February 17, 2011, 12:32 PM

No pain, no gain is the understory of many successful site designs

Taking risks and recovering from flops is part of effective design, IRCE speaker says.

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E-retail design success stories packed the agenda at Internet Retailer’s Web Design & Usability Conference. But in a session called “It sounded like a good idea at the time,” Ethan Giffin, CEO of web design firm Groove Commerce, reminded attendees that the road to success can be paved with missteps.  In the cause of encouraging web designers to take risks and view any resulting failures as lessons, Giffin shared some hard-won lessons in e-commerce site design.

“Web sites are trendy,” he said. “But not all trends are good ideas.” For example, at a company where he worked previously, Giffin was enthusiastic about the decision to feature popular comedian Lewis Black in a landing page promotion. That landing page turned out to be a flop, Giffin said, which imparted two pieces of wisdom. “Don’t put a cynical old man on a landing page,” he said. “And it’s the lessons you learn that matter most.”

Giffin shared another early career experience involving one of the first major decisions he made on his own about an employer’s web site.  Deciding to change the site’s URL structure, he made the change on all 250,000 of the company’s URLs at once. This confused Google’s web crawlers, causing the company’s web pages to all but disappear from the search engine’s index over the next few weeks and drying up natural search traffic to the site.

After a tense few weeks, Giffin figured out how to get the site’s pages back into the Google index. He also took away the lesson that trying something different in design and failing at it matters less to a site’s success than how quickly the site recovers from it.

Learning the value of waiting when needed also has benefitted Giffin and the sites he’s worked for or consulted with. For example, co-workers wanted to abandon testing one version of a web page they were redesigning based on poor initial results. But within 10 days the tested page started to produce better results than other tested versions of the page, and by the end of the full test period, conversion off the page had increased by 33%.  “Tests run the business, but sometimes people want to pull the plug before a test is complete,” Giffin said. “Let them run the distance.”

Giffin also touched on other lessons learned from what started out as mishaps, such as gaining an understanding of the fact that because something works well on one site, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for another site. He cited a change to the checkout process that produced at 5.5% lift in conversions on an apparel site while a similar version of the process produced no lift on another site.

“Try new things out, but don’t be afraid to fail,” Giffin told the audience. “That will cause you to lose out on so many opportunities. Take chances. You can learn so much.”   

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