Programming, Work

Optimizely testing like a hacker

At work we use Optimizely and I am a fan of the product; I think it has had a massive impact on the way we work and should really help guide us to decide what we choose to do.

However I am not a product manager, user testing expert or statistician (that last part is a lie, I’m a statistician who hasn’t done any stats for seventeen years) I am a dirty hacker programmer and I use Optimizely in a way that probably makes my colleagues weep but which I think actually makes it more valuable as a product. I want to talk about breaking some of the common rules that people put up around this testing.

Note that you need to understand what you’re doing here, I am not recommending this if you are new to the product or multi-variate testing. You also need a good stream of traffic to work on. I do, this is working out for me. One piece of good practice I would keep is: decide how you are going to judge the test before you start it and don’t change your measure once you’ve started. If it is clear your initial metrics aren’t helpful, design a new test. The knowledge you’ve gained is valuable for formulating the right measures.

Don’t change the test once you’ve started it

Only once the test has started can you understand what the problem you are dealing with is and what responses you can take to the issues. If you have a question about what is happening in the test feel free to create a new variation (always with a good name!) and throw it into the mix. I sometimes start with one variation and end the test with nine. It’s better to test immediately than speculate.

Changing a variation (no matter how tempting) is dangerous though as you’ll have to remember the differences and when you applied them. I prefer to spawn variations to changing an in-flight variation. Of course fixing bugs and unintentional consequences is fine. You’re looking at the long term rate not the initial performance.

Don’t change the traffic

I’m not sure this is a general shibboleth but I play around with traffic massively during the test. The great thing about Optimizely is that it takes care of the math so feel free to mix the allocation of traffic freely. If you have a run-away winner early on then don’t be afraid to feed the majority of traffic to it.

Make the test work for the whole audience

I don’t believe in this, make the test work for the easiest audience segment to access. I frequently only test on modern browsers. If you find a trend then shock, horror it often works for the whole audience. It’s about fast feedback not universal truth.

The biggest advantage is that you can use CORS-compliant browsers to do bigger changes to the pages under test.

Don’t change the underlying content

If you take your best performing variation and apply it to the page then the “Original” variation should trend to the variation. If it doesn’t then you know something is up with your measuring. I actually think it is really helpful to make a succession of changes to the base content, based on the tests until the Original variation is performing better than the individual variations.

Once Original is top performing variation you can stop testing the page.

A/A testing has problems

So what? Optimizely has a few issues, you need to deal in big numbers. A/A can be helpful but if you are working in five digit numbers or double-digit percentages then don’t worry about the noise.

Tests have to look good

If your theory is accurate it absolutely does not have to look good. If you are worried that your hypothesis is not working because of the visuals: get over yourself and admit that the idea was weak and you need to rethink it.

I like to start off all variations looking a bit crappy and then seeing whether they can be outperformed by an improved appearance. Often the answer is no; there is a rule of diminishing returns on the appearance of a variation. Things get over-designed on the web all the time. However by trying better looking variations in increments you know exactly how much effort to invest.

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