Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Home Page design: keep it simple!


Visitors are drawn to a specific web site at different levels. We can simplify things and say that the lowest level is the way a visitor finds the site. Ah! It is a simple thing, but - as you may already know - it is the most difficult goal to achieve. It involves site promotion and search engines ranking. However, that is not the main issue here, so - like it or not - we will skip that level and its implications.
The second level - provided your potential visitor finds your web page - is how to keep the visitor on your page. I already talked about complicated home pages and related stuff, nevertheless I would like to get a little bit deeper into the issue.
Make it simple
First of all, when designing a new home page, I always try to be focused on simplifying it as much as I can. When I think that the design is simple enough, I literally force myself to forget about it all, rest a while, think about something else, get back to it and simplify it a little bit more. While complicated designs are easy to create, simple ones are always very difficult to make. When creating something, we are always reluctant to delete part of it. That is probably because we see the choices made as if they were part of us. I always have to constrain myself in removing unneeded parts from a home page. The most difficult part is to isolate those unessential parts. Once I have found them, I do not indulge: I cut them out!
You might wonder why I say that. Why should you be that cruel to your beloved design? Because complicated designs will make visitors go away! When you visit a web site for the first time, you should notice that if the home page is giving you too much information in a single shot, you are usually confused and you might decide to go away. That is what happens to everyone... well maybe almost everyone.
My golden rules
I tried to list a set of golden rules, and I try to always apply to them when designing a new home page.
These are my rules:
1) where do I want the visitor to go from here (the home page)?
2) what are the most essential information the home page should provide?
3) make the overall feeling pleasant (that is to say do not make it bombastic!).
Obviously there are other things to remember, however those three little rules are a very good start.

Anyway, the first rule will imply:
a) how should I build menus?
b) what are the most important links to inside pages?
Basically, the first rule is giving me guidelines to start thinking about site navigation. Do not underestimate that issue. It is not simple. It might take time. However it is very (very!) important. Building menus can be done after creating the structure of the site. Spend some time to evaluate that structure.

The second rule is much more difficult to understand. I always like home pages where you immediately understand what I will find inside. The home page is like the cover of a cd, or the cover of a book. You should not judge a book from its cover - that's true. However we usually do it. At the most we read the cover notes. Home pages work the same way. Try to remember it. It is not necessary to explain much: a few descriptive lines of text would be great.

Third rule: use a pleasant design. You should spend some time to find the correct colour palette; organize elements on the given space; place content following the golden ratio.

Ok, I think I said enough. No? Oh sorry, I forgot to explain the golden ratio. I can't close this post without explaining that!
The golden ratio is used to create design that is pleasant to see. The golden ratio is found in nature and it has been used for centuries in architecture and industrial design. In order to use it, you need to divide your space by a number called phi. Let's say you want to use a flexible space. Then your available home page width is 100%. Divide 100% by 1.62 (which is the phi number rounded to two decimals) and obtain 61.72. Your main column should be 62%, while the second column should be 38%.  Apply the golden ratio to everything on your page and you will notice how the overall design is improved.

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