Homepage Usability

Jakob Nielsen is out to make the web more “usable.” His latest book, “Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed” co-authored with Marie Tahir, takes on the most important page of your site, the homepage. The homepage of a web site is critical, not just because Neilson says so, but because you never get a second chance to make a first impression. The authors present 113 homepage usability
guidelines that will make your site easier to use, and then they apply them mercilessly to 50 popular sites.

The preface includes a short description of the role of the homepage followed by some of the common metaphors. The authors explain why a home page could be compared with a magazine cover, a building lobby and a table of contents in a book. They state that since a site review by Nielsen’s group typically costs $10,000, the book’s value is over $500,000. If Nielsen does charge $10k for a homepage review, the sites that are reviewed have saved a lot of money.

Homepage Usability

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The first chapter in the book covers the 113 homepage guidelines. The guidelines are categorized into groups such as “Communicating the Site’s Purpose” and “Navigation.” The guidelines are well presented and easy to understand. Some of the tips I like include:

  • Include a “Privacy Policy” link – This is critical when gathering any
    personally identifiable information.
  • “Spell out abbreviations in the first instance.” I have seen many
    times where companies use acronyms without definition.
  • “Don’t use generic instructions, such as “Click Here” as a link name.” The authors explain how using meaningful text in links tell users what they will get when they click on the link.
  • “Input boxes should be wide enough for users to see and edit standard
    queries on the site.” I think designers generally put the look over the function. If the typical user would enter 10 characters, make sure the input box can handle same without having to scroll.
  • “Let users choose whether they want to see an animated intro to your
    site.” I agree 100%, a user should be able to select whether they want to enter the site immediately or go through the intro first.

The second chapter takes the principles previously defined and applies them to 50 top web sites. Sites such as FedEx, Accenture, Amazon, CNN, DirecTV, Victoria Secret and others get the full treatment. Each homepage has 4 pages in the book devoted to it.

The first is a screenshot, taken on a PC using Internet Explorer. The next page gives a description and review of the homepage. Also included on this second page, is a very useful pie chart showing the “Breakdown of Screen Real Estate.” The categories include: Self promotional, Filler, Unused, Advertising & sponsorship, Content of interest, Navigation, Welcome & site identity, and Operating System & browser controls. A small screenshot is very useful to see the category breakdown. I am not sure why they included the “Operating system and browser controls” category as this is useless since everyone has a different setup. If I took the screenshots using Netscape running on my Mac, that percentage would be different. On the other hand, this category is always the same 19% which allows the other categories to be accurately represented.

The third and fourth pages of each review pick apart the page piece-by-piece. It seems every site has around twenty items that the authors feel should be corrected.

At the end of the book is an appendix including a small category-colored screenshot from the sites that were reviewed. This allows you to compare the sites at a macro level. Also included are other across-the-board reviewed site elements such as logos, search features, ahopping carts
and popups.

I may not agree with everything Nielsen says, but “Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed” provides good background for further discussion. It seems to be geared more towards the entry-level and intermediate front-end designers and developers. At some point in the near future, my design and development team at work will read this book, at a minimum, for the guidelines and principles. A co-worker of mine pointed out that with all of Nielsen’s usability talk, the book’s physical size is somewhat un-usable. I believe this book is a worthwile purchase for anyone in the web field.

Product Rating:

Company:
New Riders

Requirements:
n/a

Pricing:
$39.99

Reviewed by:
Allen

Competition:
n/a

Pros:
Excellent homepage guidelines and statistics section

Cons:
Weird book size, why do they show browser as part of the page?

Bottom Line:
Worth purchasing and reading… then pass along to an associate for an in-depth usability discussion

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