Homepage vs User Experience: What's Your Strategic Focus?

Are you all about your homepage or all about user experience?

colorful sofaA myopic focus on your website’s homepage can lead to missed opportunities to connect with visitors and get your message out.

When the Web was in its youth and search was just starting to change the way we found anything and everything on the Web, many businesses treated their website like an online brochure. The text was rarely changed and visitors were expected to open and read the site in a particular order like they would a tri-fold piece of paper.

As Karen Skidmore points out, social media has changed all that. When you share a link to your blog post on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn you are inviting visitors right into your blog and the content they want with one click—bye-bye brochure! These visitors may never bother to look at your homepage. If they value the content you’re creating, they are are far more likely to add your blog to their RSS reader, or bookmark your blog (not your homepage) to return with ease. If you’re smart and take advantage of sidebars and footers, visitors will also have consistent and clear options to DO SOMETHING on every page and be able to easily navigate your site without going to the home page at all.

The interior pages of your site are now valuable destinations based on their content alone, simply because the search engines are better than ever at cutting right to the chase and serving them up to users. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped clients find specific information on large websites by ignoring the site’s own search function and just “asking Google.” From energy saving light bulb programs with a local power company to fixes for odd behavior in MS Office programs, a search engine like Google will often return a higher quality result with less fuss than the site’s own search.

In addition to learning how we can search effectively, it’s important to understand the implications for user experience on our own sites—for example, you should expect that people will arrive at internal pages on your site based on the content alone. So make sure your content is strong, your pages are search engine friendly, and that you treat each page as an opportunity to connect with your visitors by including a way to contact you and a “call to action” that draws them into your sales or conversion process.

We also agree with Allen Smith who reminds readers that a homepage must simply and cleanly represent the content on the site in an organized fashion, but that it is not the most important page on the site because visitors are just passing through. In fact, you want them to come on in and stay a while so your homepage should encourage them to  pass through quickly and move on to your other content, services, products, etc.

Lessons learned from User Experience

The homepage must still do its job properly, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that the job is now to set up the story, strike a tone and lead people deeper into the site—not to be a destination in and of itself like it was back in the day when single-page and brochure sites were everywhere. That means don’t overload the homepage with content, but do use it to set expectations for user experience. We treat the homepage as one part of the web presence ecosystem—an important part to be sure, but just a part.

The myth of homepage primacy is so well established that it shows up as #17 on the UXMyths.com site, dedicated to “debunking user experience misconceptions.” They reference Gerry McGovern’s statistic from his post The decline of the homepage which notes “One of the largest websites in the world had 25 percent of visitors come to the homepage in 2005, but in 2010 only has 10 percent.” It’s important that a homepage be well-designed and easy to navigate so that visitors know where to go next if they start there—but the reality is that you have no control over their starting points or how they navigate your site. Gerry is CEO of Customer Carewords and works with some of the world’s largest tech companies. He believes that customers come to a site to complete tasks that are important to them and that companies must identify their visitor’s top tasks and the words they use to describe them rather than imagining customers will use industry jargon to get their needs met.

When push comes to shove, the Web works for people BECAUSE they create their own experience—these days businesses need to provide an attractive and functional environment, offer great content, make it easy to stay in touch, and then get out of the way.

What does all of this mean for your business web presence? Hopefully it translates to a more balanced emphasis on the different aspects of your site that impact user experience, including: content, design, structure (aka information architecture), functionality, and business brand story. Think of your web presence as an ecosystem that has many interdependent parts including your website, social networking, blogs and more. You can create a welcoming environment for visitors to your site, but they will arrive with their own agendas and will remain fundamentally beyond your control. Do your best to keep them comfortable by making it as easy as possible to find what they need, complete their task, or otherwise get their needs met and you’ll be off to a great start.