What makes a good home

Most visitors to a website still arrive at its front door – the home page. Getting them to cross the threshold involves a complex set of considerations, David Bowen says.

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The home page is the most important part of any website. Not as important as it used to be, because so much traffic heads straight from a search engine deep into a site. But in all the sites whose traffic I have studied the home page is always the most visited page.
So far, so obvious. What is much less clear is what the home page is for, at least on a site that does not have a specific role. There have been fashions, of course – but no settling of opinion on what makes a ‘good’ start to a website. So, here are some ideas.

The three role trick

Maybe we should start with the basic questions: who are we talking to? what do we want to say to them? Except that isn’t basic enough. Try another one: what is a home page?
I see it as three quite different things, which makes it quite unlike any other medium. It is a set of signposts. It is the front cover of a magazine. And it is a billboard. Each organisation needs to decide what the balance between the three is, which is why getting it right is such a complex business.

Show not tell

The signpost role is the most straightforward. The majority of people coming to a home page have a good idea of what they are looking for, so show them where to go. Here there is a body of good practice, summed up with the golden rule of usability: give people what they expect, or ‘be conventional’. Display links clearly, don’t surprise us with what they are and don’t be clever with the labelling.
All developments here build on this conventionality. Most are to do with providing quick routes to inner content. Double-decker navigation can work (so, if you are Roche, can quadruple-decker navigation). ‘Mega dropdown panels’, which generate a large selection of sub-links under each link, are becoming popular (see, for example, the Statoil home page) and Jakob Nielsen’s usability tests have shown they are well accepted. They are certainly more stable than wobbly dropdown mouse-over menus.
An advantage of these panels is that there is less need for ‘quick links’ to popular content in the body of the page. That helps keep the page short – of which more later.

Play the picture card

The signpost role is demand-driven – you are giving visitors what they want. The other two roles are supply-driven: you are giving them what you want. Easier in some ways, but also riskier, because success cannot be measured by usability tests (a point ignored by rather too many web builders).
The home page can be thought of as a magazine front cover if the site can be thought of as a magazine. This is a good idea, for two main reasons. First, it tells the company to make it interesting, engaging, not just a giant filing cabinet. Second, it makes the concept of the web much easier to explain to print-driven colleagues and bosses.
It also makes the role of the home page clear. A good magazine’s front cover is carefully constructed to say to readers ‘Take me off the shelf, read me’; a good web home page should say ‘You know you want to click this link. Go on, do it’. Graphics are important, so are stories and – most of all – headlines. That is why every major website should have an editor, in the journalistic sense; someone who knows the tricks of making a front cover irresistible. Very few sites do this job well; General Electric tries hard, so does Johnson & Johnson.

Up the bidding

Finally, the billboard role. This is the subtle one. For many organisations and people, the home page will be the first place they meet. I hear of a job opportunity at Company X; I go to its website; whether I apply or not will be influenced by what I feel in the first few seconds. I am a potential customer; I go to the site; does this company look the sort of organisation I want to do business with. Investors, ditto; and so on.
That is why the home page is like a billboard. You have seconds to make an impression, and no second chance. What messages do you want to transmit? Here, there are many good examples, so that is the best way of explaining what I mean. Johnson & Johnson’s home page is a pure billboard, using case studies and videos to get across the single message ‘We care’. Siemens’ trendsetting page tells the world that it is at the razor edge of technology. BMW says ‘We are cool, we are German, we are sophisticated’. Goldman Sachs, with its aggressive splash page, says ‘We are confident’.
But there are other ways of getting messages across. Schlumberger, an oil services company, is talking to other engineers who, frankly, would scoff at any dramatic single statements. So its page is purely functional – a giant set of signposts. That is as clear a message as any splash. Complex, isn’t it?
And what about Johnson & Johnson? I have described its home page as both a magazine front cover and a pure billboard. Is that possible? Certainly – but only if you accept that complexity and ambiguity are part of the subtle art of home page building.

Stick or scroll?

Should a home page scroll or fit on one screen? There is no consensus, but I think the answer is clear. If you are providing a set of signposts, if you can count on visitors working to find what they want, make the page as long as you like. If not, keep it on one screen.
Would you put some of your headlines inside the magazine? Would you continue a billboard round the back? Unless you can make a really good case, based on the three roles of the home page, don’t let it scroll. It’s difficult but, as many of the best sites show, it’s quite possible.

First published 10 March, 2010
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