Thousands of people may be visiting your site every day, but if you don’t convince them that they should be using your product, subscribing to your service, or registering in some way, then your web app’s homepage is simply not doing its job.
Successful web apps use similar formats when it comes to user interaction on their homepage. For instance, most feature an explanatory strapline that tells you what the service does, many show you screenshots of their service, and they all entice you to sign up or register with a prominently placed button. But is it really that simple?
If you design a site with this simple checklist of ‘must-haves’ in hand, is the resulting site guaranteed to turn your visitors into users? What are the elements of a home page that make it really effective at transforming visitors into users? And how does the design itself contribute to this?
Most designers agree that not only do you have to have brilliant navigation, impeccably-crafted copy and a great sales message, but you also have to have that something extra in the design that will speak volumes to your potential users.
We invited some leading designers to look at a selection of high-profile apps to examine how they’re attempting to turn visitors into users through user experience design.
Building Trust is key
First up, Blinksale and Freshbooks, which both offer services that will help the small online business get bills out quicker or easier. Blinksale’s strapline is ‘The easiest way to send invoices online’, whilst Freshbooks is ‘The fastest way to invoice your clients’ – essentially they are competing for the same users.
We asked two designers, Andy Rutledge from Design View and John Zeratsky from Feedburner to give us their thoughts on these two different approaches. Both saw benefits and disadvantages to the way these sites had worked their layout, content and design.
For John, “Blinksale’s home page clearly and attractively outlines the benefits of the application and makes me really want to get started. But unfortunately, it’s not 100 per cent obvious how I get started. The big “Sign-up for your free Blinksale account” was below the fold (for me at least) and did not look like a link.
“FreshBooks is the exact opposite of Blinksale. Their home page is not as good at getting me to want to sign up, but it’s very obvious where I need to click to do so. It’s impossible to miss the blue “Try it for Free” that appears above the fold and very prominently on the page.”
It’s all about trust, says Andy: to turn visitors into users your homepage needs to make them feel the way they will feel when they use your service – happy, satisfied, excited. And this kind of trust begins with how the information is presented on your site:
“Blinksale’s main page embodies the confirmation of its promotional statement, which it claims is ‘the easiest way to send invoices online.’ The page design and content offering is based on simplicity. The product claims to be easy and the page is, in fact, easy to consume and digest. This inspires trust.
“FreshBook’s main page design and layout is clean-looking. The content, however, seems to get in the way of this clarity. It seems that there’s too much to read and too many different types of content on the page. The promotional claim centers around ‘fast,’ but the content is a bit pedantic.”
The Shop Window Approach
In the web metrics space we looked at Mint and the recently launched CrazyEgg. What’s immediately noticeable is that both sites think its important to let their clients know how the application works by prominently featuring screen shots of their application in action on the home page.
Ryan Shelton, designer from Mutado and of DropSend), believes that using big design statements to direct your users to a call for action is key for converting visitors to users. “The central row of images on CrazyEgg that give you a quick overview of the features on offer work well, especially since you have the option of opening a larger image without leaving the homepage. Although Mint gives me more information about its features, I find that reading a lot of text isn’t as appealing as the simplicity of looking at screenshots.
“Both sites make it easy to sign up with clear and obvious call to action buttons. Mint is upfront about the cost and the orange splash draws my eye directly to it. The fact that Crazyegg had a free option meant that I signed up and gave it a go right away. The ’sign up now’ on the CrazyEgg homepage is constrained to the size of the button but I think they could have made the entire ’sign up now for free’ module a button (and applied this ‘big button’ language to the feature buttons too).”
There’s a good example of displaying your wares in a ’shop window’ stylee over at photo-printing apps, Shutterfly and Zazzle. Although the services are offering slightly different products they share the fact that both services result in tangible objects. These are fully displayed in large colourful images on the homepage that you can almost reach out and touch. The images make you want the products.
When The Homepage Doesn’t Matter
In these days of RSS and APIs, where content is often viewed separately from its source, how important is the design of your homepage? Will your users even make it there? Or will they slip in the backdoor through a followed link?
Ryan Singer, designer at 37signals believes that in many instances, homepages don’t matter – at least when your content does the job of turning visitors into users for you as it does on sites such as YouTube.com.
“I don’t visit YouTube and click around. But I see blog posts with cool videos all the time. I don’t think of YouTube as a site. What draws me in is a blog post, IM or email. Then, when you end up watching a video on YouTube’s site, you realize there are more cool videos there, and might start clicking around. In this way the root of each visit is a permalink, a particular video, a certain experience – not the home page. The video is the epicenter of the permalink, and the permalink is the epicenter of the whole site. Everything revolves around the videos you love, not the farm that feeds them.
“Based on this view, the home page is secondary to the permalinks. The home page should show me permalinks I’ve recently visited, recommendations based on those, and so forth. It should provide history and continuity of experience.”
So remember – if a big part of your success is going to depend on links, RSS feeds or blogs, you need to make every single page on your site just as effective at generating those all important new sign-ups: getting the positioning, colour, language, shape and prominence of every element on your homepage right is just the beginning.