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The Most Violated Homepage Design Guidelines

Mark Edwards

Jakob Nielsen is one of the world's most respected experts on website usability. We have long been a student of his principles. When he publishes a list of design tips or design blunders we study it. We do not follow all of his guidelines, but where we do not we make sure we have a very good reason. After all, a man who is paid US$10,000 to do a critique of a homepage is probably worth listening to!

The latest list is the top usability mistakes that about two-thirds of corporate websites make. These errors even appear on sites with significant investment in site usability.

1. Emphasize what your site offers that's of value to users and how your services differ from those of key competitors.

Websites are incredibly bad at explicitly stating what they offer users. Instead, they hide their offerings in generic marketese that makes very little impression on prospective customers.

2. Use a liquid layout that lets users adjust the homepage size

Fighting frozen layouts seems a lost battle, but it's worth repeating: different users have different monitor sizes. People with big monitors want to be able to resize their browsers to view multiple windows simultaneously. You can't assume that everyone's window width is 800 pixels: it's too much for some users and too little for others.

3. Use color to distinguish visited and unvisited links

Knowing where you've been is one of the three basic features that all navigation designs should support. (The other two are "Where am I?" and "Where can I go?"). Violating this guideline is particularly harmful for elderly users.

4. Use graphics to show real content, not just to decorate your homepage

For example, use photos of people who have an obvious connection to the content as opposed to using models or generic stock photos. People are naturally drawn to pictures; gratuitous graphics can distract users from critical content. Stock photography sellers are doing a brisk business, but users don't believe that your product will make them happy just because there's a smiling lady on your homepage.

5. Include a tag line that explicitly summarizes what the site or company does

Our recent study of how people use "about us" information on websites did find that most users could eventually dig up information about a company's purpose. But why do most sites make prospects work so hard? In keeping with most advertising slogans, content-free tag lines abound. Once you've paid millions to get a useless slogan developed, it's probably hard to accept that it won't work for your website.

6. Make it easy to access anything recently featured on your homepage

In general, users remember when they've seen something interesting on a homepage. However, unless that homepage lists recent features and offers links to them in the archive, users will never be able to find what they're looking for on subsequent visits.

7. Include a short site description in the window title

This is mainly important for search engine visibility, but why not take advantage of this superior -- and cheap -- form of Internet marketing?

For more information about Jakob Nielsen's Homepage Usability book visit: www.useit.com/homepageusability/

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