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7 ways to improve your homepage

7 ways to improve your homepage Robin Stevens

The value of a strong web presence seems to rise with each passing week. Marketers are cutting broadcast and print advertising budgets as customers increasingly turn to digital channels for information. Those customers are finding information in new ways -- through Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social media channels, as well as through targeted online trade publications and communities. Once they initially connect with your products or services, however, it's inevitable: They're going to be paying a visit to your homepage to follow up.

How do you know if your homepage does everything it should to help your company build a strong ongoing relationship with your customers? More often than not, it's your customers who have the answer.

Let's take a look at seven ways you can boost the value of your homepage for your current and potential customers.

Listen to your customers
Do you know what your customers think of your website? The single most important thing you can do to improve your homepage is to listen to your customers talk about it. They'll tell you their top-priority needs from your site and whether you are successfully communicating with them.

Talk to a cross section of people who are representative of the different types of customers with whom your company does business. Listen for needs that are shared across customer types, and listen for those needs that are distinct. Don't ask them what they think about your company in general -- instead ask whether your homepage meets their expectations. Ask whether they think that anything important is missing from the homepage.

At White Horse, we examine web traffic patterns, customer survey data, and customer call center logs before we talk to customers. All of these provide extremely valuable insights into customer needs. But nothing beats a good, structured conversation with the human beings you do business with to understand what kind of an impression your homepage is making.

Clarify your value proposition
It is not uncommon for companies to fail to clearly communicate their major products or services from their homepages. This can be particularly true of business-to-business companies working in specialized vertical markets; it might seem easy to communicate with a specialized group of customers through offline channels, but then some sort of market shift occurs, and suddenly your website matters a lot.

Here's a story that is surprisingly representative. We worked with an airlines parts supplier that came to us because it needed to expand its global reach and shore up its domestic market base against competitors. The company's sales team complained that the website wasn't serving as good backup for their marketing and sales efforts, and they reported that customers said they couldn't find the company website using a search engine.

When our user experience architects evaluated the website, they found a homepage with little more than the company name and a "capabilities quick search." Primary navigation offered links to "Capabilities" and "Markets Served" along with the standard "News" and "About Us." With no dynamic content, nor even a tagline and positioning statement, there was no brand story to be drawn from the website homepage. No wonder the sales team couldn't refer their prospects to the site. And no wonder the site wasn't surfacing in search results -- there was no content for search engines to crawl.

Review your website homepage and ask whether it communicates quickly and clearly what your company does, and what your customers can get from you that they can't get from others. And ask whether it's communicated in language that your customers would use to describe you -- that's the language they'll use at a search engine.

Make sure your visitors know it's a homepage
There are two parts to this rule. One is about making sure your homepage telegraphs as such to your customers while they're on it. The second is about making sure they don't mistake another page on your site for your homepage. Both pieces are important.

First, make sure your homepage has all of the pieces and parts that tell a customer this is the primary navigational page on your site. According to the research-based usability guidelines used by the federal government, among others, the most important elements that users expect from a homepage are a masthead with tagline, distinct and weighted category links listed in order of priority, and all major content categories available and accessible. Chances are you have some marketing goals you'd like to layer on top of that, but don't forget to attend to baseline user needs.

The second part of this rule is to make sure that your homepage is distinct and different from all the other pages on your website. Do you think that both the web pages depicted below are homepages? Think again. The Cisco page is indeed a homepage (and, not incidentally, it also follows the value proposition guidelines discussed above).

But the Owens Corning page is actually an inside page for a building materials section of the company's website. Users might find this page via a referral from a newsletter, or simply by clicking on a navigational link. There is no clear indication from the navigation that provides cues about where the user sits in the site, and the page treatment reads as the front door to the site.

If research guidelines hold true (and they usually do), this page treatment will be problematic for the customers who use this site. Users like to know where "home" is. It gives a sense of structure and provides a spot for reorientation should they become frustrated trying to find something or complete a task.

Provide a clearly marked and functional search
When we bring customers into listening labs and observe their use of client websites, we're always reminded of the importance of search on a website. About half of customers look immediately for a search box when they are seeking something on a site. The other half use navigational categories and content links, so you have to support both.

Of course, government websites have to support both searchers and browsers, just like any other site. Even at a small size, you can scan the web page pictured below and see the search box highlighted in the upper right-hand corner. This placement provides solid support for those users who will inevitably scan for a search box before they move beyond the homepage.

Don't make it hard for these users (very likely half of your customers) to access the content on your site. Place your search box in an expected spot and mark it clearly and conventionally. Of course, your customers will also expect that your site search will return accurate, structured results from your entire website.

Format your content appropriately for the web
Customers don't read websites, they scan websites. As web usability guru Jakob Nielsen notes on Useit.com: "F for fast. That's how users read your precious content."

Users glance around a homepage to orient themselves, to ask whether they're in the right place, and to decide what it is they want to do next. And usually -- especially if they have the intention of doing business with you -- they have a goal in mind. Make sure your content is formatted to help them achieve their goals on your site.

The Loyola Medicine website depicted below does a nice job of balancing brand messaging with dynamic content. Elements of the page that are clickable are clearly marked as such, and the linked press release headlines at the right of the page will very likely get noticed by visitors because they are so clearly treated as content links. Content is short and to the point, and it's labeled by subject area. This is a site that respects its customers' time and needs.

Support your highest priority user paths
Primary navigational menus can provide an overall structure for your site, but there are very likely additional important paths to information that need to be highlighted for your customers. They want to connect with your products and services. Ask yourself whether the tools and information that appear on your homepage are helping them to do that. If you know that 70 percent of your visitors arrive at the site looking for product manuals, provide a clearly marked path to product manuals. If you're posting news and events links that no one is clicking on, consider eliminating them and finding a more effective channel to distribute that type of information.

The IBM.com homepage illustrates an effective elimination of clutter. It does a big job simply and effectively. Information is clearly structured under a strong primary navigation menu (note that search box at upper right). Brand messaging is edited and impactful. A secondary navigation treatment organizes information by task type, including learn, shop, develop & deploy, and get support. Each tab houses links aimed at different customer types (CIOs, business partners, developers, etc.). Combine all of that with an effective sprinkling of content in down-to-earth language designed to act as a magnet for search engine referrals, and you've got an effective homepage.

Ask your customers for feedback
I said it before, and I'll say it again: You've got to listen to your customers. They've got the insights you're looking for.

If you're redesigning your homepage (and overall web presence), it's essential to listen on an ongoing basis. Listen up front in order to plan your changes, and then listen while you show your customers your idea of what you think will work for them.

At White Horse, we often head into listening labs to watch users interact with a redesign prior to handing it over to engineering. User acceptance testing on a limited interactivity prototype is an effective method for spotting usability problems that can be solved before money is invested in technical development. We facilitate a website use sessions to gather structured customer feedback as they use the prototype to locate information and perform high priority tasks.

Revisions and adjustments can be easily made in response to this feedback. In addition, our clients often emerge from their observation sessions in these labs with a new round of ideas from customer comments that feed their next cycle of development.

The success of your homepage begins and ends with your customers' ability to use it for decision making about everything from whether they want to do business with your company to whether they can find the information they're visiting to find.

I hope you'll share your own tales from the trenches of customer feedback in the comments section below. Have you tested your homepage with your customers? Did you have any "a ha!" moments as a result of the tests? What do you think is the single most important thing you could do to improve your homepage? I look forward to reading your comments!

Robin Stevens is director of user experience and senior UX strategist at White Horse.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Robin brings over 15 years of product management, content development, and user experience direction to her user experience architecture role at White Horse. With a plethora of experience on the client side, she understands how to listen to her...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Robin Stevens

2010, July 30

Thanks for the feedback! I'm certainly not suggesting that we simply ask customers what to do or where to head next. But there are established methodologies for listening to customers in the course of their use of a web site, or listening to customers as they talk about the way that a certain product or service intersects with their personal or job-related needs that provides the fodder for breakthrough innovations.

As for Jakob Nielsen -- well, I couldn't agree with you more in some regards. If we all approached our website's like useit.com, it would be a bland Web world indeed. He's gathered too many important research baselines, however, to dismiss the import of usability as a key foundational element in any online digital presence. If it's beautiful but not useful, any product will quickly fall to the wayside.

Commenter: Franklin Grippe

2010, July 16

I think it is wise to be careful of over-emphasizing customer feedback. They can be the tongue of the angler fish, without care.

Customers are very myopic. They are more aware of where they are right now, than where they will be in the future. I agree that customer insight is important, for the here and now.

However, as insight towards innovation, it only takes you so far. I think as a brand, you have to be able to lead in a meaningful way, as much as anything.

And Jacob Neilson? Yikes. He would take all the branding and experience and richness out of just about any channel to the point of being sterile, if he had his way.

As much as I think usability is important, the immersion in the experience, to the point of forgetting it is a construct, when properly engineered, fosters a cognitive bond between a customer and a brand that is the most powerful connection. And I think those that architect these rich, immersive multi-channel experiences with brands, while not ignoring usability, will experience the greatest success.

There is just too much parody and more and more challengers at a faster and faster pace, to under-emphasize experience as the driving force of differentiation and facilitating choice.

Commenter: Brian McGibbon

2010, June 05

Great sight!