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1: Personality

Even before your creative department takes pen to tablet, sit down and give some real thought to how you want to project the image of your company on your home page. Your home page should probably have a somewhat different design than the internal pages of your site. Think of your home page as the cover of a book and not the scandal sheet covers found at a supermarket checkout stand. Book covers have to project an image of what's inside without getting wordy or cluttered with images and information. Your home page should do the same.

2: Simplicity

Hand in hand with personality is simplicity—but a simplicity that promises a depth of offering on your site. The best home pages give the user a sense that there's something beneath the surface, and that exploration will be rewarded with new discoveries. Think "book cover" again. Seek to offer simple and elegant images and well-thought-out branding messages that separate you from your competition, and at the same time provide a call to action. (More on that later.)

3: Splash Pages

Ponder this. You're about to enter a store at your local mall but before you enter you have view a billboard—or worse yet, an animated commercial. You don't want to wait to enter the store; why make your visitors wait to enter your web site? That's what happens when you create an introduction (splash) page that a visitor must pass through before he or she gets to your home page.

The Internet is about getting information as quickly as possible. If you're selling from the web, you'd better get visitors into your store as quickly as possible. Splash pages are a waste of time for your programmers and your visitors. Even worse, I've seen sites where every time a visitor returns to the home page from somewhere else in the site, he or she must endure the splash page again. Just drop it.

4: Flash

Hot on the heels of the splash page no-no is using a Flash introduction. In my humble opinion, a Flash introduction has no place on an e-commerce site. Here we go again: The purpose of an e-commerce site is to sell—not entertain. Flash has its place on an e-commerce site, but not as an introduction experience. Would you want to be forced to view a three-minute movie before you enter K-Mart? A Merriam-Webster dictionary definition shows flash as a "vulgar ostentatious display." Is this the first thing you want your customers to see? Even Macromedia realizes that there are problems with how designers use their Flash product; see their article Macromedia's Top 10 Usability Tips for Flash Web Sites. Their suggestions can be used as a foundation for good web site usability and not just Flash usability.

5: Unnecessary Design Elements

Spinning logos, animation, 3D graphics, large image maps, even background sound files have no place on your e-commerce home page. These design elements not only bulk up your home page but add to its download time. And as you know, the slower the download, the faster your visitors will bolt for the door.

Oh, and lay off the Java applets. They also slow down the presentation of your home page while it—and your visitor—wait for the applet to load. When deciding what design elements to include in your home page, just ask yourself this question: Do you really need to use that design element? If someone came in and removed an element, would the page be any less understandable?

6: Promotions

Six rules into the list and your visitor has finally arrived at your home page. Now what? Remember, your visitor is here to buy. So why not use this opportunity as a call to action? If not to buy, at least to be recruited as a prospect.

First, choose one of your products or services and place it on sale or provide a special promotion. Make it time-sensitive to encourage the customer to buy immediately. Don't try to sell the visitor then and there with a lot of information. Entice him or her to click through to a special page on your site where you can better explain your offer and sell it there.

You should also have a place on your home page where a visitor can sign up for your newsletter or special promotions. A simple "Enter your email address here" submission box with a brief explanation is enough.

If you do both of these correctly with a little understanding of design, neither the special offer nor the prospect sign-up should take a lot of space on your home page.

7: Bloat

Speaking of space, how many times have you seen a home page that's crammed with content? Some e-commerce home pages have two or three columns of content in addition to a column of navigation, banner ads, and other assorted material. Just as the question in web design is "Do I need to use this design element?" the important question about content is "Do I need to have this content on the page?"

Home pages have a tendency to bloat. You might have started out with a mean, clean selling machine on your home page, but several months later it's now waddling about like an overweight sumo wrestler. Put that home page on a diet and get it back to its original weight.

8: Navigation

Your navigation elements should be spare in words and in number of links. It should also be simple and to the point. Your navigation should indicate to visitors what to buy on your site, where to buy, how to buy, and any necessary information that they need to get to quickly, such as shipping costs, guarantees, and customer service contact information. Your navigation should have the sole purpose of getting your visitor to what he or she needs to make a decision to buy. You want your visitors to quickly find what they're looking for and open their wallet—not confuse them. Which brings us to "Mystery Meat Navigation."

9: "Mystery Meat Navigation"

Vincent Flanders of Web Pages That Suck coined the term Mystery Meat Navigation. Mystery Meat is a term that American kids are exposed to in high school lunch lines—the meat selection that's unidentifiable and disguised by gravy. Mystery Meat Navigation, based on JavaScript rollovers, is confusing and risks alienating your customers; you have to find the navigational system and then mouse over each image to determine where it will take you. To quote Mr. Flanders, "Web design is not about art, it's about making money." The more you confuse your site visitor, the less money you'll make.

10: Browser Compatibility

Some day we'll all standardize on one web browser—or that's what Mr. Gates dreams about, anyway. But before his dreams come true, you should test your home page—and your entire site—against the current browsers and their various versions. We can't all afford to have different browsers running on different machines, so the next best thing is to check out WebReview's Browser Compatibility Chart to see what features are and aren't supported. If your company hasn't standardized on one browser and one release level, there may be problems using certain design techniques on your site.

Keep these 10 rules for e-commerce home page design in mind and you'll go a long way toward designing home pages that sell.

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