How the Great Philosophers Would Optimize your Website

Jack Maden  |  May 31, 2016

Jack Maden  |  May 31, 2016


If you’re looking for a deeply serious, in-depth, data-driven look at how conversion rate optimization can dramatically increase revenue for your website, I advise you to check out our CRO guide. It’s packed full of industry insight, helpful tips and techniques – and it’s free!

If, on the other hand, you’re looking for how the great philosophers would go about improving your website (and who isn’t?), then you’re in the right place.

Marketing's obsession with generalized memes

I’m sure you’re familiar with the rather wishy-washy ‘motivation’ quotes and posters that do the rounds on social media.

Take a scroll down your LinkedIn newsfeed, and you’ll likely be confronted with something like this:


“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving” – Albert Einstein. Image courtesy of BK under Creative Commons License.

The above image was posted to flog a product that suggests keywords for SEO.

Indeed, removing grand declarations on life from their context - and then applying them to hyper-niche business issues - is something B2B marketing seems to do with quite bewildering enthusiasm.

And, in that spirit, I thought why not take the words of great philosophers and see how they can grant insight into the web optimization process, from research to testing.

After messing around with a few variations, I found that, actually, I shouldn’t have been so cynical: replacing certain words in philosophy quotes with a bit of conversion optimization jargon actually worked.

This shouldn’t be too surprising. After all, philosophers are the original scientists: philosophy is based entirely on thinking creatively in a logical, reasonable, evidence-based framework.

…just like web optimization!

Take a look at this, for example.


“The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution” – Hannah Arendt. Image modified courtesy of Wikimedia under Creative Commons License.

This, with just a slight tweak, becomes:


“The most radical optimizer will become a conservative the day after the redesign” – the CRO Philosopher.

See! Be wary of people becoming attached to their own design ideas, courtesy of Hannah Arendt.

In fact, each stage of the web optimization process – research, hypothesize, test, and implement – can be informed by the great minds of the past. If you’re intrigued to see how, then read on.

(As you may have noticed by now, I got very carried away on Photoshop while writing this post. And for that I apologize. But I will not apologize for the breathtaking insights that they illustrate.)

So, strap yourself in, and let’s begin.


The first stage when it comes to improving your website is research. If you don’t see where your website is failing, or ask your customers about their experiences, what can you base your changes on? You have to gather data.

Socrates, that martyr of philosophy, knew this well.


“The unexamined life is not worth living” – Socrates.

Or, as an optimizer might say: 


"The unexamined website is not worth optimizing” – the CRO Philosopher.

Researching how to improve your website begins with asking the right questions. You know, is our site working for every device and browser? Are users having to scroll too far on our product page to see the call to action? Which field on our checkout forms is causing the most abandons?

Finding the answers to these questions means gathering data. This data comes from traditional analytics tools like Google Analytics and Adobe, experience analytics tools like Decibel Insight (with session recordings, heatmaps, form analytics and more), and voice of customer tools with on-site surveys and feedback.

Many analysts and optimizers still only use traditional analytics in an attempt to answer their research questions, looking at changes in metrics like page views, conversion rates, and bounce rates. This is a great way to gauge the overall health of a website, and to see where the leaks are. But, though it tells you what is going wrong, it doesn’t tell you why.

If you don’t yet investigate your website beyond traditional analytics solutions, I implore you to heed the words of Plato:


“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation” – Plato.

Or, as an optimizer might say,


"You can discover more about a website in an hour of session replay than in a year of analytics” – the CRO Philosopher.

Indeed, traditional analytics sheds light on the how, but to really get to grips with the why of user behavior, watching back sessions of how individual users have interacted with and travelled through your site is invaluable.

You can see exactly what your users see – errors and all – follow their mouse movements and clicks and instantly understand their frustrations. Say they’re filling out a checkout form, and a pop up covers the entire screen. You instantly empathize with how annoying that is, and it’s this kind of insight that you just can’t get elsewhere.


Sure, you can try to piece together the user journey using funnels in traditional analytics, but it’s difficult to emphasize just how your perspective changes when watching someone struggle through your carefully designed website, skipping through all your lovingly created content and generally interacting in ways that you never thought they would.

Find out where, investigate why, and come up with a list of problems with your website. Now it’s time to come up with how to fix them.

Research - > Hypothesize

When you’ve found a load of errors and areas for improvement, it can be tempting to just come up with an entire overhaul of your website or page. ‘Destroy everything’ you think, and start from scratch. But, as Heidegger reminds us:


“He who thinks great thoughts, often makes great errors” – Heidegger. Image modified courtesy ofRenaud Camus under Creative Commons License.

Or, as an optimizer might say:


“She who makes great changes, often makes great errors” – the CRO Philosopher.

When it comes to creating hypotheses for how you could change your site, page, or form, there is no need to totally revamp the way things are done. Occasionally, big changes can pull off, but they can also annoy or alienate regular users. Creating hypotheses based on specific data is the way to go.

Say we find that mobile users on a particular landing page aren’t converting. Then we load up a scroll heatmap on that landing page and find that only 30% of mobile users are scrolling far enough to see the call to action button. 


We can say that based on this data, we think moving the call to action button up the visual hierarchy on mobile will lead to more conversions.

Come up with practical hypotheses like this, then prioritize them – which change would lead to the greatest potential uplift? – and prepare to test them.

The thing to say at this point is: don’t get too attached to your hypotheses.

When you’ve come up with a list of changes, you might think you’re going to be the savior of your website. You might think all your suggested changes are data-driven and certain to improve things.

But, as Bertrand Russell counsels:


"I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong” – Russell. Image source.

It’s easy to get attached to things you’ve worked on. The depressing thing about users, however, is they never act how you expect them to, and that’s why you need to test.

Research - > Hypothesize - > Test

Because, as our friend Kant says:


"Thoughts without intuitions are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind” – Kant. Image modified courtesy of Gabriel Anavarroravago under Creative Commons License.

Or, as an optimizer might say,


"Research without testing is empty, testing without research is blind” – the CRO Philosopher.

When you’ve gathered all your research, don’t just implement your hypotheses – test them! It’s important to test because, though you may think your improvements are obviously better, opinion counts for nothing in the face of data.

Something that illustrates this is a case study we ran with River Island. The team was split as to which version of a validation error would lead to more conversions.

Here’s the original validation error message for when a visitor didn’t select a size for their product. 


As can be seen, it’s a line of red text near the top of the page, informing the user of their need to select a size. Watching back session recordings in Decibel Insight showed that some users didn’t notice the validation error, and attempted to carry on the shopping process, growing frustrated when they couldn’t.

An alternative version of the validation error can be seen in the image below.


This time the error appears as a pop up. It’s certainly more obvious, but some worried that the pop up would annoy users and disrupt their shopping process.

The team was split as to which way would lead to more conversions, so they ran a test.

After running over a couple of business cycles, the test proved the pop up variation to be the winner. It led to a 6.5% increase in conversions, settling the debate.

This example just proves Wittgenstein’s point when he says:


“Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent” – Wittgenstein. Image modified courtesy of the Austrian National library under Creative Commons License.

Or, as an optimizer might say,


“Whereof one has no data, thereof one must be silent” – the CRO Philosopher.

Accept the outcome! Trust the data! Purge the opinion from your optimization process!

Research - > Hypothesize - > Test - > Implement

The implementation stage of the optimization process is where bias or opinion can sneak back in. You present the results of a test to your team or to your boss and, heaven forefend, they simply dismiss them. “What a load of tosh!” “The test must be broken.” “Our users are stupid!”

If (and this, actually, is quite a big if), if everything is set up correctly – your analytics, your testing tool – you must purge the ego and trust the data.

I’ve been guilty of disregarding data before when confronted by colleagues. Be it for certain copy, images or even whole features we run. “But Jack,” my detractors say, “this stuff gets no views, no engagement – it’s a waste of our time and money.”

“I don’t care,” I reply, defiant. “It’s superb. And I like doing it. It stays.”

But then I remember the words of Socrates.


“There is only one good, knowledge, and one evil, ignorance” – Socrates.

Or, as an optimizer say,


“There is only one good, data, and one evil, ego” – the CRO Philosopher.

Do heed the data. I’m really ramming this point home. Partly because there were so many philosophy quotes that could be adapted to this particular theme, but also because it’s so important.

It’s really easy to say that you’re data-driven and not at all bias. But it’s so hard to actually commit to it. It can be a case of simply looking for certain patterns or justifications on a subconscious level.

Socrates also said “The only thing I know is that I know nothing” and this is the attitude you really should have when you initiate your research program. Of course, when in the early stages of site design, or if you don’t have enough traffic to run that many tests, then you cannot always be backed with data. But there is a difference between pure opinion and data-driven opinion. If you have carried out an effective research program – touching on analytics, session replay, voice of customer and more – then you are armed with knowledge to make changes for the good.

So, you’ve researched, you’ve hypothesized, you’ve tested, you’ve implemented, and you’ve purged the opinion from your web optimization process. But what comes next?

Aristotle shows us the way.


“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” – Aristotle.

Indeed, CRO is a process, not a single act. Once you’ve completed the research, hypothesize, optimize cycle – start again! This time you’re armed with more data and experience about what works and what doesn’t.

As Simone de Beauvoir said:


“One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” – Simone de Beauvoir. Image courtesy ofWikimedia under Creative Commons License.

Or, as an optimizer say, 


“One is not born, but rather becomes, a successful website” – the CRO Philosopher.

So do keep on going, even when gains seem futile. CRO is a constantly evolving process, and your website will be constantly evolving too.

If you find yourself slipping, and reading around for an easy route to success, remember the words of William James:


“There is only one thing a philosopher can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other philosophers” – William James. Image courtesy of Wikimedia under Creative Commons License.

Or as an optimizer might say,


“There is only thing an optimizer can be relied upon to do, and that is to contradict other optimizers” – the CRO Philosopher.

The point being: there are a whole load of different opinions and best practices out there – just check out the Decibel Insight Soapbox to see that! The one that will work for you is the one you develop yourself through continually optimizing your optimization process.

Just remember: 


“That man is wisest who, like Socrates, realizes that his wisdom is worthless” – Plato.

Come up with your own optimization memes

I found it quite entertaining adapting these quotes for website improvement. There are still lots of grand declarations out there ripe for alteration. Here are a few with especially good potential. Tweet me your best adaptations at @DecibelJack@Decibelinsight, by using the hashtag #CROphilosophy, or leave a comment below - and we'll feature the best ones.


“Is man merely a mistake of God’s? Or God merely a mistake of man’s?” – Nietzsche. Image modified courtesy of Wikimedia under Creative Commons License.


“Metaphysics is a dark ocean without shores or lighthouses, strewn with many a philosophic wreck” - Kant.


“The life of man (in a state of nature) is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – Hobbes. Image modified courtesy of National Portrait Gallery under Creative Commons License.

Again, tweet me your best adaptations at @DecibelJack, @Decibelinsight or by using the hashtag #CROphilosophy - we'll feature the best efforts!

Get more CRO insights

The great minds of the past inform web optimization in grand style, but if you're looking to read up further on CRO, then download our free guide here (or hit the image below). It's packed full of tips, tricks and industry insight - and has fewer philosophers!

Turn your website into a conversion machine

Jack Maden

Written on May 31, 2016 by:

Jack Maden

Jack is Digital Manager at Decibel, the best digital experience intelligence platform around! He also runs philosophy break.


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