At some point, you've probably visited a business's website, taken one look, and immediately had the urge to pound the "X" button. A new study has some insight into why that might be.

EyeQuant, a German-based website design consultancy founded in 2009, uses artificial intelligence to study websites and determine what features are likely to connect with visitors--and which are likely to drive them away.

The company's algorithms can assign every website a "clarity score" of 0 to 100 based on the cleanness and simplicity of its design. So a website with tons of text, menus, and ads will have a low rating, while something minimalist (think: Apple) will score highly.

 inline image

Recently, EyeQuant studied 300 websites for e-commerce companies--from car rental agencies to electronics outlets to travel sites--and its AI assigned each a clarity score. The company then compared those scores with the bounce rate provided by Web analytics site Alexa. (A site's bounce rate refers to the percentage of visitors who leave a website without clicking anything, a bad outcome for a company looking to turn visitors into customers.)

The study, first reported by Fast Company, had some pretty clear findings: People were more likely to bounce from cluttered websites than from clean, minimalist ones.

What most surprised Fabian Stelzer, EyeQuant's co-founder and CEO, was the robustness of the results: Clarity and bounce rate had a correlation coefficient of -0.57 out of a perfect -1.00. "Think about the reasons you would leave a website without doing anything. There's a whole range of things that can make you do that," he says. "Maybe the page loaded too slowly, or the offer you thought you'd see wasn't there, or there's a giant ad in your face, or an alarm clock goes off in another room. So to have one single reason--the design's clarity--have such a strong correlation with bounce rate is really interesting."

So how can you design a website that's uncluttered but also gives viewers the information they need? Stelzer shared some advice with Inc. on how to create a landing page that's simple and welcoming, and thus most likely to turn visitors into customers.

1. Focus on the three Ws

Stelzer says there are three things that need to be clear to a website visitor when they arrive. What is your business selling? Why should they care about it? And where should they go next if they want to engage? "We work with so many companies, mostly larger ones, and even they often don't get it right," he says. "One of the Ws will be missing. You want those three things to all be visible. You don't really need much more--if you have them, in theory, you have everything you need to get a user to convert."

2. Carefully choose what elements to include

 inline image

What makes a website appear cluttered, according to visitor perception? The primary culprit is text. EyeQuant's test users rated websites with the most words on the page as having the least clarity. Keep your descriptions or instructions limited, and hide navigation in expandable menus or tabs.

Other elements, like ads or tables, can also make a site seem too busy. Something that does work: large, high-quality photos. "Even if there's lots of stuff going on in the photo" Stelzer says, "it generally will not cause a perception of clutter."

3. Don't use carousels

Those slides that automatically change every few seconds? Avoid them at all costs. "I don't think you'll find any expert in conversion rates who thinks those are a great idea," Stelzer says. "It's typically the result of having many stakeholders involved in a design with many different ideas. They can't fit everything onto the homepage, and they decide on including a carousel." That outcome might please your company's various teams, but it won't be conducive to attracting customers. "They just don't work," he says.

4. Create a design-friendly culture

"The biggest enemy of clean websites is probably not bad designers," Stelzer says. "It's usually an organizational inertia." One frequently disastrous scenario: having design decisions be determined by the HiPPO, or the highest paid person's opinion. So if you're the one with the power to call the shots, make sure you're deciding based on data and feedback from the experts instead of what you personally like. "The cultural aspect of website design is often underestimated," Stelzer says.

5. Take a scientific approach

While the general finding is that clutter will drive people away, there are no hard and fast rules about what should or shouldn't be included on a website. "Some things will surprisingly work for some business while they don't work for the majority of others," Stelzer says.

Before making any design change, make sure you know what kind of impact it will have on your visitors. This can be derived from a survey of visitors or an A/B test rolled out to a small percentage of users. "All these methods are better than deciding based on subjective discussions, or going with your hunch," Stelzer says. "The key is moving toward a design process that's as objective as possible."