First impressions: Homepage usability deconstructed

Ah, the Web page. Your home page is your company’s electronic face to the world.
It’s important to make a good first impression.
Most of the time, we’re preoccupied with making our sites work, adding “cool” features, and assembling mounds of content has left us forgetting the most important part of the Web: the users.
Since we can’t all be Web usability experts, we turn to author Marie Tahir for advice.
Tahir recently co-wrote a book with usability guru Jacob Neilson called “Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed,” where she painstakingly picks apart popular home pages in an uncompromising autopsy of usability.
Tahir has culled tons of usability tips from years of research as Director of Strategy at the Nielsen Norman Group. Tahir also worked at Lotus, where she pioneered field research and user profiling methodology and was responsible for the usability of the SmartSuite product line.
She is now Director of User Experience at Intuit.
We asked Tahir to offer her tips on the landscape of the home page, its links, navigation, content presentation and how to make a home page easier to use.
Q: What was your core reason to write a book about a websites home page?
Tahir: Design teams spend a great portion of their time on the home page.
Rightfully so, because the home page is the first impression you make with your customers.
It’s one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in the world because in this tiny little space you can have millions of dollars pouring in and out of a company, so it’s worth giving it its due time.
However, what I’ve found from working within the industry is people focus on the wrong things.
We want to give some constructive guidelines on how to do it right and what mistakes to avoid.
Q: When designing a home page, your guidelines say to put up the highest priority tasks you want your visitors to do. A lot of sites have too much going on in the home page. How many should a page have?
Tahir: Between one and four of your highest prioritized tasks should be emphasized.
This is one of the toughest challenges for designers because the whole company often gets involved and there is a lot of pressure to make the home page a democracy to represent every little silo of the company, no matter how unimportant it is to the customer.
That’s really not paying due diligence to your customer.
Q: What are some effective ways a site can convey information about the company? Should that information even be on the home page?
Tahir: I think the information should be on the home page.
One of the big roles of the home page is to explain what the company behind the service or product is all about.
That’s important to potential investors, journalists and the customers.
This is especially critical for a smaller companies credibility or if it’s not clear how you make your money.
People are smart and they will feel skeptical if that information is not placed up front.
The guidelines for doing this are pretty simple, but are often broken.
One thing that is very simple is you can put all the information that pertains to the company in one place rather than scattered all over the home page.
You should definitely have one page that is dedicated just to “About” with your company name.
Then you can group “job listings,” “investor information” – all that corporate info.
Q: The Web is nothing if not a series of links that take you from place to place. What are some guidelines to links on the home page.
Tahir: It’s so critical to get it right on the home page because it is serving as the portal to the rest of your site.
One of the best things you can do is to help users know where to go – but more importantly where not to go.
A lot of times companies get focused on the short term goal of “click-through” – wanting people to click on things whether they would be interested or not – and that’s actually kind of tricking people. People don’t like being tricked.
You really have only so many wasted clicks in a session that someone will spend on your site.
You can only do it so many times, saying, “Hey, don’t you want to come in here,” and the person clicks and sees that’s not where they want to be.
They’ll do it a couple of times before they give up on you.
It’s so much better to worry about “follow-through” rather than “click-through.”
Get people to the right place as fast as possible.
Q: Are the words you use in your navigation the key?
Tahir: One of the best ways to do is make all the links as differentiatable from each other as possible.
Make them scannable, because people don’t read carefully online.
They scan through, and often what they do with a bunch of links in a row is look for the first word and try to figure out how the first words are different from each other.
You don’t want to start all your links with your company name.
The Federal Express site does this. They mention all their sub-company names and they start them all with Fed Ex, because that’s actually the real name of the branches of their company.
What that means is you’re trying to quickly scan the navigation and you’re seeing “FedEx,” “FedEx,” “FedEx,” instead of seeing “Big Packages,” “Small Packages,” “Business Packages” or whatever.
You want to put those most important words first.

This is Part 1 of a series on homepage usability, which will continue in the Tacoma Daily Index. Future columns will cover design guidelines, convention usage, screen real estate, search facilities, graphics and animation, advertising, news, customization, and customer feedback. The full audio interview with Marie Tahir is available for listening anytime at

Dana Greenlee is a Web designer and co-host of the WebTalkGuys Radio Show, a Tacoma-based talk show featuring technology news and interviews. WebTalkGuys was just named the top “Hidden Gem” in PCWorld Magazine’s August 2002 issue. It is broadcast locally on KLAY 1180 AM Saturdays at 11 a.m. The show is also on CNET Radio in San Francisco, on the Web at,, via the XM Satellite Network , on IM Networks’ Sonic Box and on the Mobil Broadcast Network. Past shows and interviews are also Webcast via the Internet at