Design Smackdown: Prepare to be Judged

In a recent article from The Daily Egg, Crazy Egg’s blog, 13 experts wrote a short critique of the PRWeb home page. This piqued my interest.  The idea of an expert review / critique is well-established in the design world. And, critiquing (and defending) a design is a valuable design skill.

How would you judge this site?

It got me thinking about who the experts were and how they structured their critique.

The Reviewers

~ Brian Massey (Conversion Rate Optimizer – CRO), Conversion Sciences

~ Naomi Niles (UX/UI/CRO Designer), ShiftFWD

~ Demian Farnworth (Copywriter), The Copybot

~ Adam Kreitman (Marketer), Words That Click

~Sofia Woods (Web Design), Shortie Designs

~ Angela Jones (Designer, graphic artist), Design By

~ Robin Cannon(Web Designer), Shiny Toy Robots

~ Tyler Kelley, Conversion Coach

~ David Hartstein (storyteller and measurement guy), Wired Impact

~ Erynn Brook (‘Professional Creative and Muse Healer’, Designer, Entrepreneur ), Urban Avalon

~ Joseph Putnam (Writer, Marketer), 5 North Marketing

~ Sanj Sahayam (Designer), Unique Imprints

~ Sherice Jacob (Designer, Copywriter), iElectrify

It’s an impressive bunch of designers, copywriters and marketers. But a new term – CRO or conversion rate optimization designer – intrigues me. Persuasion and conversion becomes the foremost goal in designing and building. If you are designing a business website, at some point you will act as a conversion rate optimization designer.

What they said

Most agree – The big problem with the PRWeb page was: an unclear message, missing value proposition and weak call to action. If you don’t know what PR Web does, the homepage will not help you much.  It’s actually a very good article and I hope you get the chance to go and read it.

However I’m more interested in…

How they critique

This type of expert review is a cornerstone of design methodology. Designers are asked to review and defend work all the time – It could be their work, from a teammate or someone outside their team. I suppose the critiques are based on their experiences and established design patterns and guidelines. Experience is hard to measure and codify. Designers attempt to codify their experience in manifesto, design patterns, checklists, heuristics, etc.

So I’m assuming that each of these 13 reviewers is judging the PR Web home page against a set of rules. In a way they are like Judge Dredd. I don’t expect them to cite the guidelines they are judging from – but it would be kind of cool.

Dredd, Sly Stallone, is cop, judge, jury and executioner in the SciFi movie from 1995. Famous for shouting "I am the Law!"

Who is the Law?

Unlike the Judge Dredd movie, we don’t have roving packs of all powerful killer cops (mostly).  We abide by the rule of law (mostly).  That means that we judge actions based on an agreed upon set of rules and guides, laws.  These laws are well known to the general public and agreed to (mostly).

Are there well known laws of web design? Are there laws that good designs must follow?

Of course the government has a set of rules – the US Department of Health and Human Services research-based web design and usability guidelines (292 pages)

Sherice, one of the reviewers, has a conversion optimization checklist offered on her site, in exchange for your name and e-mail address. ( I did it. What can I say, she’s cute and smart… and a cat person. Never mind)

User focus, a company in the UK, has a set of 247 Web usability guidelines. This is a good resource and it’s conveniently broken down into several subsections; such as homepage usability, navigation, page layout, etc.

Judge the Judgers

I think it would be fun to sort through the 13 reviews and see if they matched with our rules for homepages.

Ben wrote a home page optimization guideline:Six things your homepage must do to keep from sucking. They are:

  • Needs to speak the users language
  • Needs to communicate who the customer is
  • Needs to communicate the core benefits
  • Needs to show passion for the product
  • Needs to build trust
  • Needs to push user into the sales funnel

Let’s see how the reveiws stack up.

Needs to speak the users language

Farnworth nailed this principle. He says the PRWeb website is “a great example of look at me”.  The number of press releases is a metric for PR Web not their customer. He also highlights that testimonials serve the purpose of speaking the user’s language. His example is: “My press release got picked up by NY Times, WSJ and CNN. My phone is ringing off the hook.”  That testimonial explains the value proposition from the users perspective. It also helps to indicate who the customer is.

Needs to communicate who the customer is

Massey highlights this principle when he talks about appealing to prospective users versus existing users. If the target market is people who are interested in reading random news items, then this page is optimized perfectly. Jones points out that the only person on the page has both their arms cut off ( holding the sign). She is opposed to cutting off limbs for any circumstance.

Needs to communicate the core benefits

Kreitman and Farnworth both highlight the need for the page to answer “What’s in it for me?”.  Woods wants to know what PR Web is pitching.  The number of press releases implicitly explains what they do, but it’s Kreitman who suggests that this is only a clue.  It should be giving them a big fat banana, not just a suggestion. Hartstein notices that the words “press release” – the core service of PR Web – is only seen in small font and tucked away in the design.

Needs to show passion for the product

Putnam determines the primary message is “PR Web just got better!” This shows passion for the product. But it doesn’t show passion for the customer’s benefit. Customers are passionate about what your product can do for them. As Kathy Sierra would say, how your product helps them kick ass.  Farnworth’s proposed testimonial does a great job of delivering this message – “My press release got picked up by NY Times, WSJ and CNN. My phone is ringing off the hook.”

Needs to build trust

Several reviewers mentioned the idea of “social proof“. Kreitman laments the fact that social proof is above the fold and thinks that they should be used for explaining the value proposition or benefits of using PR Web.  Niles mentions social proof of the number of press releases and thinks the messaging could be improved. Jacob offers some suggestions for improved messaging by breaking that large number of them to more creative and targeted numbers that show success stories – rather than an abstract and out of context number.

Needs to push user into the sales funnel

This is the call to action – the thing you want them to do. Massey points out that the ‘read more’ button is nearly invisible. Typically, the visual design is optimized to highlight this call to action. In this case, the low contrast green and shrug worthy ‘read more’ text does not meet the standard of a good call to action. Brooke explains that the page is breaking the “one page, one goal” idea. The goal of the front page is to put people in to the sales funnel.

Blackbeard, the honey badger of pirates, (His beard is ON FIRE and he doesn't give a shit)


Each element on a front page should have a reason for being there. This is design 101. Whether you’re writing a story, doing a site wireframe, or a visual design each element must pull its own weight in order to have a high-performance design. If we evaluate each element by some type of guide, it gives structure to the review and keeps us from judging based on opinion.

Using a guide allows others to join our critical review and give helpful and constructive feedback (As in a design team or meeting)

In closing and by way of devil’s advocate, I wonder if we are missing something here. The fact is we don’t know why PRWeb built and optimized this page. It seems obvious, but is it? Perhaps they were using a completely different set of guidelines. Each of the reviewers has used established principles but perhaps PR Web has other goals in mind. It’s always important to leave the door open to alternative interpretation.

5 comments on “Design Smackdown: Prepare to be Judged

  1. Thanks for reviewing our review Newman. Very well done. Let me know if you are interested in becoming one of those that does the critiquing on these crowdsourced blog posts.

  2. That’s a good point that not knowing what the particular goals of a business results in a one-sided critique.

    This is something that’s always bothered me about design critiques and crowdsourcing design work (most of the time). It’s hard to measure how effective something is if you don’t have a yardstick to judge it with. Unfortunately, when you don’t have access to that type of information, you have to judge as an outsider, which sometimes is helpful to the design being critiqued and sometimes not.

    I think here we were all looking at the page through the conversion optimization lens. This means that we’re focusing mainly on things that can decrease or increase conversions. And a lot of the reason for focusing on conversions is that they are something that can be measured fairly easily.

    Now, if the PR Web site was put together as a “brand builder” and credibility/reassurance tool for existing customers, it may or may not be doing it’s purpose.

    But, if the goal is to get new customers (conversions) into it’s sales funnel, it does need work, like most sites do!

    At any rate, doing critiques for an actual client differs greatly than for a site for someone you don’t have contact with. I ask about goals and such beforehand and then measure against those goals (sometimes with checklists, sometimes not), but if you don’t have that type of information, you just have to work with what you see as an outsider.

    Love your idea about sharing the guidelines. 🙂

  3. @Russ – Thank you! Ben and I love to do this. We call it “Blackbeard hates your website”. It turns out that the fearsome 18th century Pirate was also a keen design critic. We channel his spirit when we review websites.

    @Naomi – Excellent points! A design review based solely on the design (the elements, the points, etc) without access to the design goals (the context, the field, etc) is one-sided – YET valuable nonetheless. What happens – and this is pretty cool – is that we assume a site goal and critique based on that. In this case, conversion optimization was assumed to be the goal. I wonder if it was.

    I’m very interested in how this critique and review process is developing in the design world. It seems to be dependent on a good, solid group dynamic. A creative and happy team can engage in critical review productively – A dysfunctional team, not so much.

    Moving forward how do we get teams – ever larger to the point of crowdsourcing – to work in a productive way. New tools are developing all the time, which keep up with our mental models of the process.

    I suppose it is all a part of the UX process. but I digress…

    @Ben – ARRGGGGH. WWBD – What would Blackbeard Do?

  4. Hi Newman!

    Thank you for your kind words about my conversion checklist…and about me.. *blush* 🙂

    It’s good to read a “review of a review” since just like SEO, there is starting to be a crop of “conversion rate experts” who don’t know what they’re doing. Reviews of reviews help keep our industry in check!

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