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Don't Forget to Architect the Home Page

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In: Columns > Wide Open

By David Wertheimer

Published on March 24, 2004

One of the hardest things to do during Web site creation is to finalize a vision for the home page. So much to do, and so little real estate! How will users find anything? Where will it all fit?

Yet the same questions that stymie home page development often magically disappear inside the site, where suddenly, logic and order rule. Major items go in top- or left-hand navigation schemes. Subcategory navigation squeezes under the main lists, either through clever spatial allotments or more-clever DHTML and Javascript tricks. Promotional items cascade down the right-hand side or across the page above and below major content.

Why is this so? Several reasons:

The good news is that Google’s continued dominance has brought the trend in home pages toward lighter, cleaner designs. Urging their continued dominance is not a new argument, but it bears repeating, as too many sites (for example: Amazon, The New York Times, and MSN.com) still do not practice this policy well.

The solution is to stop trying so hard with the home page and start thinking about how the rest of the site works. Functionality and placement become more obvious inside the site. Why not carry those same principles backward, onto the home page?

A prime factor in lightening the home page burden is that home pages aren’t the all-encompassing portals they once were. Search engines still lead users deep into sites, and initial exposure is often not the home page but an internal content area that showcases an entirely different set of priorities. Only with a second or third click do users find the home page, which they expect to deliver better functionality or explanation, not necessarily the kitchen sink.

Therefore, if the home page is not necessarily the starting point, it doesn’t have to be the catch-all presentation device like, say, a magazine’s cover. It has to continue the brand definition and extend functionality, whether that is more simply executed or more accurately explained.

Users are increasingly goal-oriented online; they arrive with a purpose, and they want to achieve their goals as smoothly and easily as possible. Some recent arguments even contend that users don’t care what page they’re on, relative to a Web site’s hierarchy, so long as they’re making progress toward their goals. That may not be an all-encompassing argument, but the underlying tenet rings true: one needs to identify position in a site structure only if one is confused or lost.

Bearing that in mind, a well-designed Web site will have simple, useful navigation and a moderate (or less) amount of clutter on internal pages. Ground is ceded to the presentation of content, and utility finds logical placement, sometimes by default. This should be the standard site-wide.

That brings us back to the home page, which may be the first or the fourth page a user visits during a session. It should maintain a similar navigational structure to internal pages. This is not because it’s a good introduction, but because it may be part of the continuing progress of the user. A visitor could quite conceivably go from an article to a section index to the home page, inside-out; if that is the case, how disconcerting might it be when the home page looks and works differently than the inside? (Even ultra-simple Google maintains the same top-of-page links on its home page as it does on its result pages.)

The same rules apply to the myriad interests angling for home page positioning. Many sites have one or more links or promotions that go to specialty or off-site pages; these are miniature advertisements that don’t appear elsewhere on the site. Rather than cluttering the home page with one-off opportunities, find ways to integrate these links with the rest of the site, in places that make sense and promote consistency. If said placements overlap on the home page, so much the better.

The idea is not to revolutionize home page design but to ensure that it embraces the activity within. Let the home be integrated rather than stand-alone. Your users will appreciate it.

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Related Topics: Information Architecture, Web Design

 

David Wertheimer is the owner of User Savvy, an Internet usability and strategy consultancy. He lives and works in New York City.

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