Keeping your home page clean

Paul Boag

In the fight for real estate, usability and design aesthetics are often the first causalities.

One of the most common sticking points I encounter when developing a website is the sign off of the home page. Client’s want to cram it with as much content as possible, while the designer is seeking to maintain the integrity of the design. So, what is the best way of avoiding this kind of confrontation?

I am sure you have come across requests like this before…

I need the logo bigger, more space for news, events and features, shortcuts to key applications, more prominent navigation and can you make the search stand out. Oh yes, and I don’t want the page to scroll at 800 by 600. Also, sales would like to add banner advertising across the top and down the side.

In many cases these absurd scenarios occur because of a perception that the home page is the most valuable location on a website. As a result all the various departments clammer to get their piece of the limelight.

In the fight for real estate, usability and design aesthetics are often the first causalities. Below I outline four techniques I am starting to use in order to bring some sanity back to the home page scramble.

Recognizing the changing role of the home page

One of the first steps to home page utopia is to get the stakeholders (those who are fighting for home page prominence) to recognise that the home page doesn’t have the importance that it once did. In fact I think it would be fair to say that we are going to see a continued decline in the traffic going to home pages over the coming years.

Jakob Nielsen in his book “Prioritizing Web Usability” talks about a change he is seeing in the way users are interacting with the web.

There was a time, says Nielsen, when users who had a specific task would go to a site where they thought that tasks could be completed. For example, if they wanted information on the Crisis in Darfur they would go directly to CNN or the BBC. However, more and more it would appear that instead of turning to a specific site and finding content via that sites home page, they are instead looking to search engines. The search engine takes the user directly to the information they require thereby completely bypassing the sites home page. Obviously, this deep linking seriously reduces the prominence of the home page.

Add to this the rise of RSS feeds and more people accessing information via mobile devices, and you begin to see the focus shifting from the website home page towards the individual pages of content. That is not to say home pages are no longer important, they are simply not as important as once they were and so do not justify the level of competition they receive in some organisations.

Don’t rush into the home page

Another technique I am starting to use more often is to avoid addressing the home page too early in the process. By starting with standard textual pages (which after all make up the majority of the site) you get to set the design style before it gets diluted by the land grab for home page real estate. Once the client has “bought in” to the design they will perceive it as being more important and so are less likely to allow it to be railroaded by content demands.

However, delaying the home page development isn’t just a “political” move. It is also the right thing to do. A home page should reflect the sites content at the highest level and signpost the user to key content deeper in the site. In the majority of projects I work on the client hasn’t finalized all of the content in the initial design stage. In my opinion it is hard to create an effective home page until you have a full understanding of what content it is meant to signpost and represent.

Communicating the importance of white space

In the case of home page design the heart of the conflict between designer and client is often a perception of the importance of white space. Every designer knows that white space is a fundamental tool of good design, but we are often bad at expressing why in a way the client can associate with.

This is an area I have been thinking about a lot recently and I have come up with a possible solution which I am yet to try. It was inspired by the book “The Laws of Simplicity (Simplicity: Design, Technology, Business, Life)” which I am currently in the process of reading. On the subject of white space the author says:

“The opportunity lost by increasing the amount of blank space is gained back with enhanced attention on what remains.”

Or in other words; the more you add the less importance anything has.

I think this is where we sometimes go wrong as designers. We sell white space on the basis that it looks better. Instead we should be selling it on the basis that every item you add to the page detracts from the rest.

To help the client think this through I am wondering whether a point system of some kind might help. You might want to suggest that a user has 10 points worth of attention they can give to the home page. Every “module of content” added to the home page takes a minimum of 1 point. More points should be assigned to more important elements. This approach will quickly show that the more you add to a page, the more likely important elements are going to get lost in the crowd.

I am not sure whether the approach would work in practice or not, but it does strike me as a good way to focus the clients mind on what is important.

Embrace rather than fearing the fold

The killer blow to any home page design is when the client says: oh yes, and we want all of that to fit above the fold. This inevitably leads to smaller typefaces and less white space.

I think we need to work hard as designers to dispel the myth that users never scroll. Sure, users don’t always scroll but that is okay as long as we put less important elements further down the page.

The idea that users don’t scroll is horribly out of date and probably comes from the very early writings of Jakob Nielsen. However as early as 1997 he was suggesting that users were becoming more comfortable with the idea.

If your client needs further proof then install Crazy Egg or some other heat map service on the clients site. This will actually show where on the page a user chooses to click. You will see a decline lower on the page but not enough to justify putting everything above the fold.

The emphasis should be prioritizing content rather than cramming everything into the small space above this ill defined line that we call the fold.

But how?

Of course the fundamental problem with educating our clients, is that in many cases you cannot talk to the people that are demanding home page space. This is a very real problem and in many cases there is little you can do to overcome it. However I was impressed by Shane Diffily’s idea of running stakeholder workshops in his recent A List Apart article. Having a workshop at the beginning of a project where you can talk about good practice and dispel some of these common myths is a superb idea and should help a lot of projects run that much smoother.