Review – Homepage Usability – 50 Websites Deconstructed

Matt Mickiewicz

In our world of information overload, frustration sets in quickly and patience runs thin. The Web only makes things worse. With slow modems, confusing link labels, poor navigation, and technical glitches it’s no wonder that most ecommerce transactions aren’t completed and that most homepages are abandoned.

But, regardless, it’s your job to navigate around technical obstacles, manage overly creative Designers who want to use 250K Flash intros, and curb the egos of managers who seriously believe that your site’s visitors actually care about your company.

The online world is tough. Fail to deliver in any department, and your visitors will head to the competition. Succeed, and you’ll be a hero. "Homepage Usability — 50 Websites Deconstructed" by the outspoken, self-proclaimed guru, Jakob Nielsen, this time paired with Marie Tahir, is all about making a good first impression.

The book itself definitely does. Unusually big, heavy, and running to over 300 pages, it’s packed from cover to cover with great looking color and graphics.

An Easy-To-Follow Format

Three main sections make up the book:

  • Homepage Guidelines (113 in all)
  • Homepage Statistics and Convention Recommendations
  • 50 Homepage Reviews

The first two sections are extremely useful, and are, on their own, worth the $39.99 price tag of the book. Quick to read, they present an excellent checklist that’s easy to apply to any design project.

I personally found the information in these first two sections more useful than Jakob Nielsen’s other book, "Designing Web Usability" which was very theoretical. The only way to make good use of that book is to manually go through over 400 pages and highlight the do’s and don’t and then flip through the book for each site that you design in order to make sure that you comply with the usability principles.

Fortunately, that’s not a problem with this book. The first 50 pages lay out the principles, and the other 250 show them in action.

Homepage Statistics and Convention Recommendations

The extensive statistics on the 50 reviewed Websites provide a clear picture of the conventions that are commonly used on the Web. For example:

  • 84% of sites place their logo in the upper-left
  • 35% place search in the upper right, 30% in the upper left
  • The median page width is 770 pixels, and a "liquid" layout is recommended
  • "Jobs" is a term which should be included in the label for the employment information section
  • 60% of sites have an explicit contact page, while 22% make that info available through their About Us link

It’s very obvious from the book that some major conventions on how things are done, and the way certain features are labeled, have emerged from the plethora of sites now online. It only makes sense that your site stays in line with what others are doing, in order to avoid frustrating visitors — and this book provides those guidelines in a clear format that’s easy to use.

The book obviously goes into much greater detail on each of the statistics and guidelines, which range from "Never animate critical elements such as logos and headlines" to "Don’t offer a ‘Search the Web’ feature from the site’s search function". Unfortunately, though, no research is provided to back any of these points up.

50 Homepage Reviews

While 50 homepage reviews sounds like a great number, in practice they become quite tedious to read. The authors must be given credit for having the courage to tear apart even the largest sites, among them Yahoo!, eBay and CNET.

Nevertheless, after the first dozen or two reviews you’ll get the gist of process and how the guidelines listed at the beginning of the book apply in the real world.

The biggest flaw of the reviews themselves is that many of the points stated are based on opinion rather than fact. The flaws aren’t rated on any sort of scale, nor are their impacts on the sites qualified in any manner. With over 1100 design "flaws" being pointed out throughout the book, it takes a lot of energy to read them all, especially without any categorization scale.

On a positive note, two screenshots of the site are presented in each review, one with numbered "errors" and one without. After a while you can test yourself and try to spot as many mistakes as possible before flipping the page for the answers. Hey, with enough practice you too will be able to charge $10,000 US for a homepage review…

Before I wrap this up, I should mention the Appendix. It compares the top Websites, side-by-side, including: their Window Title, Tagline, use of screen real estate, logos, search boxes and more. In just a few pages, you get a very thorough overview of the universe of homepages.

Now, rush on over to Amazon and pick yourself up a copy at a nice discount and put it on your bookshelf right along "Don’t Make Me Think".

Rating: 4/5