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Posted on February 9th, 2011 by Kevin Partner

How one small design change can kill your conversion rate

menusBigCommerce, a hosted ecommerce service, recently pushed out a minor update to all its shops including my MakingYourOwnCandles site. Developers Interspire allow shop owners to schedule the upgrade to a convenient date and, as part of that process, require them to tick a box that says, in effect, “I understand that this may mess up my store design”.

So, once the upgrade had taken place, I checked our shop to see what damage had been done to discover that the menu system had changed. Gone was the simple, tree-type list of categories and subcategories to be replaced by a swanky new “fly-out” menu which, as I’d made changes to the text colour in the main shop, featured black text on a dark background.

After half an hour’s feverish work sifting through the various CSS rules to find out which controlled the text colour, I had a visible menu system again. So, for Tuesday and Wednesday of that week, we ran with the new menu. It was a disaster.

Over those two days, the conversion rate plummeted by 75%. I would hardly have believed it if I hadn’t seen it for myself. By Wednesday evening I was in full panic mode. I finally found the checkbox for restoring the tree menu and, like flicking a switch, the conversion rate recovered instantly.

Why? I can only guess, because I’m not prepared to chuck money away experimenting with it, but I think there are at least two ways in which the fly-out menu is inferior. Firstly, if you have relatively few categories with lots of subcategories, the tree menu shows this to prospective customers more effectively: the shop looks as though it has a wide range of products. Secondly, the fly-out is more fiddly to use as it requires the user to hover over the main category name before clicking. In almost all cases with user interface design, simplest is best.

I’m angry that Interspire enabled the fly-out by default – it seems much more sensible to render the shop as it was and let owners know that a new menu type is available should they wish it trial it. But the big lesson is the effect that seemingly tiny changes to interface design can have on a business: it can mean the difference between a profitable enterprise and a basket case.

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Posted in: Online business


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4 Responses to “ How one small design change can kill your conversion rate ”

  1. tater Says:
    February 9th, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    One thing that quickly came to mind is that if you have a lot of returning customers, they might have been confused and frustrated by the change (people don’t like change). Given time, the conversion discrepancy might have evened out. Maybe….Maybe.

    Personally, I agree with you. The simple tree is easy, intuitive and informative.

    Great post!

  2. Mikaël Says:
    February 9th, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    I was in doubt of using bigcommerce, shopify or The last one gave me 6 months for free because I signed up for their beta and they allow me to build 100% custom templates so up to today I’m happy with my choice. I think bigcommerce should indeed avoid changing peoples designs without asking clearly.

  3. Shani Says:
    February 10th, 2011 at 1:15 pm

    Those menus also don’t work on touchscreen devices or on browsers with javascript blocked (e.g. noscript on Firefox). I know they’re annoying enough to me that I’ll often just not bother.

  4. Chris Iona Says:
    February 11th, 2011 at 5:28 am

    Hi Kevin,

    Sorry to read about the experience you’ve recently had upgrading your BigCommerce store(s).

    I have just verified the code in the upgrade wizard, and it does state that the fly-out menus are set to Disabled by default – so I want to work with you to isolate the cause of this issue.

    The engineering rule of thumb here, is that security and bug patches are applied to stores, while new features are disabled by default.

    Can you please email me directly with the links to your stores, the original versions of BigCommerce you upgraded from, and the current version you’re on now. You can find that information at the bottom right of your Control Panel when you next log in.

    We’ve got a big year ahead of us here at BigCommerce, so I look forward to your feedback.

    Kind Regards,

    Chris Iona
    Product Development Manager
    BigCommerce – the world’s fastest growing ecommerce platform


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