Usability checklist - can the homepage break the rules!

At business school studying for my masters in business and marketing some (eeek) 12 years ago!  IOne of my favourite subjects was consumer psychology (not only was the professor teaching the subject highly amusing and super smart) - but I could clearly connect it with effective marketing.  Understanding buying behaviour (of course all offline back then) - has stayed close to my heart over the years - and has proved very useful in my many of my consultancy projects.

Buyer behaviour has become even more interesting with the online arena - and hence my interest in usability - and understanding how people interact with websites.

I've had many a discussion online and off with usability experts and read a number of texts - (Steve Krug's Don't make me think' is a great starting point - as is Donald Norman's - The Design of Everyday Things) - but like most things in life - you only start really learning once the L plates are off and you are out there doing it for yourself.

Most texts and experts agree on the following elements being necessary in most good site planning:

Site ID

This is your logo / or brand name - always keep it in the same place on the page throughout the site.  The Site ID should be a link back to the home page.   Remember, people may come into your site from a link - and end up deep within the content.  So it's important that your ID is prominent so they know that they've landed where they thought they were heading.

Page Name:

If you have a tab called say, How it Works, then make sure the relevant page has a Header which, you got it, says How it Works.  Basic for usability - but you'd be amazed at how many sites break this simple convention.  Think of it as an index in a book - when you see the How it Works item in the index, p14 - you head to Page 14 and there it is, the chapter has a header How it Works.  The same basic principle needs to apply online.


Keep navigation as conventional and simple as possible.  There are two key ways people will navigate around your site.  First is to 'Browse' using the navigation available to them.  Be that a horizontal across the top of the page tabbed navigation - or left hand side panel navigation - people should be able to clearly see the primary tab - and then if necessary when they click on that primary tab - for example, Books - then the secondard navigation may break that down further to say, Fiction, Childrens, Religious, Best Seller etc.   It's recommended to try and keep the navigation to no deeper than 2 levels - but some complex sites do require more.

The other way a person will search is by using a 'search box'.  Many sites include a search box on the home page and indeed on other pages through the site - and on deep sites - this is a really useful resource.  Just be sure that the search box isn't over complicated - all you need is a the word search, a box which the person can populate with their query and the word go - so that it's clear that you have to click go to get your results.  Of course, if you have a site where the offering is about searching for a domain name or a company name etc - then you may want to differentiate the name of the 'site search' box to say 'site search' and be sure not to house the two search boxes to close to one another.  You don't want to confuse the user with too many similar search boxes on the same page.

Where are we?

Be sure to show the person where they are in the site.  For example, if on the How it Works page - then make that tab highlighted in some way - so the people know where they are.  Breadcrumbs are also more commonly used now - a path of links showing the journey the person has taken through your site to get to where they are now - if they want to jump back 3 places - then instead of clicking the back button 3 times - they can simply click the relevant link in that path - and they're back to where they wanted to get to.

Tag line

I've written a post on this already - so see here for more on this important messaging.

Hierarchy of content within a page

I use the newspaper analogy all the time when writing content for the web.  You need a good descriptive headline, an intro para which summarises the content - and then the detail.

Home Page

Does the home page break with the above convention?  Well, in my opinion, in someways, yes it does.  The home page has a different agenda from the rest of the site - as it's the 'front page news'.  Going back to the newspaper analogy - take a look at the front page of a newspaper.  It's dominated by a lead headline - and enough content on the lead story that may lead you to another page.  And then other snippets to pull you into the newspaper eg: contd. pg 7..., see inside story... etc.  The home page can break the 'navigation' convention if necessary - as it should be enticing people into the sections of the site they are interested in.

See the post Usability: Good old fashioned eyes and ears - for more and whilst yes, there are accepted conventions, and best practice usability guides galore - there's nothinig better than testing what you create with people... trust me, it's a most illumination experience.

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Michelle Carvill is owner and Marketing Director at Carvill Creative - a graphic design and marketing services agency based in Maidenhead, Berkshire.  The agency covers all aspects of graphic design and marketing - covering social media marketing and website planning and website design.