In many cases, the design and content of a “home page” – the first page you see when you view a web site from its document root – owes its existence more to tradition than sense. Perhaps a home page speaks to the idea of a “cover” in the same way as a cover for a book. However, web sites don’t have pages that need protecting from the outside world – quite the opposite in fact. In the age of Google and ever-increasing findability, providing a summary of the site is often unnecessary. There are several other reasons to abandon home pages as well. Here are a few thoughts I’ve been having about the issue.
At the risk of over-using the book cover analogy, let me first point out that not all dead tree media has covers. Newspapers, for instance, do not. They just show you the news. Their identity as a well-understood informational device and context of use needs no introduction. It should also be noted that their information architecture is also rooted in tradition: readers expect to find things like headline news, editorial sections, sport and business news sections. In this sense they are similar to blogs, which traditionally have no home page. Blogs and newspapers just give you the beef. In the latter case this is supplemented by categorisation, comments and perhaps blogrolls and related links. Again, a well-understood pattern.
Many web sites could do well to remove their home pages. In so doing they would remove an unnecessary barrier to their understanding for first-time visitors, have more chance of attracting non-committed users further into the site, and probably raise the site’s search engine ranking.
The best examples are usually e-commerce sites based on a search-match-detail architecture. Many such sites dedicate their home page to a search form and general promotional material (the latter gets ignored – always). But what is a search form but a means to an end? It does nothing to aid the “purchase proposition.” Instead, the customer is forced to fill it out to see whether the site has what they want. This is compounded by the design community’s rather belated realisation that “advanced search” is to be avoided in most cases. Google has set a certain expectation in this regard, which is wise not to ignore.
So, why not simply show some results on the home page? Exploring results set is how people will spend a lot of their formative time on the site, so it would seem best to get them into the swing of it from the start.
When people first arrive on the site, it hardly matters what products you show them in a results set – what matters is how the results set is executed. Are there pictures? Are they large or otherwise informative? Are there easy or innovative ways of winnowing the results? How much can I tell by scanning the list? The list is endless as it is unpredictable, so it is best to show people as much as possible (design constraints allowing, of course).
Many times I’ve felt a concious disappointment at filling out a search form only to have something annoy me. Since it is usually my first time looking at the results set, I don’t know if my results are representative or not, and I’ve already invested some effort in filling out the search. I am therefore forced to either try a few more times, or leave. Quite often, I leave. So, showing results up front may also prime people for what to expect on further searches. Search results lists can look busy when you first see them, particularly when this is in contrast to a sparse home page. Taking advantage of the fact that people are not looking for detail when they first come to the site plays well here: they can get a feel for what’s on offer without the burden of having to concentrate on the data presented. If this is true, then perhaps loading even more into the “real” results set might be acceptable once a light version on the “home page” results have been seen.
Zoopla.co.uk (new window) is a case in point. It erroneously adopts a “simple” home page followed by a complex results set. The results set is in fact very well executed, but the home page does nothing to communicate that, other than by attempting to explain in words what it does. But the words won’t get read. The attraction and power of the site is in its results set.
It’s not hard to image Zoopla.co.uk presenting its results set as a home page with only a few minor modifications. A number of interesting and useful features would then be immediately presented: the last sale price; the “Zed Index”; price estimate refinements right there on each listing; invitations to add sales information; comparative prices in nearby areas… if you’re thinking of buying or selling your home, it’s a feast! The fact that the data is for a random place in the UK doesn’t matter – now you know what’s on offer, hit that search box!
Incidentally, scrolling and “the fold” are irrelevant here. If you even noticed that you scrolled, I’ll give you a medal. If you didn’t scroll, you most probably would not have explored the site no matter how well it was designed.