people navigate websites "user pathways", and this post will explain the process of most effectively rerouting those pathways to get users to your site’s most valuable “basins” (i.e., conversions).

The process of designing a website shares characteristics with the design of many other human interfaces: operating systems, bike paths, museums, libraries, highway systems, and even entire cities. And while website designers, architects, and urban planners have little else in common, all of their jobs require them to strike a delicate balance between two important factors: The way people actually interact with their interface, and the way they want people to interact with it.

Those of us in the digital marketing business call the latter factor conversion. Getting visitors to convert should be a large factor in any site design or redesign. Of course, conversion could mean any number of things to different companies. More obvious examples include online retailers whose goal is to get visitors to purchase something through the e-commerce section of their site. Other possible goals could be subscription sign ups, downloads, visits to contact page, and even phone calls if you have tracking set up properly.

This brings us to the first of our best practices for effective user pathway design:

1. Clearly define conversion for your company and/or website.

All too often, websites are designed with no real goal in mind—and it shows. So I will state the obvious: don’t skip this step. ‘Nuff said.

The next step is also crucial to effectively directing your website’s visitors.

2. Identify and understand the discrete steps involved with user conversion.

Almost no conversions can be completed in one step. People probably won’t subscribe to your updates without reading a post. And they probably won’t read a post with visiting the homepage. And they probably won’t visit the homepage without being drawn in by effective keywords. Understanding how a typical user would reach your intended goal is essential to optimizing that process on your website.

With a clear goal in mind and conversion steps identified, many designers are tempted to dive right in to the design process. However, by doing so they skip an important step and run the risk of learning the hard way that even the most famous movie lines aren’t always true: Just because you build it, does not mean they will come.

To do your job better than most sidewalk planners (see photo), make sure you…

3. Research how users are already interacting with your website.

In this process, you should ask yourself questions like: What are my site’s most accessed pages? Where do most users enter my site? Where do they go from there? What do users click on when they’re on the homepage? Tools such as Google Analytics’ “Content Drilldown,” “Visitor Flow,” and “In-Page Analytics” are very useful in this research. The more gung-ho among us could even go so far as heat mapping and cursor tracking.

More often than not, there will be discrepancy between the way a site is being used and the way the designer intended it to be used. But how can you address this discrepancy?

To understand the best approach, think of how you would redirect passengers on a large boat. One way would be to take another boat, set it on the newly intended course, and shout at the passengers on the first boat, “Follow me!” Of course, taking such an outside-in approach would not be nearly effective as getting on the original boat yourself, schmoozing the passengers, all the while casually and inconspicuously turning ship’s wheel in the direction you want it go. Rock the boat without tipping it over.

The lesson for web design is this: Don’t create an entirely new section of your website if you don’t have to. Rather, modify the paths which are already being accessed, keeping the appeal that draws visitors in the first place, but also infusing your intent to convert by providing natural calls to action and a well-defined flow. Step 4 is the implementation of the research obtained in first three steps:

4. Make optimal use of currently used paths (Step 3) by giving your site a flow (Step 2) that ends in a call to convert (Step 1).

As an example, take a company whose “About Us” page is frequently accessed. A plain, one-page description of the company may provide informative value to the site’s visitors, but no real value to the company. Assuming that, once visitors are done reading the “About Us” section, they will click back to the homepage and then engage with the site in a more commercially valuable way would be a vast oversight (and an overestimation of Internet users’ attention spans).

Capitalize on this traffic by meeting the users where they already are. In this example,   provide them with a natural inquiry-focused path that ends in a prominent call to action. Instead of “About Us,” the site might have “Who We Are,” “What We Do,” and “How We Can Help You.” The last page is a natural place to feature a conversion goal such as a phone number to call, an email subscription form, or links to other important content.

This step is obviously the most difficult to implement effectively and requires the most finesse. However, with proper research and a strong understanding of what you want users to do, it can be pulled off with a powerful return on investment.

And finally, our last step:

5. Track your progress. Repeat steps 3-5.

When you set up Google Analytics Event Tracking correctly, there are considerable flexibility in the types of actions that can be tracked on your website. Almost any goal that was determined in the first step can be statistically tracked over time. Leverage this data to prove the effectiveness of your efforts to convert and respond to failed attempts so you’re not making blind decisions with no measurable basis. You can use actual data to understand your customers like never before. Furthermore, you can continuously improve your site’s user pathways by repeating the last three steps after each redesign.

The ultimate lesson here is to not let your site’s users navigate the site randomly and expect them to convert with any consistency. By designing with user pathways in mind, not only will you see increases in your conversions and revenue, but your site’s users will also appreciate the experience of navigating through a well thought-out website with clear avenues for inquiry and action. Follow the steps laid out here and you’ll be on your way to having rivers of gold flowing straight to your bottom line.