NINE OUT OF TEN PEOPLE WOULD RATHER NOT READ THIS SENTENCE IN ALL CAPS.
That may or may not be true. At the moment, this statement is merely a guess, an assumption — but it’s testable. It’s a hypothesis.
People love to insist that your website is made of magical ones and zeros. “It’s HTML,” they’ll say. “It lives on triple-redundant co-located servers,” they’ll argue. Yet the truth is much simpler, and scarier, than that.
Your website is a tower of assumptions. Everyone’s is. Perhaps yours was built according to a specific blueprint. Maybe it was built from a template. Either way, if it’s not properly maintained, the structure will collapse. But before you demolish the current structure and start over from the ground up, you should test the existing site.
If you want to improve your website, testing provides the scaffolding to fix it. And just as you wouldn’t hire a renovation crew that uses scaffolding made of toothpicks, your optimization tests require strong hypotheses. Of course, you can always test a bunch of random variables and see which configuration works best with your visitors, but that generally takes too long, adds noise to the data, and makes it difficult to gain any real insight.
The better thing to do is to start with a hypothesis.
In my last post, I showed how testing allows you to optimize by letting visitors design your site for you. By giving them new versions of navigation and content elements and closely monitoring to see which ones work best, your visitors can vote with their clicks, and you can more easily adjust your site to fit their needs.
Be careful, though. If you don’t have a solid hypothesis, improvements can take longer — and be more incremental — than they should be. Recycling random variations of a page just to see what works often yields a much smaller return on investment than hiring a website optimization firm.
It’s the most common problem we see among companies that don’t outsource their testing: They don’t really know what to test.
Regardless of who tests your website, the scientific method [define] must drive the process. Your venture into testing must begin with curiosity. Curiosity is fundamental to humanity, and the basis for our achievements. To have success online, you must be curious as to why things happen and what is influencing them.
• Observation: “Why do so few people add an item to their cart from the product page?”
• Observation: “Why do my blog posts with short titles seem to get more comments?”
Curiosity is the initial spark to start a learning experience, but ideas and explanations must be conjured to satisfy that curiosity. This is where the hypothesis comes from.
Again, a hypothesis is just an assumption. The ideas and explanations you base this assumption on can come from real world examples or basic intuition. To write a hypothesis, simply take the action you’re considering and state the result — a benefit, we hope — that you expect it to have.
• Hypothesis: “Making the ‘add to cart’ button larger will increase our conversion rate.”
• Hypothesis: “Using blog post titles with six words or less will increase the amount of comments.”
The one and only purpose of running a website optimization test is to prove (or disprove) your hypothesis by exposing it to real world conditions. As such, you’ll need to create variations of the elements you wish to test in a way that properly reflects your hypothesis, so you can test them against the original version to see which one works best.
Let’s start with “Making the add to cart buttons larger will increase our conversion rate.” To test this hypothesis, you’ll need to create a version of the page with a larger add to cart button. To be sure, you may also want to test more than one size. If a large button isn’t ideal, maybe a medium-sized one is.
Lets say the test proves our hypothesis to be valid and you decide to make the “add to cart” button larger. Wonderful, but you might want to hold off on the champagne.
Now it’s time to create another hypothesis about the best color for the “add to cart” button. For instance, “A green ‘add to cart’ button will yield a higher conversion rate than similar red or blue buttons.”
The point is to learn something — anything — about what is and isn’t working on your site. Approach testing in a systematic way and record what you learn to guide you through future tests. You may also want to revisit certain tests to see if they still hold true, especially if you’ve changed other elements on the page.
It’s very important not to get discouraged. Even if your hypothesis is disproved, you’ve learned something valuable; that what you have is working well enough for you to focus on another area of your site that needs attention.
On the other hand, if your hypothesis is strong — and the test results prove it — you’ve begun remodeling your “tower built on assumptions” into a high-rise casino, where the odds are stacked neatly in your favor.
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[Editor's Note: Blinded by science? Need a renovation? Future Now can help you test it.]