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The topic of placing products on the homepage always comes with debate, but when thinking in the context of customer experience design, the reasons against presenting products are straightforward.
I've previously taken an in-depth look at product page design, and now it's time to turn the spotlight on the homepage.
Purpose of the homepage
The purpose of the homepage is to maintain a consumer's 'buying momentum'.
Buying momentum is characterised by a series of micro-actions consumers take in their journey leading to a macro-action (a purchase).
The team at Site Tuners say the purpose of the homepage is to “get visitors off the homepage”, which is right, the homepage is a “sign post… it’s not where your content really lives.”
When a consumer lands on a homepage they are at least one step into their journey and want to continue moving closer to their goal/macro-action.
A consumer may have come from:
- A search engine.
- A marketplace.
- Viewed another form of media stimulating an action (received an email, saw a TV commercial).
- A competitor site where they had a poor experience.
Customer’s rarely think, “I hope this retailer has the product I am looking for on the homepage.”
They expect to take steps, and yet retailers feel compelled to present products.
Some of this may come from the old school thinking of "three clicks to a product", an old usability rule ensuring products were presented by the third click.
"Three clicks to a product" still has merit on the proviso the products presented by the third click are relevant and aligned to the consumer's intent.
The ideal homepage formula
For the homepage to maintain momentum and achieve its purpose it requires a cocktail of functionality and content to present four fundamental navigation options:
- Large search box.
- Clearly displayed main navigation bar/menu.
- Mega menu.
- Content tiles in the body of the homepage pictorially representing main categories.
Many retailers get #1, #2, and #3 right, however, #4 appears to be the forgotten piece of the homepage puzzle.
Retailers cannot predict consumer intent when they first land on the homepage
For those who believe they can present relevant products on the homepage, heed the words of Howard Tullman (CEO of 1871, entrepreneurial hub for digital startups) who was quoted by Inc.com when discussing the future of retail:
Comprehensive use of demographic data will be useful, but no longer a competitive differentiation.
And even basic "interest" and social information won't be sufficient to win the battle because the new consumer behavior drivers won't be uniform or consistent, even on an individual basis.
Each time a consumer appears on a retailer’s site - it's essentially a brand-new day dictated and determined "in the moment" by a consumer's then-dominant and most pressing desires... intent.
Google talks extensively about what Howard refers to as being "in the moment”. Google calls it consumer "micro-moments"...
Mobile has fractured the consumer journey into hundreds of real-time, intent-driven micro-moments.
The bigger the retailer, the broader the range of intent driven micro-moments coming your way making the ability to present relevant products on the homepage extremely difficult.
The negative impacts of featuring products on the homepage
Presenting products negatively impacts the consumer experience in three ways:
1. Jeopardises consumer buying momentum.
Because micro-actions have occurred before landing on the homepage, the consumer has established momentum and is trying to get closer to meeting his/her need.
Featuring products on the homepage has the potential of halting this momentum. Check your homepage bounce rate metrics.
2. Reduces the chance of consumers scrolling down the page.
The dynamic of “The Fold” has changed. Gone are the days of cramming content into the top portion of the screen.
Content placement is now a matter of establishing a content hierarchy and ensuring the most relevant content is at the top of the page giving consumers confidence there is more relevant content below the fold.
If consumers see irrelevant content at the top of the page (i.e. products), they are less likely to scroll. This is Facebook’s foundation strategy - ensure newsfeed content is highly relevant to initiate engagement.
This from Facebook:
Our goal with News Feed has always been to show people the things they want to see. When people see content that’s relevant to them, they’re more likely to be engaged.
The approach to the homepage is no different. Scrolling is the new "engagement currency", it's the new pageview.
Featuring irrelevant content at the top of mobile screens has a far greater negative impact:
Consumers who purchase on mobile scroll 23% more than users who did not, while on tablets consumers scroll 25% more.
3. First-time visitors will not appreciate the breadth of a retailer’s product mix.
Baymard Institute conducted a study with first-time visitors and found retailers who featured products on their homepage delivered the perception of having an "overall narrow range".
First-time users with little to no prior knowledge of the site’s brand will largely base their understanding of a retailer's product range on the homepage content and main navigation categories.
Toys R Us has products recommended for me. I have never purchased from Toys R Us, nor have I scrolled through the site before (my kids are all grown up).
Further down the page Toys R Us goes on to say “Shoppers like you also liked”.
How does it know me? And frankly I’m insulted it thinks I would like a vacuum.
Neiman Marcus does little to communicate its broad range of products with this content.
This large retailer thinks I would be interested in patio furniture because it's summer:
Benefits to replacing product content with pictorial content of main categories
Other than aiding the consumer in moving them off of the homepage, there are four other benefits to this content:
Firstly, displaying main categories within tiles provides a more visual method to move deeper into the site and thus utilises best practice usability and user experience principles.
Secondly, main category tiles satisfy the brain’s desire to consume visual content.
Because the human brain is programmed to more efficiently absorb pictures over words, the content in the body of the homepage has greater visual impact on a consumer's perception of product mix offering vs. the main navigation bar.
In 2014, Marcel Just, Director of the Center for Cognitive Brain Imaging at Carnegie Mellon University had this to say:
Processing print isn’t something the human brain was built for. The printed word is a human artifact.
It’s very convenient and it’s worked very well for us for 5,000 years, but it’s an invention of human beings. By contrast Mother Nature has built into our brain our ability to see the visual world and interpret it.
This content better communicates what main category ranges consist of. For example, the Nieman Marcus “Home” main category title is vague.
The addition of a tile would better communicate range. Another option would be to include a list of sub categories to further communicate depth.
Farmers, a large department store retailer, has done this:
The combination of image and sub category links is a good tactic for retailers with larger product ranges.
Thirdly, this main category tile content will elegantly translate to tablet screens providing large "finger targets" and simplifying the steps to drill down.
Main category links become less effective targets on tablet screens and the mouse-over effect that triggers the mega menu no longer becomes a usable prompt.
Fourthly, the combination of HTML and images along with the correct category naming conventions assists in the retailer's SEO strategy.
By placing the main category tiles below the feature banner, it helps bring this content above the fold (assuming the banner size is not too deep).
Farmers homepage: Heat map reporting for this page layout shows significant click activity for all tiles.
Both Walmart and Home Depot have this content on the homepage but it's too far down the page:
What to do with “New Arrivals” & “Best Sellers”
For retailers who argue they sell feature products (such as "New Arrivals") when they are on the homepage, consider the customer experience.
What's better? Cramming feature products into the homepage, or properly merchandising these ranges on dedicated landing pages, then featuring a tile/banner on the homepage communicating the range and its value.
If the messaging is clear, adding one obvious step still allows you to present products within thre clicks.
The homepage is cleaner, there is more room for main category content, and existing and future customers are given more options. Win-win.