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Use Your Real Estate Wisely

The question of establishing credentials touches on the broader issue of how to make effective use of real estate on the homepage. Using borrowed credentials is one example of how to assist in making the unknown into the known.

Still, many companies fail in other ways to make the most of space on the homepage. Some sites commit the sin of extreme minimalism, which frustrates users who want to get right to a particular location but are forced to spend valuable seconds hunting. Or, alternatively, they swing to the opposite pole, making the homepage so busy, so inundated with detail, that the consumer is fairly bewildered about where to begin.

In our experience studying the reactions of users, most web site visitors would prefer to see a happy balance between these extremes—a balance that announces the following information:

  • What the site is all about, for example, a place for buyers and sellers of Product X to meet.

  • The key features and functions available to users on the homepage, so users know what they can do and learn there.

  • Any special areas (perhaps time-sensitive), such as a holiday package or a featured story on alternative medicine.

Although homepage minimalism usually leaves visitors confused, we have observed that if a site becomes too busy, several potentially devastating consequences arise:

  • Visitors "block out" those sections of the page that they decide are less important or "advertising."

  • Users simply don't scroll below the fold; they don't explore beyond what fits on their screen when the site first appears.

  • In the worst cases, users become so overwhelmed that they either retreat to the left navigation bar to be taken off the page, or they exit the site altogether.

In each case, they miss out on key content and functionality because the page was not streamlined and prioritized. The problem of crowding and homepage "overkill" can seriously impede the effective viewing of a web site.

Why? Users will mentally "block out" advertising and any other sections that seem extraneous or hard to decipher. Similarly, they may never get far enough down the homepage to view areas of the site that may be of interest to them. Yet, left to their own devices, most will not scroll below the fold.

In user experience testing for a major retailer, we examined reactions to three variations on a homepage. The one to which consumers responded best was the version that was simplest, which clearly displayed the different products and services in the left navigation bar, introduced the different departments on the top navigation bar, and announced the "special" products, services, and for-sale items in the center frame.

Users consistently ask for homepages that are simple, clean, organized, and prioritized by content. As a rule of thumb, users tell us that the "stuff" above the top navigation bar is typically advertising and is therefore ignored, that the "stuff" below the fold is perceived as not all that important, and that the content in the right column is often perceived as less important.

Figure 3.4. (Next two images) The Starbucks (http://www.starbucks.com) and Gap (http://www.gap.com) homepages are both clean and well-organized; they are prioritized by content and fit into the area above the fold.

Knowing these perceptions, you can strategically use the homepage to direct users to where you want them to go. We suggest that you use the following order of importance in developing an effective use of homepage space:

First announce who you are and what you offer.

  • Prioritize the presentation of features, listing the most popular first.

  • Try to use a brief and visually based presentation of a feature and offer a hyperlink for the user who wants to learn more.

  • Try to limit the homepage to one online page. If this is not possible, place items that are least important to your site's objectives last—and don't be surprised if they're missed. Also, if you do have to place items below the fold, make sure that the placement of the "page break" doesn't obscure the fact that there is indeed "stuff" below the fold.

  • Avoid the temptation to feature everything you offer. One way to avoid doing this is to determine (in focus groups) how users "bucket" and "label" what you have to offer. This will enable you to group features logically and create names that clearly announce to the user what to expect. Grouping features helps reduce clutter.

We believe that following these suggestions will help you make effective use of space on the homepage. Of course, such is not the goal of design per se. What consumers really want are homepages that can be used intuitively—meaning that they can understand what you offer without having to second-guess your labeling, figure out the navigation path, or seek additional help. Establishing credibility and the wise use of real estate are two steps in this process. A third involves ensuring that the overall design of the page is in service of a given company's "concept."

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