How Ascend Finds Effective, Surprising Webpage Designs

This demo illustrates evolutionary discovery in the real-world task of web pages to maximize conversion rate. Importantly, this is not a conceptual demo in a laboratory; It is an actual case study of an EC-based product in action.

This product, Sentient Ascend, demonstrates how evolution can be harnessed to build commercially viable products today. Customers pay real money to get the evolution results! The focus of this demo is to highlight how evolution is different from other existing technologies, i.e. how it discovers solutions that are not only effective, but are creative, and surprising to human experts. It therefore adds value that would be difficult to achieve in other ways.

In the case study presented in Paper 1, the goal is to design a web interface for a website that promotes educational programs. The original website was designed by human experts using state-of-the art tools. They then defined a search space, i.e. a number of elements and their values, such as the foreground and background colors, the search-button color and texts, etc. These values can be chosen differently to come up with new designs, 381,024 different ones altogether. Starting with a population that covered much of this space, evolution tested these designs online with real users; it then used crossover and mutation on the most promising ones to create new ones.

After testing 110 designs over eight weeks Ascend arrived at several that performed 38-45% better than the original. What’s most interesting is that those designs looked very different from the original human designs. They used striking colors, high contrast, active, personal language, and fewer elements. Human designers had overlooked these designs—indeed, they referred to Ascend as the “ugly widget generator”. However, these ugly widgets were highly effective in getting the user to click on the search button! Such discovery is what makes evolutionary computation unique in applications: It can find effective solutions that would be difficult to find in other ways. Sentient Ascend is an example of how such machine creativity can be industrialized.