THE MAGAZINE      October 2002
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Home pages are among the most valuable real estate in the world. Each year, businesses and individuals funnel millions of dollars into a space that’s not even a square foot in size. And for good reason, because a home page’s impact on the bottom line is far greater than a simple measure of e-commerce revenues. It is your firm’s face to the world. Increasingly, potential clients will look at your online presence before doing business with you. Improving the home page multiplies the entire site’s business value, so following key guidelines for home page usability is well worth the investment. Here are 10 things you can do to increase the usability of your home page.


Make the Site’s Purpose Clear

1. Include a one-sentence tagline. Start the page with a tagline that summarizes what the site or firm does, especially if you’re new or less than famous. Even well-known firms presumably hope to attract new clients and should tell first-time visitors about the site’s purpose. It is especially important to have a good tagline if your firm’s general marketing slogan does not tell users what they’ll gain from visiting the site.

2. Write a window title that promotes good visibility in search engines and bookmark lists. Begin the title tag with the firm name, followed by a brief description of the site. Don’t start with words like "The" or "Welcome to" unless you want to be alphabetized under "T" or "W."

3. Group all firm information in one distinct area. Many visitors will need details about who you are. Good organizational information is especially important if the site hopes to support client relations, P.R. or recruiting, but it can also serve to increase a new or lesser-known firm’s credibility. An "About " section is the best way to link users to more in-depth information than can be presented on the home page.


Help Users Find What They Need

4. Emphasize the site’s top high-priority tasks. Your home page should offer users a clear starting point for the main one to four tasks they’ll undertake when visiting your site.

5. Include a search input box. Search capability is an important part of any full-featured Web site. When users want to search, they typically scan the home page looking for "the little box where I can type." So provide them with that box. Make your search box at least 25 characters wide, so it can accommodate multiple words without obscuring parts of the user’s query.


Reveal the Site’s Content

6. Show examples of real site content. Don’t just describe what lies beneath the home page. Specifics beat abstractions, and you have good stuff. Show some of your best or most recent content up front.

7. Begin link names with the most important keyword. Users scan down the home page, trying to find the area that will serve their current goal. When you start each link with a relevant word, you make it easier for scanning eyes to differentiate it from other links on the page. A common violation of this guideline is to start all links with the firm name, which adds little value and impairs users’ ability to quickly find what they need.

8. Offer easy access to recent home page features. Users will often remember articles, special services or promotions that were featured prominently on the home page. But they won’t know how to find those items once you move the features inside the site. To help users locate key items, keep a short list of recent features on the home page, and supplement the list with a link to a permanent archive of all other home page features.


Use Visual Design to Enhance, Not Define, Interaction Design

9. Don’t overformat critical content, such as navigation areas. You might think that important home page items require elaborate illustrations, boxes and colors. Users, however, often dismiss graphics as ads and focus on the parts of the home page that look more likely to be useful.

10. Use meaningful graphics. Images are powerful communicators when they show items of interest to the user, but they’ll backfire if they seem frivolous or irrelevant. For example, it’s almost always best to show photos of real people actually connected to the topic, rather than trying to illustrate with stock photos.


Dr. Jakob Nielsen is principal of Nielsen Norman Group and founder of the "discount usability engineering" movement, which emphasizes fast and efficient methods for improving the quality of user interfaces. He is the author of the best-selling Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity (2000). Formerly a Sun Microsystems Distinguished Engineer, he holds 67 U.S. patents, mainly on ways of making the Internet easier to use.

Portions of this article are adapted from Dr. Nielsen’s site, at box/20020512.html.



• Home Page Usability: 50 Web Sites Deconstructed by Jakob Nielsen (New Rider Publishing, 2001). It contains a complete list of 113 usability guidelines for home page design, as well as recommendations for how to best design 40 common home page elements to meet users’ expectations.

• Jakob Nielsen’s Web site provides a wide range of tips and advice on usability topics, as well as news, reviews and testing information.