Hunting HiPPOs: Optimizely’s Testing Tools Bring Data-Driven Web Design to the Masses

Optimizely doesn’t put its most effective sales pitch on its website; it doesn’t have to. It boils down to this: If it was good enough for Barack Obama, it’s good enough for you.

“It,” in this case, is online A/B testing: the practice of altering live websites in small, controlled ways to see whether the alterations lead to higher response rates in the form of donations, purchases, newsletter signups, and the like. After Dan Siroker gave up a product manager position at Google to be director of analytics for the Obama presidential campaign during two stretches in 2007 and 2008, he became one of the first people to try A/B testing in the world of online campaign fundraising. His team identified design tweaks for the campaign website that ultimately helped Obama raise nearly half a billion dollars, much of it in the form of online donations of $200 or less.

After the campaign, Siroker left politics and joined up with another former Google product manager named Pete Koomen to build an online math game for elementary school kids. But the pair ultimately drifted back to A/B testing, convinced they could build better commercial testing tools than ones that had been available to the Obama campaign. That’s the concept they developed during the Winter 2010 term at the Y Combinator venture incubator in Mountain View, CA, and that’s the product that Optimizely is now providing to more than 5,000 registered users.

The fundamental philosophy behind A/B testing is that decisions should be based on data, not just instinct. Koomen jokes that when it comes to crucial choices about Web design, many organizations seem to guided by HiPPO—the Highest Paid Person’s Opinion. “Our overall mission is to make it much easier for companies to make data-driven decisions, because they are almost always better than HiPPO,” he says.

The Optimizely team. Left to right: Ricky Raykhenberg, Jeff Pickhardt, Dan Siroker, Pete Koomen, Eric Siroker, Ryan Myers, Dave Anderson, Elliot Kim, Camille Conrotto.

If that sounds like a Google-esque statement, that’s because Koomen and Siroker both learned their stuff at the search and advertising giant, working on products like Chrome, AdWords, and App Engine. “Google has this philosophy that no matter whether you are an engineer or a vice president, at the end of the day a decision comes down to ‘What does the data say?'” Siroker says. “When I came to the [Obama] campaign as an outsider, I was able to say, ‘Maybe I don’t know the best tagline or strategy to convince somebody to vote for him, but I can show you the data we collected in an experiment we did, and here is the proof that this is the decision we should make.'”

Of course, the stakes for most of Optimizely’s customers are somewhat lower than winning the White House. Most publishers and e-retailers use Optimizely’s Web-based A/B testing system to change elements on their Web pages—moving a “buy” button, for example, or changing its size or color—and then divert part of their incoming Web traffic to the alternative page. Optimizely’s back end tracks user behavior such as clicks or purchases and can measure whether the changes are producing the desired effect.

One attraction of Optimizely’s technology is that almost anyone in an organization can use it. As with, another marketing technology company I profiled recently, changing the look of a page on Optimizely and publishing an alternate version requires absolutely no programming, design, or database skills. “We spoke to a lot of companies and the majority of them are not doing A/B testing, even though it’s a tremendously valuable thing to be doing,” says Koomen. “They are not testing because it’s so difficult to do. Our idea was to remove all the unnecessary steps that we possibly could.”

Simplifying A/B testing software was an idea born on the campaign trail. “I spent the summer of 2007 on leave from Google, sleeping on the floor in the office in … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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