Heuristics rock!

Starting an article with the word “heuristics” is like wearing a Brioni suit to the beach.

You just don’t do that. The word heuristics is hardly intelligible, a bit pretentious, and painful to pronounce.

But I just used it to start this article. Because heuristics matter.

Matter for what? Heuristics matter for conversion optimization.

Unfortunately, like other bedrock issues in conversion optimization, many optimizers are unaware of the meaning, significance, and impact of heuristics.

The goal of this article is to provide a basic understanding of heuristics, how it impacts conversion optimization, and what you ought to do as a result.

What is a heuristic?

Let’s start at the very beginning: definitions.

The simplest definition of heuristic is a mental shortcut.

what is heuristics

A heuristic is a problem-solving technique that makes solving that problem easier and quicker. A heuristic is a mental method that an individual has been taught or learned by experience, and which is quickly applied to daily judgment and decision-making.

When you have to solve a problem quickly, you’ll use heuristics. It happens like this:

  1. “How many steps should my checkout process be?” Well the rule of thumb is to keep it at three.
  2. “Should I use a long-form landing page?” My educated guess is that your users aren’t going to scroll below the fold. Just use a short one.
  3. “What image works better — the bright one or the darker one?” Senior citizens prefer muted colors; go with the darker one.
  4. Should we ask for user’s Social Security number on this capture form?” Absolutely not! No one wants to share their SSN to get a free ebook. That’s common sense!
  5. “Is ‘WTF?!” a good headline to use for this charity website?” Catholics don’t like swearing, and WTF is an implicit swear word.

Each of the above examples could be a typical question that a conversion optimizer encounters on a regular basis. Each of the solutions employs a mental shortcut — a heuristic.

These heuristics are definitely not precise, and they may be completely misguided. The heuristics above include (in order), the 1) rule of thumb, 2) educated guess, 3) stereotyping, 4) common sense, and 5) profiling.

a diagram of what is a heuristic

Heuristics don’t have to be a point A to point B process, however. Like taking a shortcut, you may have to make a few turns along the way.

Some heuristics are actually pretty complicated. They are, however, a process-driven approach to solving a problem. To make problem solving easier, or just manageable, we have to understand the problem and distill it in a way that reduces the cognitive load and provides a methodology for arriving at a solution.

cartoon representation of what is heuristics

Heuristics are everywhere in life. Let me just give you a few examples.

  • You hear about an outbreak of disease from contaminated tomatoes from Del Monte farms in California. To truly find out if the tomatoes you own are contaminated, you would have to buy a kit to test them, and find time to do so. Whatever. You throw away all your canned tomatoes, your ketchup, and your Ragu sauce. You are employing the contagion heuristic.
  • You encounter an elderly person, and greet them in a louder-than-normal voice because you assume they might be hard of hearing. You are using the stereotyping heuristic.
  • Legal professionals put the legal drinking age at 21. An individual may be mature enough to partake of alcoholic beverages at 17 years of age. On the other hand, a person may not be mature enough for alcohol consumption even at 32 years of age. Rather than examine each individual on a case-by-case basis to determine maturity level in response to the use of alcohol, we picked an age and settled it. How? Heuristic practicality.

Let me get more specific. Moldy tomatoes and boozy teens are one thing, but what about your website, your conversions, and your ecommerce site visitors? What’s the connection between heuristics and conversion optimization?

Hold on to your mind. It’s about to get real.

meme-quote it is about tog et real end quote

What do heuristics have to do with conversion optimization?

Since this blog is about conversion optimization in general, let’s go deeper on how heuristics fits in the optimizer’s toolkit.

Conversion optimization is a problem needing to be solved, right? You have this big issue — conversion optimization. You want to increase the percentage of site visitors who will do what you want them to do.

Enter heuristics.

Heuristics provide you with a model, or tool, by which you can solve the problem, i.e., conversion optimization.

One of the most popular conversion optimization heuristics is an equation. MarketingExperiments calls it a sequence. You could call it a shortcut. It summarizes the main factors in the conversion process.

Here’s what it looks like:

formual of conversion sequence

If you just broke out into a cold sweat and nightmarish flashbacks to high school algebra, I’m sorry.

a random qequation solution on a white board

The equation is merely a method of summarizing each of the important factors in the conversion process.

That “C” is the most important part of the equation — the probability of conversion. In order to increase that probability, the equation tells you what to do:

  • Amp up the user’s motivation.
  • Make the value proposition really, really clear.
  • Add plenty of incentives.
  • Take away all the friction elements that you can.
  • Take away all the user anxiety that you can.

My bulleted summary is a bit clearer than the algebraic formula (my opinion). However, the idea remains the same. You can do conversion optimization by following this heuristic.

There are other heuristics for other optimization processes — say, for online ads. Here’s one:

applying the conversion sequence to online ads

Additional heuristics, such as usability heuristics may also be used to improve conversion optimization.

Usability consultant Jakob Nielsen pioneered usability heuristics.

image of Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen is responsible for developing following list of 10 usability heuristics for user interface design. This was back around the time when the Internet was still drying out from Al Gore’s ex nihilo creation of it, circa 1990 (Nielsen’s heuristics were updated and refined 1994 and 1995).

Here are Nielsen’s 10 usability heuristics:

  1. Visibility of system status
  2. Match between system and the real world
  3. User control and freedom
  4. Consistency and standards
  5. Error prevention
  6. Recognition rather than recall
  7. Flexibility and efficiency of use
  8. Aesthetic and minimalist design
  9. Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors
  10. Help and documentation.

It would help to read the entire article to get a clearer idea of what he’s suggesting. These are heuristics. They are not laws. They are simply rules of thumb that can improve a site’s usability.

They are features that can improve conversion optimization, too.

(Short complaint about Nielsen: Where I tend to quibble with Nielsen is with his style of turning mere heuristics into laws of the Medes and Persians. I’m okay with heuristics, but when you start codifying heuristics into unbreakable dictates, you’re in trouble. End of my complaint.)

There are a variety of heuristics for conversion optimization. You may like the algebra equation. You may think that the algebra equation is stupid. You may have a clear heuristic for conversion optimization. Or you may have no idea what I’m talking about.

Let me throw in a zinger.

You use heuristics whether you’re aware of it or not. The question is, are your heuristics correct or are they completely screwed?

Are your heuristics screwed?

Let me reiterate the point above: If you do conversion optimization, you are using a conversion optimization heuristic of some form or another.

You may not call it a heuristic, but a heuristic it is.

The problem is, many of these heuristics are fatally flawed. They are used (often unconsciously), and employed as a basis for making conversion optimization decisions. Yet the heuristic, being corrupt, is producing faulty optimizations.

Flawed heuristics are part of the mind’s cognitive biases. There are many such biases and, from a user perspective, they have an enormous impact on conversion optimization.

What few conversion optimizers realize is that they themselves, as optimizers, are affected by biases, too. When these biases guide the conversion optimization process, they are more accurately called heuristics.

What heuristic models tend to screw up conversion optimization?

Here are some examples:

  1. Attribute Substitution — A conversion optimizer tries to simplify a really complicated conversion process. In his mind, it is similar to something he’s done. He replaces the complicated scenario with its simpler parallel, thus making optimization decisions that are fundamentally erroneous.
  2. Efficient Decision Heuristic — The conversion optimizer chooses to optimize the elements that he believes have the greatest impact upon the conversion rate. The problem? The selected element may not be the one in need of optimization, let alone one that will produce an uptick in conversions. Instead, the optimizer’s decision is influenced by the latest article he read (“Blast Your Conversion Rates by 189,089% by Changing One Freaking Pixel” — those kinds of articles. )
  3. Familiarity Heuristic — Instead of testing and developing a landing page that fits the user’s needs or proclivities, the optimizer simply grabs one that is familiar to him. Is it the wrong one? Probably. Is it familiar to him? Yes.
  4. Effort Heuristic — The designer spent four hours creating one page, and 30 minutes to create another landing page. Heck, don’t split test the dang thing! Use the one that took four hours. It must be better, because it took so long!
  5. Fluency Heuristic — A page’s headline reads beautifully, but it’s not quite accurate. Who cares? Use it anyway. It’s fluent, so it must be better. What just happened? A flawed heuristic derailed the conversion optimizer from considering that a more specific headline — say a clear value proposition — would have produced higher conversion rates.
  6. Gaze Heuristic — A conversion optimizer only ponders the fact that the target audience is female. (Basically, he’s gazing at the women.) He does not consider the fact that half the target audience consists of men.
  7. Hot-Hand Heuristic — A trend, like the big-orange-button phenomenon, is sweeping the conversion optimization world. It’s purportedly the secret weapon for smashing through the conversion rate ceiling. The optimizer, scarcely considering any alternatives but the hot hand of the orange button, selects big orange buttons. (Little does he know that his audience is turned off by big orange buttons, and will refuse to click them.)
  8. Authority Heuristic — Because Peep Laja said it, that settles it. But what if Peep is wrong? I’m not saying he is. I simply mention him as an example of the oft-committed heuristic fallacy of kowtowing to authority rather than doing one’s own homework. Peep is pretty darn spot-on when it comes to conversion optimization, because he’s done his heuristic homework. He has analyzed thousands of landing pages, which has formed an incredibly accurate and intuitive heuristic. Most conversion optimizers aren’t celebrities like Peep, so they just do what Peep does, and hope it all works out. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out. Oops.

There are more heuristic fallacies. I’ve list these eight simply to give you a sense of how heuristic tendencies can ruin instead of enhance one’s conversion optimization.

Your heuristics could be totally off.

Here is the double-edged sword of heuristics:

cartoon of a double edge sword idiom

  • On the one edge, heuristics are super helpful. Awesome, actually.
  • On the other edge, if you are using a flawed heuristic model, then your conversion optimization is ruined.

Heuristics help us do conversion optimization better, but they sure aren’t perfect.

Heuristics tend to ruin our conversion optimization in the following three situations:

  1. When we are unaware of heuristics.
  2. When we hold a flawed heuristic.
  3. When we rely on our heuristic alone instead of using data and testing.

Even though they are dangerous, they are still useful — enormously useful. Without a practical heuristic, we endlessly spin our wheels or fail to sufficiently optimize.

We need heuristics to do conversion optimization. But we need the right heuristic!

How do heuristics fit within the conversion optimization framework?

Heuristics are at the core of conversion optimization. Why? Because every conversion optimizer must come to the process with some idea, some method, some approach for doing the task set before him.

If heuristics alone guide the process, then conversion optimization is going to be insufficient. A three-legged stool approach is far more effective.

Each leg of the stool is crucial to the overall process of conversion optimization.wooden stool

  1. Heuristics: The process or model by which you do conversion optimization.
  2. Data: This is where you pull in your user data, Google Analytics information, and other cold, hard numbers.
  3. Psychographic Information:This is why. The soft, touchy-feely information that numbers can’t tell you about  your users.


A single article allows insufficient room to both introduce you to conversion optimization heuristics and tell you everything you need to know about the correct heuristic.

Instead, I want to leave you with the overwhelming impression that heuristics are an inevitable component of conversion optimization, and utilizing the correct heuristic will lead you to improve your conversion rates.

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