Insights

Should design or copy come first?

Written by
Ally Willis

Copy vs. design: which should come first in the website building process?


Hot take coming your way…


Copy is more important to conversion than design.


THERE. I said it.


Copy first. Design second. Full stop.

In this article
  1. Marketers often cite two popular Nielson studies that found that most users skim copy. However, these outdated studies fail to contextualize what KIND of copy the test subjects were asked to read.
  2. People DO form snap judgements and design DOES influence first impressions. However, design should SUPPORT copy.
  3. Not all copy is the same. Conversion copy aims to move your prospect to a desired action in the sales process.
  4. Tests completed by Unbounce and Hubspot found that copy — more than design — influenced conversion rates.

Debunking the “people don’t read copy” myth

“But, but, but…” you may object, “People don’t reeeeeeead copy!”
After all, there is this oft-cited Nielson study:

“We found that 79 percent of our test users always scanned any new page they came across; only 16 percent read word-by-word.”

I’ve seen this stat tossed like confetti in blog posts from multiple agencies.


What this cherry-picked stat fails to offer is the context of the study.


For starters, this study is from 1997.


Might as well be the Bronze Age, in Internet terms.


Secondly, the samples users were asked to read are as dry as a Cabernet.


For example:

“Nebraska is filled with internationally recognized attractions that draw large crowds of people every year, without fail. In 1996, some of the most popular places were Fort Robinson State Park (355,000 visitors), Scotts Bluff National Monument (132,166), Arbor Lodge State Historical Park & Museum (100,000), Carhenge (86,598), Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer (60,002), and Buffalo Bill Ranch State Historical Park (28,446).”

Uhhhh yeah, I’d skim that too!


If your website copy is anything like this research sample — EESH — it’s time for a rewrite.


Then there’s this other Nielson study from 2008 that claims:

“Users will read about 20% of the text on the average page.”

But let’s dig deeper, shall we?


Here’s the study setup:

“In the study, the authors instrumented 25 users’ browsers and recorded extended information about everything they did as they went about their normal Web activities.”

Okay, so the study found that these particular 25 users only read about 20% of copy on the page.


But what this study doesn’t examine is what kind of copy users read.


Were they reading blog posts? News articles? Scholarly research? (After all, the article notes that the majority of users in this study were university employees.)


Or were they researching products? Comparing services? Reading sales pages?


Long-form content that isn’t involved in a prospect’s buying decision (like blog posts) is — understandably! — more likely to be skimmed.


Because yes… readers scan. That’s the truth of our Internet-altered brains.

However, the argument that “people don’t read” — backed by outdated, out-of-context studies — should NEVER be the North Star of your website copy strategy.

Because no matter how flashy the website design, we are humans, and language is a pillar of communication.

 

As this Google stat notes:

“85% of shoppers surveyed say product information and pictures are important to them when deciding which brand or retailer to buy from.”

And HOW do you communicate product information?

 

Copy.

Design DOES influence first impressions

Before anyone tries to pick a fight, hear me out.

 

Design IS important.

Good website design and performance help establish legitimacy while creating a seamless user experience.

So a poorly-designed site WILL affect conversion.


In fact, studies assert that a visitor makes a first impression of your website within 50 milliseconds. Woof, that’s quick!


People form snap judgements. Design matters.


If your website looks like it was built when dial-up internet was a thing, then yes… users are going to form unfavorable impressions.


Other studies (again, 2004 over here) find that design is the primary factor for first impressions.


This is classic human nature — we do, indeed, judge a book by its cover. But it’s the copy on your site (or the words inside the book, to continue the metaphor) that actually nurture the conversion.


Because what’s the use of wow-worthy design if your website can’t actually communicate WHY a prospect needs your services over a competitor’s?


Design is important. Very important. But it should never come at the expense of copy.


Design, instead, should SUPPORT copy.


And I don’t just mean follow-the-muses creative copy.


I mean conversion copy.

What is conversion copy?

Conversion copy aims to move your prospect to a desired action in the sales process.

 

Copyhackers says it best:

Conversion copywriting “takes the voice, tone and finding a unique value proposition and combines it with conversion (motivating) and process (research component) and presentation (what you’re saying and how you’re saying it).”

Or as Ry Schwartz puts it, “Copy is catalyzing a conversation that happens in your prospect’s head.”


And conversion copy is always grounded in research and testing.


Using voice of customer research, competitor messaging analysis, and UX testing, a good conversion copywriter learns what prospects want — and then repeats those messages back onto the page using proven persuasion tactics.


“Ummm… voice of customer research? Come again?” you ask.


VOC research examples include:

  • Customer surveys
  • Review / testimonial mining
  • Customer interviews
  • Thank you page surveys
  • On-site search function analysis
  • Customer support transcript reviews


A good conversion copywriter then TESTS the copy through validation tests (like 5 second tests).


When you let research-led conversion copy build the foundation for design, you set your website up for optimal conversion.

Testing the Copy vs. Design Theory

Show-and-tell time.

🧪 Unbounce

Unbounce, a popular landing page builder, wanted to answer this question: which is more important to conversion — copy or design? They set up a test using AI to analyze thousands of landing pages.

 

Copy for the win, at least for the bots.

🧪 Hubspot

But what about humans?


Hubspot performed an A/B test on a landing page for a free 30-day trial offer. The control was the current landing page, with an outdated design. The variant featured a new, slicker design.


Even the author admits that “in the past, our marketing team has typically followed a design first, copy second order of operations when designing web pages.


So Hubspot put together a li’l A/B test of their own, measuring conversion rates between their control and variant.


(I won’t go into the nitty gritty of Hubspot’s test, so I highly recommend you read the entire Hubspot article.)


The conclusion?


Copy impacted the conversion rate between the two pages.


So bots AND humans agree: copy matters, big time.

The takeaway: should design or copy come first?

Copy vs. design: which should come first?

If you want a website that actually serves as a sales engine and lead generator…

 

Copy first. Design second. Full stop.

Ally Willis is Co-Founder and Head of Strategy at Starling.

With a background in conversion copywriting since 2017, she helps clients ask questions, analyze research, test theories, and dig through the results to create custom website optimization strategies.

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