7: The User's First Impression

Krug suggests that the home page has just seconds to capture the user's attention - which is to say, to give them the impression that they are where they need to be to do what they need to do. It is just too easy for them to leave if they have the sense they are wasting their time.

There are a lot of very specific things the home page must do:

Additionally, Krug suggests four abstract objectives:

Managing Competing Interests

If you are operating a site for an organization, there are may competing interests for real estate on the home page. Everyone who sponsors a project feels that what they are doing is the most important thing for a user to find.

Marketing wants the site's product to be the most prominent thing, human resources wants job openings to leap to center stage, public relations wants the latest press release to get top billing, corporate communications wants the quarterly report to be promoted, and so on. Each of them serves a different audience, and each of them thinks its audience is most important.

Given everything the home page has to accomplish, it probably cannot do it all - especially in large and complex sites that have loads of content, it cannot contain a link to everything without becoming a jumbled mess in which nothing takes priority.

The First Glance

As quickly and clearly as possible, the home page must answer four questions for the user:

All four of these questions must be answered - immediately, prominently, correctly, and unambiguously - if the site is to be successful in retaining visitors.

Krug mentions an experiment, but not the source, in which site home pages were "flashed" to a viewer for 50 milliseconds, and the user was asked to answer basic questions about the site. Whether they noticed these things in particular is a matter of thoughtful design - but what he found interesting is that there was great consistency in what people did notice. For better or for worse, most people noticed the very same things.

He mentions the psychological tendency for people to make snap judgments: they come to a quick conclusion about what something is, and this shapes the way that they look at it afterward. Everything they do is geared to match what they see to their first impression.

(EN: Neuroscience, and Antonio Damasio in particular, back this up. People are capable of backing away from their first impression or questioning it when they encounter incongruous information - but until the incongruity reaches a certain level they will continue to assume their initial impression was correct.)

So if a person makes an incorrect first assumption - they think "this site is a travel magazine with articles to read about destinations" they may leave immediately if their intent was to make reservations. Or if their intent was to read articles rather than book a vacation, they will continue along that line until they feel frustrated at being unable to find what they expected.

That it is why it is so important to make the first glance count, and give visitors the immediate sense of what your site is all about.

Common excuses for failing the first-glance test

Al of these assumptions are very often wrong.

Nobody Visits the Home Page

There is a belief that "nobody enters a site through the home page anymore," given that links often take them on a deep-dive.

A user searches for a product on a search engine and arrives on that product page. An advertisement sends a user to a custom-designed landing page. People share links to the specific content they want to share with others.

All of this is true: many users (though far from "all") arrive deeper in the site. And when they feel lost, they click the logo and go to the home page to orient themselves. So even if it's not the first page they see, it is often the first page they reference when they are uncertain - and if it is badly designed, it will be the last page they see before leaving for good.

It is also not necessary for every page within the site to be subjected to the first-glance test. So long as the user can tell, at a glance, what a deeper page is about and how to get to the home page if it's not what he wanted, he can find the path to the rest.

How to Get the Message Across

Krug lists a number of elements that get attention from users who are looking to answer the first-glance questions:

A few random tips:

And now back to the tagline: "nothing beats a good tagline" for getting immediate attention and providing an immediate association of the brand to its value.

He mentions good taglines in advertising, which are mentioned along with the product name. Chances are most people can name the brand if you mention a well-established tagline ("all the news that's fit to print," "m-m good," "have it your way," and so on) - this is evidence of how strongly it is associated to a brand by the market.

Tips for taglines:

Sites that are well-established brands do not need to use taglines, as are sites that are operated by firms with strong brands in general. No-one needs to tell you what Google, Amazon, or Expedia does anymore.

Where the product or value is communicated by the brand itself, it is arguable whether the tagline is needed. No tagline is needed to tell you what "Sally's Doughnuts" sells, though it may be useful in those instances to distinguish Sally's from everyone else who sells the same product.

Where Do I Start?

Once the other four questions are satisfactorily answered, the user is ready to interact with the site. So the next question to answer is "Where do I start?"

This is where users look for links to categories, or a search engine, or to promotions (on the premise that a company promotes its "best stuff").

And this is generally where the conflict begins with stakeholders of various stripes jockeying to be the thing that every user will click first - so the site's home page becomes a chaos of competing links that all want to be the first in line.

Competing Interests (Again)

This is where it is important to manage the negotiations between stakeholders - and to determine which of the tasks that users want to do is the "golden goose" that should not be killed. Generally, if your site is selling products, that's your golden goose - and nothing else should get in its way.

He also mentions the "town planner" approach, in which things of a similar nature are grouped together into a given neighborhood: factories in one area, stores in another, farms over there, neighborhoods somewhere else, and the like.

(EN: Though it occurs to me with some irony that the courthouse and other government buildings are often located right in the middle of town, even though they are seldom visited by residents. But guess who signs the town planner's paycheck?)

It's an ongoing task to manage the site's home page and do it well, to prevent the panic of the day from taking control, and ensure that as new things are added it is done with thoughtfulness to the user's desires rather than those of the firm.