Is Home Page Design Relevant Anymore?

by Jared Spool

This summer, I gave the keynote at the Seattle Web Design World conference. Afterwards, I received a question from Jim Fawcette, producer of the conference and the brains behind the Fawcette empire. Here’s what he asked:

I greatly enjoyed your keynote but, if it wasn’t our own conference, I would have asked: Is home page design even relevant anymore?

That’s a bit overstated, but between search engines, newsletters and RSS feeds the vast majority of traffic to our Web sites never sees the home page.

Now, IT people are a special category, admittedly, but for us Google is becoming the user interface. Sadly, I think.

IT people are solution driven, so they search for a highly focused topic to solve an immediate problem, such as “Using Eclipse 3 to connect to Oracle 10gR2,” or “Differences between using ADO 2.0 with the .NET Framework 2.0 instead of 1.1”.

A growing number of sites are just like yours in that they see a lot of traffic that bypasses their site’s home page, going directly to content pages.

As a result, these landing pages (the first page on your site the user encounters) have to perform the same functions as your home page, for these users. That turns out to be a lot easier than many designers think, mostly because they usually don’t really understand the true functions of a home page.

In studying users visiting sites, we learned a long time ago that there are only two important functions for a home page:

  1. The home page delivers the content to the user that they are seeking, (such as the top story on CNN,) OR
  2. The home page provides strong scent to those pages that contain the content the user seeks.

Those are the only two things users care about on a home page. (Lots of designers try to make the home page serve other functions, such as tell the user about things the organization cares about but the user doesn’t — such as financial news about the business or what new products are on sale — but users blow right past this content and pay no attention to it. We’ve found it’s all a waste of valuable design resources.) When designers focus on just these two things on the home page, users tell us the site is substantially more usable.

What happens when a user comes to a non-home-page landing page through something like Google? Well, the same two things. Hopefully, the site’s search engine marketing and optimization efforts have made it so that the page the user lands on meets criteria #1 (it has the content the user seeks). After all, that’s what the user is hoping for.

However, in those instances where it doesn’t have the content the users seeks on the landing page, the page needs to contain strong scent to get them what they want. This is more challenging because it implies the designers need to know (a) what the users are really looking for and (b) how to get them to that content. The same requirements of a home page (strong scent, the right trigger words, careful layout) are now true for every page the user can land at.

Google (and the other aggregators) have just made things that much more challenging. Yippee!