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Your Homepage Is a 30-Second Window of Opportunity: Don't Be Shy!

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Gary McClain and Tammy Sachs explore some of the insights they've learned from user experience testing regarding how to make the homepage as intuitive and "friendly" a space as possible.
This sample chapter is excerpted from Back to the User: Creating User-Focused Websites, by Gary McClain and Tammy Sachs.
This chapter is from the book

Channel surfing is an art on the World Wide Web. Users move from one site to the next at what seems like the speed of sound, barely waiting for a homepage to load before deciding whether it's really a place they want to hang around and explore. If they don't see what they're looking for on the homepage (or at any rate how to get to what they want), they won't stick around looking for long. The key to developing a successful homepage is to discover and use messages, words, features, and images that will capture the attention and interest of your audience. In this chapter, you will explore some of the insights we have learned from user experience testing regarding how to make the homepage as intuitive and "friendly" a space as possible.

Show Them What You Have to Offer

One of the biggest challenges of conducting business on the web is establishing a presence for a product or service for which there is no precedent. If people have no conceptual model for what a site provides, this challenge is all the greater: Users need to be educated about what is being offered. More importantly, they still need to be sold on the products and services. In other words, developers must be certain that what they are selling is clear and compelling to users, given the limited real estate on the homepage and the even more limited "window" you have to get their attention.

On this matter, we believe that the following insight speaks for itself. A new site offered consumers the ability to send email and greeting cards with video clips included. In order to do this, the user was required to use a web cam to record her video (of, say, a family portrait, new dog, or college reunion), and then she had to download software from the company's site that would permit the video to be included in the email or electronic card. These clips could thereafter be stored on the company's site for future use.

So far, so good. However, when testing the first version of the site, we learned that most people (including the technologically sophisticated) didn't know what a web cam was, much less what one might cost or how to obtain and install one. Also, many weren't sure what the benefit of this service was, or for what occasions they would use it. Most damning, the instructions for sending a video email or card weren't at all clear to prospective users. Indeed, most weren't even aware that they were first required to download a piece of software before using the service.

Through user experience testing for this client, we also learned that the largely text-based homepage did not excite people about the possible outcome of using the site. That is, users did not, by and large, share the developer's enthusiasm for being able to send user-friendly video emails and cards with videos.

Based on consumer input obtained through our testing, the company took the following steps to make their homepage work for them:

  • They displayed the image of a web cam and a direct path users could follow to purchase one at a discount without leaving the site (which was especially important for those that didn't own such equipment but wanted to use the service).

  • They created a visual flow chart that employed graphics to show how the site could be used to send a video card or email.

  • Finally, they placed photos on the homepage that illustrated the emotional benefits that could result from using the service—namely, the satisfaction of sharing videos of family reunions, the birth of children, college graduations, and so on with friends and family.

Similarly, we worked with a healthcare site that was introducing a radically new healthcare solution for consumers. On many levels, this solution parted ways from traditional managed care. Initially, user experience testing suggested that consumers simply didn't understand what the site was about. The final solution to this problem was to redesign the homepage so that it began with a brief explanation of how and why consumers would benefit from using this service versus managed care.

The main lesson we learned through these examples is that the key to effectively introduce a product or service that no one has ever heard of or used is to take responsibility for educating people about the service. In this "take no prisoners" approach, users must be made aware of both what they stand to gain by using a given web service or purchasing a product online, and what they stand to lose by failing to do so. We offer the following simple guidelines on how to effectively bring this about:

  • Don't try to tell people everything they need to know about the service—certainly not on the homepage. Give them just enough to let them know what's in it for them and what they might miss out on by not acting on the opportunity.

  • Provide a direct link to get more information—for those who want to "know it all."

  • Provide a link to a demo that walks the user through a real life transaction.

  • Use graphics and photos wherever possible, either to describe the process in simple terms or to illustrate what people stand to gain by using the service or product (for example, happy grandparents and excellent healthcare at a reduced price).

Figure 3.1. (Next two images) The homepages for the relatively unknown and enthusiastically greet the customer with the benefits of the site.

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