UX Thoughts on the Campaign Trail

Donations and the “Perfect Conversion” Problem

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
February 11, 2016

I donated to a US presidential candidate last week. I won’t say who, to keep from polarizing readers with my first two sentences, but let’s just say this candidate isn’t very fond of billionaires. Take that as you may.

I had already decided to donate about a month ago, but hadn’t actually gotten around to it until last week. I was sitting at home having a cup of coffee before work, and, for whatever capricious reasoning eddies the actions of a procrastinator, I decided to pull the trigger. I typed in the web address, assuming [candidate name].com would be correct, and came to its landing page. Pleasant, sturdy, modern—I liked the page immediately. The first call-to-action wasn’t even to donate. It was to sign a petition to ostensibly make the world a better place. So far, so good.

A red button, further down, began the donation process. The form it brought up, which was clever and well engineered, clearly borrowed from President Obama’s famously successful donation UX during his two presidential campaigns. I filled the form quickly and without any issues. The entire process, end-to-end, took no more than three minutes. I finished my coffee and went on with my life. To those who run the candidate’s website, and indeed to web workers like myself everywhere, I had been a textbook “successful web conversion”.

MYSTERY CANDIDATE Hmmm who’s this candidate you donated to, Ian??

“Successful web conversion” was on my mind as I drove to work that day. I mulled it over for a while; I had never visited the candidate’s website before that morning. I hadn’t clicked any other calls-to-action on the site. I hadn’t lingered on the page or scrolled around or opened a new browser tab. I just got in, paid, and got out. And then it occurred to me: That was the first time in my life I had ever done that.

Thinking over all of the products I’ve purchased online over the years, I realized never before had I directed myself to a completely new website, clicked directly on the call-to-action, and successfully completed my purchase within three minutes. Never even once. Every other online purchase has been after at least one prior visit to the website, usually on multiple devices. Visiting a site for a second time obliterates “conversion rate” accuracy. In fact, the vast majority of the time, my decision to purchase is made in a totally different browsing session than my actual purchase.

On the rare occasion my very first browsing session results in me purchasing something, it is never so efficient. I click around, see their other products, look for reviews. At the very least I’ll open another tab and Google around. These are human shopping patterns. We linger, compare, weigh options, procrastinate. Even after we purchase, we usually go back and look at the product again, absorbing what we just bought. It is extraordinarily rare that we follow the “donation pattern” I followed that morning. Humans simply do not arrive for the first time, convert, leave by default.

And yet, web analysts base their “conversion rate” discussions around exactly that rare, unnatural pattern. They design entire websites around “lowering time-to-conversion”. Worse still, their reasoning behind it is often based on the backwards assumption that successful conversions are the result of SHORTER browsing sessions.

“Most successful conversions happen within the first three minutes of a user’s time on page” does not account for the vast array of visits, page loads, and sessions across multiple devices that may have created the decision to purchase in the first place. A shorter average time-to-conversion actually implies a larger percentage of your conversions were made by users who did not make their decision to purchase in that browsing session. In some cases, this means a decrease in your time-to-conversion was a symptom of a less convincing purchase flow.

As web analysts, we often grasp at straws. It’s tempting to look for a statistical “silver bullet” that’ll put more products in the shopping cart. The truth is, that doesn’t really exist for most websites. The smarter way to approach conversion rates is to be contextually aware of your product and your customer. Every company has users with a unique shopping pattern, and even within companies themselves different products will demand different purchase flows. Attempting to compartmentalize every aspect of your digital user experience into a spreadsheet will leave you in the frustrating valley where small gains in one area mysteriously lead to small losses in others. We have to take the blinders off, get our hands dirty, and see our UX in its full context.

Unless you’re a presidential candidate. Then your conversions will probably fit nicely in a spreadsheet.