Homepage Usability: 50 Websites Deconstructed

Jakob Nielsen + Marie Tahir

New Riders 2001
A book review by Danny Yee © 2001 http://dannyreviews.com/
You might want to read Homepage Usability just for the entertainment of watching web usability guru Jakob Nielsen deconstruct the homepages of fifty major sites. Or you could read it for some invaluable advice on web design — I learned a lot from it, as I think even seasoned web designers will.

Homepage Usability begins with 113 tips on homepage design, some of them obvious and some not so obvious, and most of them applicable more broadly than homepages. Here are two of the shorter ones:

Use graphics to show real content, not just to decorate your homepage. For example, use photos of identifiable people who have a connection to the content as opposed to models or generic stock photos. People are naturally drawn to photos, so gratuitous graphics can distract users from critical content.
Don't use clever phrases and marketing lingo that make people work too hard to figure out what you're saying. For example, the "Dream, Plan, & Go" category on Travelcity might sound catchy to a marketing person, but it's not as straightforward as "Vacation Planning". Every time you make users ponder the meaning behind vague and cutesy phrases, your risk alienating or losing them altogether. Users quickly lose patience when they must click on a link just to figure out what it means. That isn't to say that homepage text should be bland, but it must be informative and should be unambiguous.
Nielsen and Tahir then look at some statistics on the fifty sites considered. These statistics are used to make recommendations, following Jakob's Law of the Internet User Experience, that "most users spend more of their time on other sites". Here's a sample:
Link Formatting
Next to the use of colored text, the underline is the second-most important cue to users that text is clickable, and 80% of the homepages underlined the links. We continue to recommend that links be underlined, except possibly in navigation bars that use a design that makes it more than commonly obvious where users can click.
Of the homepages in our sample, 60% used the traditional standard for link colors: blue. This is a fairly small majority, but still large enough that we continue to recommend blue as the color for unvisited links. If links are blue, users know what to do. End of story.

All this packs a remarkable amount of useful information into the first 50 pages, but the vast bulk of Homepage Usability, some 250 pages more, consists of analyses of the fifty chosen homepages. These follow a standard format. A full-page screen-shot faces a brief commentary, discussion of the page TITLE and tagline (if any), and a pictorial (overlay plus pie chart) breakdown of screen "real estate" into operating system and browser controls, welcome and site identity, navigation, content of interest, advertising and sponsorship, self promotion, and unused/filler. Then follow either two or four pages with detailed commentary: the screen-shots are repeated on the left-hand pages with elements numbered, and the right-hand pages have comments on them. Many of these are trivial and site-specific

"This Go button's color isn't noticeable enough — there should be much more contrast with the background color."
some of them amusingly so
"In general, oil companies would best avoid photos that show large dark shadows in the water next to their rigs."
Others are more general
"Don't have a special Shop link when there is a product section. The natural thing for users is to find the product first and then decide to buy it."

The sites covered are mostly those of corporates or media organisations — Ebay, ExxonMobil, ESPN, IBM, Victoria's Secret, and CNNfn, to name a few — but some government departments are included and there's a good sprinkling of English-language sites outside the United States, such as those of the BBC and Australian supermarket chain Coles. The vast bulk of the analysis is, however, just as relevant for other kinds of organisations — certainly for the university at which I work and the charity for which I do volunteer work, but also for my personal sites.

Finally, a comment on the physical book. A large square volume, 25cm a side, with colour everywhere, Homepage Usability is really nicely laid out. I'm not generally a fan of books with a lot of graphics and screen-shots, but here they are used to good effect, demonstrating how some things can still be done much more effectively in print than online.

November 2001

External links:
- buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk
- information from the authors
- get high quality web hosting at Pair Networks
Related reviews:
- Jakob Nielsen - Designing Web Usability: The Practice of Simplicity
- books about the Internet
- books about publishing
- books published by New Riders
%T Homepage Usability
%S 50 Websites Deconstructed
%A Nielsen, Jakob
%A Tahir, Marie
%I New Riders
%D 2001
%O paperback, index
%G ISBN 073571102X
%P xiii,315pp