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What can Google teach us about effective homepage design? 09/23/2009

Posted by Paul Daigle in Uncategorized.
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Go!Last week, when I came across news of Google’s new patent award for the company’s ultra-slim, famously utilitarian homepage interface, I must admit, I chuckled a bit. It’s hard to imagine a more superfluous use of our patent laws. Even Amazon’s much mocked one-click shopping award from 2000 had more meat on the bone. Trying to turn simplicity into a defendable IP seems… well, kinda evil.  For its role here, I hope the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office gets a sleigh full of Internet interface design patent applications for Christmas this year. If Google’s design is defendable, then aren’t they all?

But then the thought occurred to me that this simple, little design may provide some important lessons? Sounds like a joke… I know. But the fact is, this interface is the Internet’s most successful homepage. Sure, Google’s superior search technology fuels its success. But a homepage plays an important role in supporting that kind of success.  What makes it work?

GooglInterface

In bringing a more critical eye to this, an interface that I’ve relied on thousands of times over the years, I found I was able to recognize some important design strengths.  I boiled those strengths down to three essential elements.  Later in the week I visited several other highly successful web properties to see if the same elements were similarly present and easily recognizable. And they were. Hmmm.

This exercise helped me uncover a model for approaching homepage and other product interfaces. What I like most about this model is its simplicity. By forcing attention on communicating these three value drivers it thwarts many of the excesses that undermine most homepages.

So here they are: The 3 key elements that are communicated in a successful homepage design.

Confidence

Communicating confidence is crucial for winning an audience or attracting a customer base. Successful homepages make their companies look credible, stable, capable and ready to serve.

How does the Google design communicate confidence? By allowing the homepage to stand on its name, thus allowing its name to become synonymous with the site’s value proposition, web search, the design exudes confidence.

The take away:

Gratuitous design and blustering copy do nothing to project credibility. Confidence is best communicated by a lack of defense. The more space and attention expended on explaining who we are and why we’re great, the less credible we become. Credibility is a quiet art. The less we say the stronger we look. Say who you are. Be who you are. And call it a day. Let satisfied users and customers create your hype.

Utility

Most websites have several jobs to do. How websites accomplish those tasks define their utilities. In simple terms, the job of an effective homepage is to effectively communicate the job of the site.

For Google, the utility is web search. The value is finding what we are looking for online. Google’s design doesn’t allow anything to distract from its utility message. In doing so it ensures that the site is able to do its job.

The take away:

The homepage should  promote the site’s value propositions while communicating the utilities that drive them.  Don’t force the homepage to do more than that crucial  job. Why let your news, promotions, product information or events distract attention from the page’s purpose, when uncovering that valuable content is a part of the utility of the site? Let the homepage deliver a clear understanding of what value propositions the site holds in store, and a sense of how those value propositions are delivered. In other words, the homepage should focus only on helping the site do its job, which is delivering users to the value that they seeks.

Functionality

The homepage isn’t a storefront, a doorway, or a billboard. When a user hits the homepage they should feel like they’ve come inside. The actions and options available on the homepage should establish a basis for the site’s overall navigation and functionality. Users should get an immediate sense of how things works.

The Google homepage  prompts users to enter their search term and hit the search button.  How we use the site to drive the utility and experience the value proposition is made clear, and that functionality is carried over to every other page, as the Google search box stays with us.

The take away:

Users shouldn’t have to leave the homepage to start comprehending how they’ll use the site. By instilling function and navigation early we give users the confidence and the understanding to navigate successfully among the site’s utilities.

So, there you have it.

Because websites are so complex, and every homepage comes with its own set of challenges, it’s not at all surprising that most homepages fail to successfully communicate all three of these elements. I’ve gone back to apply this model to my own homepage designs, only to find that I’ve often fallen short.

But what is striking is how well sites that have become essential to online life have done at communicating these elements around their value propositions within the homepage. Amazon. Ebay. Craigslist. Blogger. Twitter. YouTube.

I wonder if anyone has a patent pending on confidence, utility and functionality?

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