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Websites

The Architecture of Effective Websites: The Homepage as a Transitional Space

Andrew Siskind

Homepages are tricky. Everyone agrees that getting the homepage right is essential to the success of a web project. But, that’s pretty much where everyone agreeing ends.


What’s certain is that for most visitors, your homepage is the gateway between the larger, public space of the internet and your own branded spaceWhat we’re talking about here are the ways in which acknowledging this transitional nature can inform your work.

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Keep in mind... this post isn’t intended to be a generalized “best practice” guide to creating homepages, or a list of tips and tricks you can use to improve your conversion rate. It’s only an exploration of some ideas about what makes a good homepage that we’ve found to be tremendously helpful in our work as builders of websites.

First Principles

Let’s start by thinking about entrances as physical spaces — doorways, foyers, mudrooms, etc.  After all, that’s a big part of what the homepage is: a gateway to your digital space, a central hallway, a point of both entrance into and departure deeper within your website.

What makes a good entrance? As you can see, we tend to use physical metaphors when designing the information architecture of websites, so we read and draw generously from architectural theory. There are a lot of great ways to think about what your website is, but for current purposes we’ll stick with the image of website-as-a-building.

One of the most interesting architectural thinkers we’ve been working through here at Salted Stone is Christopher Alexander. In the groundbreaking book A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, Alexander and his colleagues break the design of communities and buildings down into a set of discrete “patterns”, which are intersecting sections that deal with a specific design challenge, contextualize it in the broader design language, and propose an ideal solution.

pattern view

Several of the patterns deal directly with the issue of entrances, including “Entrance Room” and “Reception Welcomes You”. Each offers a valuable insight into what makes a good place of entrance.

“Entrance Room” addresses a combination of diverse patterns which culminate in the understanding that “the time of arriving, or leaving, seems to swell with respect to the minutes which precede and follow it,” and so “the space too must follow suit and swell with respect to the immediate inside and the immediate outside.”

Translated into the digital experience, what Alexander and his team are noting is essentially that the place of transition is not an invisible barrier but an area that has some depth, a space that has its own merits, in which new visitors will briefly be between two places.

Building on this idea, “Reception Welcomes You” considers the new visitor’s experience of arriving. It asks, “have you ever walked into a public building and been processed by the receptionist as if you were a package?” Certainly the answer is yes, and this sensation of being processed is even more pronounced online.

Again, what we’ve learned from studying these patterns is the need to treat new visitors in a way that offers them the reassurance that we respect both their time and their agency to decide what they want to do next.

Empathy and the Visitor Experience

au-charityBy now you might have noticed this post is dealing with some of the more abstract elements of building a website. Perhaps the most abstract element of the design and build process, empathy is also the most essential. Without empathy, all your market segmentation and buyer persona research is essentially worthless.

In the context of creating a homepage, empathy means putting yourself in the shoes of your audience. It sounds simple, but it can be tremendously difficult to think your way outside of your existing assumptions about what should be on the homepage, how it should be organized, and what it should look like.

Let me ground this with a concrete example of these twin concepts of homepage-as-gateway and empathy in action...

Consider the language you use on your homepage’s primary navigation. Are there heavily branded terms in play? Can visitors find information about your services under the name “Solutions,” or are you asking them to guess that “Tactical Approach Frameworks” means “services” to people who work at your company?

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In their very valuable book Information Architecture for the World Wide Web, Morville and Rosenfeld write that “labeling and organization systems are intensely affected by their creators’ perspectives” and “to design usable organization systems, we need to escape from our own mental models of content labeling and organization.”

If you want to give your visitors the best, most natural and satisfying experience, it pays to speak their language rather than your own — especially right inside the front door.

Dwelling On The Threshold

We sometimes describe the homepage as a “liminal space” when thinking about the visitor experience. Liminality is an interesting concept, a product of early 20th-century anthropology of religion, which describes the state a participant is in after a ritual has begun but before it’s ended; in effect, the participant is between two worlds.

webinarsWe’ve come to believe that creating a homepage that acknowledges and 
honors this liminal condition is the foundation for a positive audience experience.
Visitors are on unfamiliar ground the first time they arrive at your homepage, so building around that understanding can help them orient themselves easily and move confidently in the direction they need to be going.

In Bjørn Thomassen’s book The Uses and Meanings of Liminality, he writes about the importance of understanding “the human reactions to liminal experiences,” including “...the sudden foregrounding of agency.” Homepage visitors are met with an entrance space that defines the transition from the larger internet to a small space with its own rules — and are given choices to make right away. If your intention is to help them make the right choices, it can be very helpful to make sure your “rules” are aligned with their assumptions and expectations.

TL;DR: We’ve come to believe that the keys to building
good homepages are respect and empathy.

Respect for your visitors time, their sense of agency, and the language they speak; empathy for their disorientation and potentially limited interest in whatever it is you’re trying to say. Remember, your homepage is for them.


We've been strategizing, organizing, writing, and designing websites for over 10 years. We like to think we do it well. Check out our case studies to see a few of our projects, and feel free to reach out anytime!
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