A homepage dilemma

September 27, 2006

Deciding what to put on your site homepage can be a real dilemma. It’s like your websites shop front, it has a huge job to do but little space and depth to achieve everything it needs to. It’s particularly difficult for websites with loads of content or a wide range of products to sell. The prioritisation of space and what you display can be really difficult to decide upon.

The first hurdle is recognising what a homepage needs to do. As you would expect it’s the first page of a website that the majority of your users are going to see, a lot of those visitors won’t know who you are or what you do and therefore needs to answer some basic questions for them:

  • What is this? – Whenever I visit a website I like to be able to gauge what it’s about just by glancing over it
  • What do they offer to me? – Like the first question I want to be able to work out what they have to offer me or what it is I can do on their website.
  • Why should I be here? – As there are generally other sites with the same offerings, why should I invest my time and effort navigating yours.

Answering those questions to a new visitor is key. Ask any usability company and they will tell you that one of the first things they do when testing a new site in the labs is set users loose on the homepage and see what the initial impressions are. You’d be amazed the answers you get from this kind of research with some very high profile websites!

Of course that isn’t all that your homepage needs to do. It needs to tempt the users to stick around, be impressing and give them the routes into the website to find what they are looking for. A homepage should be aspirational; by this I don’t mean whimsical or covered in aspirational imagery, more that the scene it sets in the users mind should get them into the mood for browsing/reading/buying/doing whatever it is you want them to browse/read/buy/do.

Some of the things a homepage should look to contain include:

  • Site identity – if you have a company logo use it, it’s what anyone who’s heard of you before will identify with, and if they haven’t heard of you or seen it before you will want them to become familiar with it.
  • Statement of intent – let them know what you do, this doesn’t have to be in words it can be in pictures too.
  • Entry points – ways into the main areas of the website or the places you want users to end up (navigation is a whole article of it’s own!).
  • Search box – if you have a site search (including a booking form) make it prominent on the homepage.
  • Something that changes – if nothing ever changes on your homepage it’s doubtful you’ll get the repeat visitors you may require. This could be press releases, offers, tip of day or aspirational imagery etc.

There’s much more you can include of course but these five things above tend to be on every homepage.

You may ask ‘what of the websites who have an animated homepage with little to no content or navigation?’. Well, I consider these a kind of interstitial page, used to set the mood or reinforce brand. Not to everyones taste but they can be very effective for companies who have a strong brand to live up to. Most sites using this kind of page will have the equivalent of the traditional homepage as the next page in the user journey.

Most of all a homepage needs to show that you are a credible outfit. If you don’t build trust with your users you won’t operate effectively in the online world. A common mistake of highly brand driven companies is treating the web like a piece of software and instead of reinforcing their brand it kind of gets lost amongst the pixels. If you are a brand led company, remember that you wouldn’t treat television in such a way so please have respect for the powerful brand building tool that the online environment has become!

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