Hiring an Optimizer? Look For These 8 Traits

Hiring an Optimizer? Look For These 8 Traits

Conversion optimization isn’t necessarily something you can major in during college, so how can you tell who will be a world-class optimizer and who will just be..meh?

While there are many universal traits that define a good hire – proactivity, strong work ethic, critical thinking, attention to detail, and so on – there are some specific and unique traits that help optimizers flourish.

From talking to the most prominent conversion optimizers in the industry, we honed in on some of these specific traits. Of course, after talking to enough people, there was a huge variety of traits that came up. We narrowed it down as far as we could, and sent a survey out asking optimizers – those that have worked with and hired many other optimizers – to rank traits in importance. Here are the results:

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 11.53.19 AM

From there, we took the top 8. The top 5 – analytical mind, user/data drive, kaizen, process-oriented, and curiosity – were referenced by nearly everyone we talked to.

So if you’re hiring an optimization specialist, they may not have all of these traits, but try to check off as many of the following as you can (and feel free to comment below if we’re missing one or you think we’re totally wrong or something):

1. Be Analytical

“The number of CROs available however, is so small that it’s very difficult to find talent, but it’s also harder to try and start from scratch. If you were going to hire someone less experienced, I’d start with someone with an analytical mindset.”

– Oli Gardner (source)

As Peep mentioned previously, good optimizers are a friend of numbers. Of course, lots of people think numbers are not sexy and are even afraid of analytics. But you don’t have to be a total math nerd in order to be a friend of numbers.

Since quantified data tells us what’s going on, and how likely is X or Y, an optimizer needs to:

  • have a good command of one or more analytics tools – and know what to look for,
  • be able to check what people are doing or not doing on a website, page by page,
  • know how to identify where a website is leaking money,
  • be able to turn quantified data into insights.

In addition to analytics, an optimizer needs to have good command of statistics. They have to know enough to understand statistical significance and statistical power, probability, the importance of sample sizes and the representativeness of the samples, understand data pollution and so on.

They also have to have, as Craig Sullivan put it, “The ability to reason and use logic when analysing and interpreting your analytics data, reports, test results, insights, funnel, business model or other critical data. To use critical thinking in how you acts as a lens of interpretation. Solid quant research, data, visualisation skills.”

None of this should be surprising, as marketing is becoming more and more data-driven and technical.

How do you know if someone is analytical?

Peep wrote before that Craig Sullivan likes to ask them for a replay of activity (favorite, regularly used reports) to see if they can articulate their patterns. It’s intended to separate ‘those who pretend to do stuff in Google Analytics’ from those who can recall in a non-theory way. What he’s looking for is critical thinking/drilling/curiosity/segmentation – it’s not an exact rundown.

2. Be User and Data-Driven

“Keep users at the heart of everything you do.”

Craig Sullivan

Sometimes we forget about the human side of conversion optimization – that we’re not actually optimizing the experience for a collection of data points but for individuals looking to accomplish something on our websites.

Mike Street put it well in a recent article when he said, “Most companies forget there are humans landing on their sites and that the experience can be different for each visitor. When you understand the intent of your visitors you can solve experience issues and any barriers to conversion.”

Of course the data matters – it’s what drives your decisions. Follow the data and design for the user. To do this, optimizers need to be empathic and to be interested in human behavior, but they also need to recognize their own biases in analysis and be as data-driven as possible.

Here’s how Justin Rondeau, Director of Optimization at Digital Marketer, put it:

justin rondeau

Justin Rondeau

“Optimization is not about increasing conversions. Instead it is about meeting customer expectations! The only way to meet customer expectations is to dig deep into qualitative and qualitative data. Yes, you need to use both!

Qualitative data will provide you with indicators, i.e., how long someone is on site, which page they drop off on, time to conversion, source, etc…

Quantitative data humanizes these indicators. If you are only focused on the ‘what’ your solution is only focused on your opinion and not the user’s wants or expectations. You are not your customer. Use qualitative data to find out why people are acting a certain way on your site.”

3. Kaizen (Never Stop Improving)

“Encourage continual learning and the pollination of new ideas. Lead by example.”

Craig Sullivan

Kaizen is the process of continuous improvement, by everyone, everyday, everywhere. Kaizen.com says organizations the embody kaizen principles do so with the following guidelines:

  • Good processes bring good results
  • Go see for yourself to grasp the current situation
  • Speak with data, manage by facts
  • Take action to contain and correct root causes of problems
  • Work as a team
  • Kaizen is everybody’s business

While this embodies a complete organizational philosophy, you can recognize this trait in optimizers by their willingness to keep learning and keep trying, keep learning and keep changing.

As we’ve written before, iterative testing is for those who lack a crystal ball (everyone). Not all tests will be winners, but even when you do get winners, there’s always room for improvement. Another embodiment of this trait is a quote by Brian Balfour, “growth is never done.”

Not to mention that external factors, like channels, tactics, technologies, and your audience, will continue to change. It takes an adaptable person to iterate and improve with them.

Here’s how Brian Balfour hires people like this:

Brian Balfour:

“We try to be very careful of who we hire and make sure one of their personality traits is grit. Knowing that what you are working on will never be fully optimized, that you may have to re-do it all in the near future, and that your job will never be done can be tough for some to handle. We often go through times of constant failure. The only way to get out of that is having the grit to stay focused, stay true to the process, and focus on quality experiments.”

So you’ll notice that the best optimizers are never okay with, “good enough.” They continue to tweak and change, and these incremental improvements add up to exceptional success.

4. Be Process-Oriented

“If you can’t describe what you are doing as a process, you don’t know what you’re doing.”

– W. Edwards Deming

Conversion optimization is becoming increasingly SEO-ified, so you’ll see tons of blog posts with titles that sound like this:

  • 101 A/B Tests to Run Right Now
  • 50 CRO Tactics To Try
  • How Changing X to Y Increased Conversions 448%

Problem is, CRO is not a list of tactics. Successful optimizers have a process they follow (there are many different frameworks out there. Peep put it best when he said, “Amateurs focus on tactics where pros focus on processes.”

Other optimization specialists agree. Here’s Alex Harris, CRO Manager at Perficient.com:

alex harris

Alex Harris

“After working for over a decade as a conversion-focused web designer, I thought I had a solid testing process. This process was just a list of tactics and not a clear system. This gave me inconsistent results and my tests were only winning 60% of the time. Once I started evaluated my process and create a clear system, I was able to achieved a 80-90% percentage of winning tests. Becoming process oriented and having an detailed system is essential to mastering CRO.”

Joel Klettke also mentioned the “ability to create and follow processes,” as a trait of winning optimizers. He continued, “you need to be systematic in how you think about, assemble and test the elements of CRO, or you’ll wind up chasing rabbits down worthless holes.”

If you’re interested in implementing a cleaner process, check out our ResearchXL framework.

5. Be Curious

“The single most impactful tool for CRO is curiosity.”

Oli Gardner (source)

Of course, curiosity could be a universally positive trait for any specialist, but it’s especially important for optimizers. We need to be always asking ‘why.’ As Peep said in a previous article:


Peep Laja

“The world is not simple, yet it’s natural for people to oversimplify everything. Optimizers have to be better than that. There is no “people always prefer” or “who would ever.” A good optimizer knows that the world is not the way she sees the world, and that .

When you’re doing conversion work, you need to have the right mindset: there are no absolute truths. Conversion optimizers should have no dogmas. There is no “this always works.” What’s working for one website, does not necessarily work for the other.”

The specific questions an optimizer asks are endless, but could include:

  • What’s the context? Who is deciding over what? Who all are involved?
  • What does the purchasing process and cycle look like?
  • Why are people doing what they’re doing on the product page? Is it what they want to do, or is it because of the way the layout is designed?
  • What matters to them when shopping for paper shredding services?
  • Which emotional triggers matter here?
  • Is it cause or correlation? Or random?

Critical thinking and asking the right questions are very difficult skills to teach. But it all starts with questioning everything, wanting to see proof for each claim.

Bobby Hewitt, founder of Creative Thirst, agreed, saying, “Without an insatiable curiosity that demands more, you won’t get to the root.” He explained that a “great conversion rate optimizer should never stop asking ‘why.’”

Craig Sullivan also ranks it as one of his most important traits to look for when hiring optimizers. Here’s how he explained it:

Craig Sullivan:

“Curiosity – wanting to know how everything works – how the analytics data is collected, what a bounce rate really means, what the reports are actually saying from an atomic layer up. Someone who will not give up because they’re interested, they want to find out or they absolutely have to know the truth, how it works and what it all means.”

It’s kind of an all-encompassing trait, but it’s hard to teach someone to be curious. So find someone who is naturally someone who asks, “why.”

6. Be Detail-Obsessed and Diligent

“Most people don’t have the patience to absorb their minds in the fine points and minutiae that are intrinsically part of their work. They are in a hurry to create effects and make a splash; they think in large brush strokes.

Their work inevitably reveals their lack of attention to detail – it doesn’t connect deeply with the public, and it feels flimsy.”

Robert Greene, Mastery

Yes, every job description says (or implies) that you’re ‘detail-oriented.’ But to excel in optimization, you have to be detail-obsessed.

There are many avenues of optimization that require detail obsession. From software QA to analytics health checks, to attention to design detail and going through qualitative data with a fine tooth comb, there’s no room for sloppiness.

Craig Sullivan explains this as the ability to see the big picture as well as the “small details, important interactions, places where there are gaps between the steps in the experience, moments of incremental delight.”

7. Be Humble

“True humility is when you can surprise yourself more than others; the rest is either shyness or good marketing”

― Nassim Nicholas Taleb

There’s no room for egos in optimization.

You’ll find that many CRO articles lambast the HiPPO, and for good reason: opinions, no matter how highly paid, aren’t worth much compared to humility and data. As Joel Klettke put it, “there can be no egos in CRO – anything can change, and you can’t get married to one element or angle, because it could be the wrong one.”

Oli Gardner continued on that point, saying: “It can be really hard to let something go when you’ve sweated over it…If it loses, you have to have the courage to throw it away. The best way to do that is to celebrate the fact that you learned something from the failure.”

And that’s where the lean startup mentality comes into play. You have to learn to love failure, in the sense that you’re learning something. Better than continuing on a disillusioned path of bias and dissonance at least.

Here’s how Alex Harris put it:

alex harris

Alex Harris

“Many CRO experts have years of experience, ​but we are all still learning everyday. When you think you know everything about executing successful tests, even the most experienced optimizers will be surprised when a hypothesis fails. Realize this cycle of trial and error is a never ending cycle of knowledge. Every website, project or experiment is unique and the best results from surrounding yourself with people smarter than you.”

Craig Sullivan, too, is a big proponent of humility in optimizers. Here’s what he wrote in a previous CXL article:

Craig Sullivan:

“So next time you hire a UX or CRO practitioner, go for the one who shows humility — who may not know from looking at your company’s engine with one glance what’s wrong — but who will roll up their sleeves and find out, using every tool at their disposal to find truth, solutions and the desired outcome.”

8. Understanding Design and User Experience

Great user experience leads to conversions. As Jason Goldberg, founder of Fab.com, once said:

“User experience matters a lot. More than most people realize. The best designed user experiences get out of the way and just help people get sh*t done.
 Less is more. If you have to explain it, you’ve already failed.”

While an optimizer doesn’t have to be a design expert, they should be able to tell good design apart from bad design and be able to articulate the difference. What could be better and why? What does the data suggest? How are users currently using it? What problems do they run into? How can we fix them? These are the internal questions a good optimizer will be asking constantly.

In addition, sometimes optimization requires an innovative leap, even a data-driven redesign project, and they’ll need to work with visual designers to get the work done. They should have a library of best practices based in design theory to stand on.

Bonus: Creativity

I didn’t include this in the original survey because I had brushed over it. Creativity felt like one of those words that can be used to describe most successful practitioners, not just in optimization. However, Kyle Rush mentioned that it was the most important trait of optimizers, and I think it should have been included on the original survey.

Creativity is important because for coming up with persuasive copy, creating innovative tests to break through a local maximum, and just generally for thinking outside the box and testing fearlessly.

Optimizely recognized this as a core trait of successful CRO hires. They advise that you, “identify an individual that will find innovative ways to reimagine your website.”


I’m sure there are many other traits we could have listed. For instance, I mentioned we left off universal traits like hard working, persistent, personable, and optimistic. But there are also traits specific to optimization that we left off or that were ranked lower on our survey. I think that’s mainly because they are skills that can either be learned or brought in as a complement to an optimization specialist. Things like copywriting, coding skills, etc…

But as this list shows, there are many skills that come together to make a perfect optimization person. While it’s tricky to find a unicorn with all of the above traits, the more the better, and try to check off at least a few when hiring your next optimization genius.

Did we miss a crucial trait? Let us know in the comments.

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  1. Hey Alex

    Great Posts!

    Will keep these 8 traits in mind when I’m gonna hire an optimizer for my site.
    Thank you so much and more of this PLEASE! :)


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Hiring an Optimizer? Look For These 8 Traits