Homepage redesign harder than it looks

homepageCreating an effective homepage is a mega-challenging task–and it doesn’t surprise me how often even well-intentioned and smart attempts fail, or at least get bad marks.

How do you make a home page all things to most people? How does it explain who you are, what your business or product has to offer, while drawing people in and encouraging a longer term conversation? If it’s a site that features ads, how do you create a page that integrates them successfully into the strategy? And then, once you’ve made a homepage and a couple of years go by and you decide to change it–how do you handle the blowback from users who liked it the way it was, darnit.

Even one of the most visited sites in the world, Yahoo’s homepage has been grappling with this quite publicly for the past few years. After reading about the newly announced redesigns of the Yahoo homepage (full disclosure, I previously worked for the front page team at Yahoo) I’m excited for the company. More than that, I’m excited about what they are trying to do. Even if they fail at it, Yahoo is trying to have a very complex conversation that meets the needs of over 141 million U.S. users a month (comScore July 2008). That’s hard to do! And brands can learn a lot from their efforts.

The big cheese of Yahoo’s front page, Tapan Bhat put it like this to allthingsd.com’s Kara Swisher: “People want broadcast and narrowcast at the same time…They want choices, but they also don’t want to do the work involved.” Here Bhat is referring to the mostly unsuccessful My.Yahoo.com apparoach, which aimed to give users the ability to create their own Yahoo front page. But it took too much effort for users which resulted in extremely low adoption rates. Eventually the company decided on a frontpage design overhaul. Now users’ email messages preferred links will all be visible from the front page once it rolls out to the wide audience. And, the front page will increasingly feature third party content on the site from outside news sources and companies like eBay or Netflix.

I would argue that the case Yahoo is making–universal appeal while keeping individual’s wants and needs in mind–is helpful for any company seeking to make their website relevant. Users want it big, they want it small, they want it clean, they want it colorful, they want flash, they want simple. Ultimately, we have to give them all of these things, while constantly asking ourselves–what do they really want to use it for? What will they really want from a brand website? What could we give them that would actually fulfill a need? It’s easy to jump for new bells and whistles and forget that users may not even care. Yahoo finally did this–instead of pimping out its long list of properties, it simplified, giving users what they really wanted: a one stop shop where users could check their email, get the latest news, and access their favorite sites without constantly having to log in or click here. At the same time Yahoo has maintained its editorial integrity by not outsourcing the work of the team of front page editors, who surface the stories millions read on Yahoo everyday, to algorithms.

So to recap, here are seven things online marketers can learn from Yahoo’s homepage redesign:

-Keep users and their behaviors in mind: Never stop asking what users will likely do with the content you are providing and how you can provide them with tools they actually want. Start with yourself, if you wouldn’t play with a certain widget or respond to a kind of design, why would the wider universe of users?

-Don’t be afraid to bring in third party content. Whether it’s a feed from comments on your Facebook site or featuring an external blogger, outside content doesn’t have to be scary, it can add a dynamic element to your site.

-Easy to use arrows and plus-minus icons are very appreciated, so users can clutter or clean up the page as it suits them–this is true even for sites that users may not come back to as often as a Yahoo or MSN homepage. I appreciate when sites–even hotel or insurance sites allow me to de-clutter the page while looking for information

-Don’t forget to match your branding colors and message on your site. Seems like a silly thing, but even Yahoo forgot this in their last redesign and had their logo in red instead of the branded purple they put everywhere else.

-Technology is no substitute for the human touch. Humans need to update their websites regularly and RSS feeds don’t solve the problem of keeping a page up to date.

-Keep what works, throw the rest out. View a heat map of your site, see where users are clicking and where they are not. If they’re not clicking on something, chances are it’s not indispensable.

-And finally, if you do launch a redesign, in order not to offend your users, don’t forget to message to them over many weeks and months what you’re doing. Ask for their input and include your super users insight into how they use the site in your design plans.