WEBSITE DESIGN GUIDE - BUILDING A GREAT HOMEPAGE AND SETTING A POSITIVE FIRST IMPRESSION
Your homepage should communicate how you solve your visitors’ problems, why you’re a better option than your competitors and where the visitor should go next to continue their journey.
Take a moment to visualise a specific site that you like or use a lot.
I’d bet that you’ll be visualising that site’s homepage when doing this. Actual figures will vary from site to site, but the typical homepage is likely to enjoy around 50% of a site’s page loads. This is huge, making it by far the single most visited page of most sites. Additionally, the homepage is likely to be the first page seen by a good number of a site’s visitors. As such, it gives the visitor their first impressions of the website - helping them assess if the site is one they’re likely to enjoy visiting, or one they’re likely to bounce off of and never revisit.
To me, the homepage is an incredibly important part of the site, but its purpose should be remarkably narrow. A good homepage needs to do just two things:
1. Make the visitor want to continue their journey.
2. Show the visitor how to continue their journey.
Lots of different disciplines go into achieving these goals - from the look and feel of the page to the navigational structure that connects the homepage to other parts of the site. As many of these disciplines are not uniquely important to the homepage (for example, a good design and navigation is required on all pages), we’ll cover most of them in greater detail in later guides.
In this one, I'm going to focus primarily on the first of the two aims; making a good impression and ensuring that the visitor wants to continue their journey - particularly on small business brochure or transactional sites whose goal is to get the visitor to buy something.
2. SHOW YOU CAN SOLVE THE VISITOR'S PROBLEM
People don’t visit websites just for the sake of it. This might have felt counter-intuitive as I’m sure you’ve found yourself aimlessly browsing the internet in the past. But even when you've done that, your visit has likely comprised of three elements:
A problem; I’m bored and I have time to kill.
A mission, for example, find an amusing video about cats.
A job: keep myself entertained.
Below are two more examples of problems, missions and jobs people might have when they go online:
Problem: my lawnmower just broke, Mission: find a replacement lawnmower, Job: keep my lawn looking tidy and beautiful.
Problem: My parents’ anniversary is coming up and I don’t know what to get them, Mission: find something suitable for them, Job: look like a thoughtful son and help them celebrate their big day.
One key thing to take from this is that the specific visitor mission acts as a link between their problem and their job, but it isn’t any more important than that. It represents the current solution the visitor is following, but it could easily be substituted for something else. For example, if the visitor’s job is to keep themselves entertained, then they could go to YouTube or they could equally browse Instagram or go and read someone’s blog. If they want to keep their lawn looking tidy then they could look to buy a lawnmower, or they could look to hire a gardener or buy a goat. The mission they’re on is based on the solution they imagine is going to be most effective at helping them achieve their job.
Ultimately, what this means is that you need to show your visitors how you can solve their problem and help them achieve their job, and this goes far beyond just communicating what it is you sell. Remember: visitors are not interested in your stuff, they are interested in what it can do for them.
The homepage plays an essential role in doing this. A common web design principle states that visitors should be able to see what your site is about in just four seconds. This isn’t much time, so your homepage has to work hard and its space needs to be used wisely.
You can use your homepage to show what your website is about in a variety of different ways. To demonstrate this, let's imagine you are now in charge of the website for a fictional window company, Window Co, and that you want to sell windows to visitors who are looking to keep their homes warm. This is how you might approach it in a very basic way:
Site name and strapline: Window Co: Selling great windows since 1990
Headline messages: We stock over 100 award-winning windows to suit all budgets 1
Imagery: A high-resolution image of the site's bestselling windows
The above will be enough to quickly communicate that you sell windows, but remember that’s not enough to show you can solve a problem. You need to communicate the problems you solve and the outcomes that can be achieved (replacing old draughty windows with new ones that don’t leak heat, leading to a nice warm house). The way you achieve this is functionally similar, but subtly different:
Window Co: Selling great windows since 1990 >> Window Co: helping keep your home warm since 1990
We stock over 100 award-winning windows to suit all budgets >> We stock award winning windows designed to keep draughts out and heat in
Imagery: a high-resolution image focussing solely on the best windows on sale >> Imagery: a high-resolution image of a warm-looking living room (with the window still prominently featured)
Remember: people are not interested in your stuff - they’re interested in what it can do for them. So start communicating what your stuff can do rather than just what it is.
3. SHOW YOU'RE THE RIGHT PEOPLE TO HELP
Once you’ve demonstrated that you can help, you then need to demonstrate why you should be given the chance to help. Unless you have a fantastic advantage in your market, viable alternatives and substitutes likely exist for your visitors to choose from. Your competitive set might be wider than you think. For example, someone looking to keep their house warm could buy windows from you or windows from one of your rivals. They could, alternatively, choose to buy an electric heater - solving their heating issue in a different way.
There are many, many ways that visitors assess the suitability of a site or a company. There are far too many to list, but they can be broken down into three broad buckets:
What you say about yourself/your site.
What (you say) others say about you/your site.
So what should you say? You could list out a number of facts about your company (such as how many items you sell, where your office is based) to help educate visitors, but that's pretty dull and is unlikely to engage your visitor, or even encourage them to read on. Instead you should communicate the key benefits to your visitor of choosing you over someone else or something else. Focus on what differentiates you - for example you offer the highest customer satisfaction, you have the lowest prices, the quickest delivery, the widest coverage, the best support service.
Try not to spend too long talking about hygiene factors - things that are expected or are a basic requirement of all sites and businesses like yours. For example, Window Co shouldn’t talk too much about how they stock windows in the first place, how it has people that will install your windows for you or how the quote they are giving is obligation free.
Any claim you make needs to be believable. It’s all very well saying you’re ‘the best’ at what you do, but unless you have something to back that up, then that claim might lack impact. That’s where social proof comes in - evidence from other, external sources that you use to back up your claims. Examples of this might be an aggregated score from a third-party review site, customer testimonials, industry awards or mentions in the press. Social proof is incredibly powerful, so if you can leverage it to your advantage, in a fair and credible way, then absolutely do.
The final check visitors will make is one they don’t even realise they’re making, but is perhaps the most powerful of all; does this company feel right? That assessment can be influenced by many things but the appearance of your site will play a big role in swaying this - particularly the design (how it looks and is laid out) and the content on it (your tone of voice, how accessible it is and how compelling it is). Both of these will be covered in later guides.
4. PROVIDING A COMPELLING CALL TO ACTION
If you've shown your relevance and convinced that there is a real benefit to using you, visitors then need to know what to do next. This is where a call to action (CTA) comes in to give your visitor a sensible next step and action to take.
You might not know what a CTA is, but you’ll have seen them everywhere online. Read on to learn more.
That's an example of a CTA - a short sentence or phrase directing the visitor to do something, typically in the form of a link to another part of the site. The example above is actually a pretty weak one, as it's not hugely compelling.
Read on to learn how your website can benefit by employing CTAs. That one is quite a lot better as it does a few things successfully:
It promises a benefit (you too can learn how to employ CTAs on your website).
It aligns with your visitor journey (you’re reading this section because you want to learn how to improve your homepage).
So how would this look for our fictional Window Co? Here’s some examples:
Browse our windows. It’s not bad - some people will be interested in seeing all the windows they stock - but most wont care and it’s not particularly inspiring.
Get an obligation-free quote. Again, not awful. This will be the reason many people are visiting the website, they simply want to get a quote (so unsurprisingly this CTA is used a lot across the internet). But it isn’t particularly benefit-led - it doesn’t give the visitor a reason why they should perform that action.
See how we can make your home warmer. Much stronger. This is the fundamental reason many are coming to the website and this CTA reflects that. Remember; visitors don’t care about the windows themselves, they’re a means to the end. They only care about the benefit they can deliver - having a warmer house.
Of course, in this instance, the CTA is quite specific. Not everyone coming to the site is coming for that reason. Some people might be coming because they want to soundproof their home, or because they want their room to have a different aesthetic. This creates the need for a balancing act in order to represent specific journeys without alienating visitors who aren't on those exact ones.
There’s a couple of ways around this.
Hedge your bets by writing a more general CTA. For example, ‘Click here to find the window that’s right for you’. It weakens the CTA a little, but still suggests that the visitor will be able to find something that helps them achieve their job.
Use multiple CTAs. It’s not uncommon to see a number of different CTAs on the homepage of a website. Just be careful, the more you use, the more confusing the page is going to look, and the more you run the risk of pulling a visitor in multiple directions (when faced with ‘Click here to browse our windows’ and ‘Click here to find the window that’s right for you’, which should your visitors click?).
There are a few more things to think about with your CTAs:
Make them visible (if this is the one thing you want your visitor to do next, make it stand out).
Keep them succinct so visitors can quickly process them and know how to act.
Don’t demand too much of the visitor. For example ‘Click here to buy your next window’ isn’t going to work if your visitor hasn’t yet made up their minds about your website.
Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that unless you get them really wrong, any CTA is better than no CTA. They’re incredibly powerful tools; giving the visitor a clear next step, helping them navigate the website and actually moving their journey forwards in a way that wouldn’t necessarily be achieved if you just let them browse the site independently.
Good CTAs will also communicate something about the site and company (eg ‘Click here to see how we can make your home warmer’ suggests the company has expertise in this area) and also shows that they understand their visitor base (those looking to achieve a warm home will feel instantly reassured that they are in the right place). Just make sure they align with the reason your visitor is visiting, and don’t over-use them.
5. A COMMONLY MADE MISTAKE
Once you’ve shown you are relevant to the visitor, convinced them of your suitability and provided them a clear next step - you have an effective homepage. Before we can move on though, it might be worth just touching on one very common mistake that I see made - trying to have the homepage do too much.
It’s a common temptation to think that because a lot of your traffic lands on the homepage, this is the best place to put all the information under the sun - but it's not. If you were operating a physical store you wouldn't put all of your products in the entrance, instead you'd design it so the entrance tempts in the visitor and gives them good sight of where to go next.
You need to communicate the benefits of using you over someone, or something, else, and you need to do this concisely. Use bullet points, tick lists, imagery and quotes. If at all possible make sure your visitor doesn’t need to scroll to find the important bits (if it’s important it shouldn't be hidden). You don’t need to communicate every micro benefit of your company or your site as this can come later once you’ve landed the big messages. Remember; if your homepage makes the visitor want to continue their journey, and shows them how they can, then it's doing a good job.
Focus on communicating how you can solve your visitors’ underlying problems (rather than just showing all the stuff you have).
Ensure visitors can tell who you are, what you do and (ideally) how you can help solve their problems within four seconds of landing on your page.
Communicate what differentiates you from alternatives that the visitor can use and the benefits to the visitor if choosing you.
Avoid the temptation to fill homepage space by talking about hygiene factors.
Leverage social proof such as reviews, testimonials and awards, to convince visitors of your suitability.
Think carefully about what your homepage’s design choices say about your company and how they might lead visitors to evaluate you.
Provide calls to action (CTAs) that are simple, offer a compelling benefit and align with visitors’ journeys and reasons for visit.
Avoid overusing CTAs as they can reduce their impact, confuse visitors and pull them in multiple directions.
Avoid doing too much and, instead, focus on landing the key messages and showing the visitor where they need to go next.