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Home page principles

Summary: Your home page is the most important page of your website, so make it work hard. Space is at a premium and you've got to impress in a few seconds. Stay focused on what your audience is looking for and how you can best give it them. Create a hierarchy of information based on your audience research. Cut unnecessary text. Use established design principles, images and text to create visual impact. Keep control.

Designing a good home page can be difficult. Everyone wants to have their say, influence the way the page looks and have a link to their service on the home page. However, if you stay focused on your audience's needs and remember the following principles of good home page design, you'll create a home page that has visual impact and works effectively.

1. Use a visual hierarchy of information

Space is at a premium and your home page is your website's most valuable real estate, so use it well.

You should already know what your audience is looking for from your audience research and have a list of top tasks or information blocks. Put these in your home page and create a visual hierarchy – a visual way of showing information in priority order and how information relates to each other. You can create visual hierarchy by:

  • Placing the most important information at the top left of the page
  • Placing secondary or lower priority information to the right or further down the page
  • Showing equal priority through a row of information blocks or matching heading and paragraph font sizes
  • Grouping related content together in boxes – a row of three boxes spanning the page is common
  • Using heading and paragraph styles to denote section headings and related sub-content

2. Put your most important content at the top

Ensure users can view the most important content without having to scroll down.

3. Cut unnecessary text

Reducing the amount of text on your page:

  • Makes useful content more prominent
  • Reduces visual noise
  • Makes the page shorter, which means users don't have to scroll as much
  • Makes the page easier to maintain

So, cut as much text as you can. Condense it to the essential information your audience needs to find what they're looking for or accomplish their task.

Avoid starting paragraphs with words like “Welcome to our website…” It absorbs valuable space and no one reads it.

4. White space is important

White space gives users' eyes a place to rest and differentiates sections in the page, making it easier to scan. It helps users identify important information and groups. If you go overboard and cram too much information on your page, users cannot discern what information is important.

Try to think of effective road signs. The most important information is large and placed at the top. Lower priority information is smaller. The sign has plenty of space, ensuring drivers can read it at speed as they pass by.

When faced with demands to “fill up the space with more links” refer back to your audience research and list of top tasks. If adding more content doesn't serve your audience's needs identified in your research, don't put it on the homepage.

5. Design is subjective

Think about what your audience will like, not what you like!

If prospective students are your key audience, you need to consider that they are generally IT literate, used to absorbing information online and working quickly. So, they will probably prefer a busy news or magazine style homepage where information changes regularly. They are impatient browsers who won't necessarily read everything, so you need to communicate quickly.

If you want to promote evening classes to mature students, consider that they might prefer something less busy, that doesn’t change so often, and provides a little more detail.

Stay focused on your audience's characteristics and needs.

6. Consider the words

Designing a home page can quickly become a conversation about images, colour, icons or other visuals. However, your audience will be looking for words in the page that ‘satisfice’ – words matching what they are looking for, such as “Order a prospectus”, “Module registration” or “Book a place”. Carefully consider the words in your page and allow time for this. It takes longer than you might think!

If you need help with your copy, our online copywriting service can help. Contact webteam at warwick dot ac dot uk for a quote. External Affairs also provide training on copywriting through the Learning and Development Centre.

7. Remember how people behave online: speed, scan, satisfice

People work quickly when browsing the web and you need to remember this when designing your home page. Try and work with the behaviour rather than against it.

8. Keep control

This is a really important point, particularly in large departments. Everyone will want links on your home page. You need to have control and the authority to say “no”. Everything on the page must have a purpose and support your audience's goals. Tips:

  • Avoid design by committee – by satisfying everyone you'll ensure you get the lowest common denominator of quality. Your design will not be focused on serving your audience.
  • When in doubt – or you need to justify a decision – go back to your audience research and list of top tasks. This defines the hierarchy of information on the home page.