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Designing websites inside-outWhen starting out on a new web project it is tempting to begin the wireframing process at the homepage, which is surely the most important page on your website.

But I’ve found that this approach doesn’t work for me. And for that matter I don’t believe that the homepage is the single most important page either!

Starting with the homepage is a little bit like drawing the cover of your novel, before you start writing the first chapter. It’s the story that counts, and until you know more about the story – the content – then how can you decide what to draw? You know what they say about judging books by their covers, perhaps because illustrators don’t read them before they get to work.

It’s the same with websites… isn’t it better to consider what’s contained within before working out how the homepage might look?

The homepage is essentially an aggregator page. And until you’ve figured out what can / should be aggregated then there’s no point trying to design it. I think it is best to start at a much deeper level, rather than starting at the homepage.

For example, a retailer could start at product page level, before working back to a category page, and then back to the homepage. I’d argue that the product page is far more vital to the success of a business than the homepage. It’s where the critical purchase decisions take place.

If your product pages suck then you’re relying on brand, product exclusivity or scarcity, and the tolerance of consumers to win sales. But if they’re brilliant then you can trump your competitors and help persuade customers to purchase more often. So from a business perspective, it is wise to focus your design efforts on these key pages. 

This is an inside-out approach. You start at a deeper page and work your way back to the ‘start’. It's an information issue, from a design perspective, but the fact remains that the most important pages live deep within your website.

It makes sense from a search / user perspective too. Many visitors totally bypass the homepage when entering your website, entering instead at an individual page level (product and category pages, like blog posts, tend to rank better on the search engines for niche terms). The long tail – which can be very long indeed - is certainly more targeted: these searches are highly specific, and from a retailer’s perspective, they show a lot of conversion intent.

So get those product pages right, and then work back to a category / channel page. Get the category pages right and work back to the homepage, and not before understanding the needs of the business, the target market, and so on.

Consider too that the homepage must not replace your core navigation! A visitor does not need to visit the homepage to find their way around… surely that’s the job of the navigation? Here’s the distinction, from my perspective:

  • The homepage is a signpost to point visitors in the direction that you want to take them in. It can be accessed via every page, normally by clicking the logo. 
  • The navigation is a signpost to point visitors in the direction that they want to go in. It is available on every page (apart from perhaps the checkout). 

When I say that the homepage is about you pushing people into certain actions, I mean that it is a place for merchandising, promotion and persuasion. It’s a signpost for sure, but on your terms. It acts as navigation but it’s not necessary to go to the homepage to reach other pages. Visitors that use homepages to navigate are suggestible, and as far as I’m concerned you should be suggesting all kinds of things…

So this inside-out approach is something that works for me. It’s about figuring out the key content and functionality that lives on deeper pages in your website, and bringing some of it to the fore on your homepage.

The 37 Signals team takes this to an even more nano level. They employ a process called ‘Epicenter Design’, where the focus is on the key element of any given webpage (the one thing that is the ‘pure purpose’ of that page, which would lose most of its meaning were it removed). 

In the words of Jason Fried:

Epicenter Design involves focusing in on the true essence of the page (the “epicenter”) and then building outwards. This means not starting with the navigation/tabs, or the footer, or the colors, or the sidebar, or the logo, etc. It means starting with the part of the page that, if changed or removed, would change the entire purpose of the page. That’s the epicenter.”

So not only should we be designing our interfaces from the inside out at website level, but at page level too.

What approaches do you use, when building out a new website for yourself or a client?

[Image by rubberglovelover on Flickr, various rights reserved]

Chris Lake

Published 26 May, 2009 by Chris Lake

Chris Lake is CEO at EmpiricalProof, and former Director of Content at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter, Google+ or connect via Linkedin.

582 more posts from this author

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Lynde Roberts

Great article.  Interesting perspective on a design method.

While I agree that the homepage is not always the most important page, it is frequently the page that will make or break your site.

I am also not a "homepage designer". I like to look at the big picture of any given project and sort things out according to priority and relevance.

Web designers, as well as savvy internet users, can usually notice right away when a website's effectiveness falls short for a variety of reasons.  But many times the target audience for a given site will not be able to notice this reality, instead relying on the age-old psychology of judging a "book by its cover", or in this case judging the website based on its front page.

No, you can't build the cover for a book and then write about it. But the cover better sell that book or risk failing miserably.

Just my 2 cents.

over 7 years ago

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Dave Bancroft

I often liken the homepage to the "shop window" :- it should show a bit from every department, and as much as possible should be dynamically generated (as opposed to content managed) so that it always feels fresh:  latest special offers; new products/services; latest news -- these can usually all be generated from a database (by tickbox or by date posted).  That way, I agree, you think about the inside before the outside -- an "outside in/inside out" approach is what I find always works best.

--

PS this comments box is working very strangely in Firefox 3 - e-consultancy you should do some tests.  I have to refresh the page to get it to work.

over 7 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

I agree, I also see a trend in my work of setting benchmarks for the speed of delivery of web site performance, that people often give the homepage proportionately more attention than it deserves.

Obviously a dead-slow homepage is bad.... but more focus needs to be given to the mutli-page routes that get users to the product pages where decisions are made, and from there through the Add to Basket route to Checkout.

It's not uncommon for sites to have fast Journeys through to product pages, but then quite poor and variable page delivery, for the Add_to_Basket step, and the form-filling CheckOut pages.

Deri

over 7 years ago

Chris Lake

Chris Lake, CEO at Empirical Proof

@Dave - thanks for the comment and pointer on FF3... we'll look into it.

@Deri - you're right about pages slowing down as you push items through the checkout. Happens too often. Then again we spend far too long queueing in offline supermarkets, so maybe we're used to it? ;  )

over 7 years ago

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rick boretsky

Great post and I fully agree. I once heard it put as; 'that your homepage is where google takes you', meaning that any page on your web-site becomes your homepage, if that is where a search engine has brought you. And so, it MUST be designed as such!

over 7 years ago

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Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

@chris  -he - we're a nation who love to queue ! (The British I mean)

over 7 years ago

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Rahul Dighe

I couldn't agree more. As a product manager, I find that while working with stakeholders undue attention often gets paid to the HOME page and the rest of the pages where users actually get their information is often given progressively less attention.

There is the other issue that there are instances where your website gets a lot of traffic from deep links via emails or other means in which case having a rock solid home page is nice to have but not critical.

Furthermore, when your building a completely new product you really don't know what users would want to see on the home page, mainly because the rest of the content is not defined yet.

It's also quite frequently seen on many news websites - beyond the first page the site just falls into disarray and one is not sure if a consistent theme is carried through.

never heard of epicenter design process before but its good marketing..

over 7 years ago

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rocky

this is a nice post

over 7 years ago

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seamless steel pipe

Good post! I couldn't agree more.

about 7 years ago

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