One challenge all designers come across in working with any client is deciding how much information should be displayed on a site's homepage. Most clients can agree that if the site's there to sell a product, that product should be prominently featured. The trouble is that the goals of any site are usually more complex than showcasing a single product. When you have a wide array of products, special offers, news, events, promotions, and other featured content that you want to draw attention to, it's certainly tempting to give all of these things a position on the front page to make sure nobody misses them. From a user's perspective, of course, the resulting clutter ends up having that opposite effect, and no single message really hits home. One way to think about solving this problem is to think of your homepage as the storefront to your site.
A retail store owner has three basic types of customer to contend with. We'll call them the Passerby, the Casual Shopper, and the In-and-Out Buyer. Almost all ineffective homepages are the result of a designer ignoring one of these consumer types (Even if you're not selling something in the retail sense, the same idea applies to getting your principle message across).
The Passerby Many site owners do not properly consider the Passerby. Of course we want to believe that if someone has landed on our site, we've captured their full attention and can count on them to explore all the information we've so thoughtfully arranged for them. The reality is that the idle web surfer is more like a window shopper. You're lucky to have their attention for 15 seconds, which is really not even long enough for them to read a paragraph of copy. The best you can hope to do is get one product in front of them, or communicate one succinct message. Keeping in mind that your homepage is a storefront, you should be giving the passerby the most attention. Just worry about getting them in the door. Think of how the front of a store like The Gap looks. They sell a variety of products, but they choose one thing to feature in the window, and they do it with big, beautiful images of that product, sometimes paired with one simple line that hits their brand message for the season.
The Casual Shopper This is where many site owners get into trouble. The Casual Shopper has enough time and attention for a variety of messages or products. It's hard not to want to put everything up front, so this type of visitor can easily see all that's available. Brick-and-mortar storefronts have an easier job of this because customers can see past the main display in the window to the sales floor to get a rough idea of what's inside. The challenge on the web is achieving a similar experience: giving customers an idea of the breadth of products or information on your site without cluttering up your storefront or distracting the Passerby from the simple message and featured product you have in your window display. A good approach often involves smaller callouts for product categories or site sections, without focusing on specific products or information. This should still be graphical, but without the emphasis and direct call to action of your main message.
The In-and-Out Buyer Catering to the In-and-Out Buyer, who knows exactly they want and just needs to find the shortest path to get to it, almost always means having straightforward and thoughtfully organized text-based navigational elements on your homepage. A well constructed menu and a simple search function will do just fine to satisfy this type of customer. The important thing is to make sure that they can bypass the parts of your site intended for the other two types. You can still show them other products or messages once they've gotten where they're going, but there's no reason to slow somebody down when they're already on their way to a sale.
Gap's website, unfortunately, is only moderately successful at addressing the three types of customers. While they feature one product with quality photos, there's a lot there to distract the Passerby, including messages that could have been directed to a Casual Shopper or In-and-Out Buyer on a product page or elsewhere inside the site. There are many more successful examples of the storefront approach. Just one such example is Eddie Bauer's site, which keeps things much simpler while still hitting all three types.