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An intergenerational review of homepage design

1 April 2010
A person typing on a computer

The homepage is the "first entrance ticket" to the poral and serves as an initial reception for users. The homepages aesthetic form as well its function is therefore very important. In our September 2004 issue, we published an article titled "setting up a portal- a doctrine in a nutshell" that reviewed the different stages of setting up an organizational portal; one such stage is planning a homepage.

At the time, we defined the homepage's role as a combination of marketing and functionality. Functionality was defined as making the information most important to the worker accessible with each entrance to the portal; marketing was defined as creating information that will make users want to delve into the portal and want to return to the portal in the future. Are these definitions still relevant in 2010? Perhaps, but perhaps not. What is certain is that the world has changed in recent years and so have we. The changes have permeated into all areas of out life and are evident in our fashion choices, tastes, priorities and even our choice of words. The changes are evident in our homepages as well; The homepage's definition remain intact yet what was once perceived as a matter of marketing/functionality is now perceived differently. It is time to review what has changed during the last few years.

I wish to present three alternatives to the homepage, each typical of a different "generation" and clearly affected by the zeitgeist:

  1. The Classic Era: the traditional homepage

  2. Silicon Valley: The Google-like homepage

  3. Back to the future? The iPhone-like homepage

The Classic Era: the traditional homepage

The traditional homepage features the panels most "important" to the user. This information is usually news, messages from management, event calendar, birthdays, hot buttons and a navigation menu that organizes content in a portal under a content tree familiar to the user.

The traditional homepage is usually popular among the organization's more mature population, AKA "Baby Boomers". This is the generation born after WW2 that was exposed to means of communication (Television, transistors) that greatly evolved at the time. Exposure to means of communication generated a will to stay updated among "Baby boomers". This might be the reason they prefer the traditional homepage which in a way resembles the front page of a newspaper which "presents" the information to the reader (I've heard portal managers say that they manage an 'editorial board' maintaining the homepage).

The advantages: the traditional homepage presents users with relevant data that they might not be aware of and would therefore not search for. Furthermore, it is a means of communicating organizational messages from management.

The disadvantages: the homepage is often overloaded with details and is difficult to maintain as dynamic and attractive. Furthermore, its design is sometimes outdated.

Traditional design's bottom line: accessibility.

Silicon Valley: the Google-like homepage

The Google-like homepage actually includes only a search window, sometimes featuring few hot buttons. More and more websites nowadays feature a homepage designed similarly to Google's homepage. This is a clean, minimalistic design typical of hi-tech design and affected by general cultural changes.

The minds behind Google that brought the search engine into our lives and developed the Hi-tech field belong to "Generation X", born in the 60s and 70s. They are the users that usually prefer the Google-like homepage and are usually characterized by purposefulness. This might be why they prefer the Google-like homepage that does not present users with information; users receive only information they seek via the search engine. The ability to locate information via search engine eliminates the need to organize content under a content tree.

Advantages: the Google-like homepage reduces users' cognitive load and eliminates the need to invest resources in maintaining the homepage and organizing the portal's content.

Disadvantages: The Google-like homepage requires meticulously characterizing the search engine (an insufficiently characterized search engine might lead to the loss of relevant information). Furthermore, it is difficult to tag and differentiate between similar content items; this might reduce the search's level of precision. Also, using the search engine requires the user to be active, unlike the traditional homepage that intuitively presented the data to the user and did not require investing any effort searching for it. The Google-like homepage isn't designed for "lazy" users that if nor presented with the data on their first attempt will give up and search for easy solutions (not necessarily available via the portal).

What about organizational messages? They don't belong on a Google-like homepage, since they seemingly do not serve any of the purposes mentioned above. However, they are highly important to management (lest we forget that the portal is an intra-organizational website set up by management). Possible solutions include integrated design (for example, a central message and search engine) or "concealing" messages in the second level of items.

Google-like design's bottom line: purposefulness.

Back to the future? The iPhone-like homepage

Is the iPhone-like homepage the next hot design trend? Time will tell. The iPhone-like homepage is an array of icons, each representing a category of content items. The iPhone homepage features a fresh, colorful and youthful design that is easy on the eye and not overloaded with detail.

Who is this design's target audience? The organization's youngest 'generation', the "Y Generation" born in the 80s and 90s that were "born with computer mouse in their hands". They are also the main consumers of cellular Smartphones.

They say that 'everything stays in the family'; apparently the iPhone-like homepage is the descendant of the traditional homepage and Google-like homepage. For example, despite the innovative design the iPhone-like homepage's content is organized by categories familiar to the user similar to the traditional homepage. Thus, users don't need to invest any effort in searching; icons are the young version of navigation menus. On the other hand, the lack of news content items resembles the Google-like homepage's design which reduces resource investment and homepage maintenance.

Are we progressing or regressing? Some say that history always repeats itself…

The "Y Generation" is obsessed with aesthetics, is used to receiving maximum value for minimum effort; the iPhone-like homepage is therefore pretty, economical and functional.

Advantages: the iPhone-like homepage features an innovative design that is easy on the eye and does not cognitively overload users. The iPhone-like homepage enables locating content intuitively and eliminates the need to invest in maintenance.

Disadvantages: the iPhone-like design is static and might bore users in the long run. Furthermore, this design (similarly to the Google-like homepage) lacks organizational messages.

The iPhone-like design's bottom line: aesthetics.

In conclusion, six years ago we discussed planning a homepage; today we are discussing designing a homepage. The terminological change indicates substantial changes in the field of organizational portals and the world of Knowledge Management in general. The three alternatives presented in this article are the product of intergenerational changes and in a rapidly changing world we can assume that the next few years will feature additional design trends.

You are probably wondering which alternative is the most preferable. The answer hasn't changed over time and has always been: it depends. The organizational portal and its homepage must suit the organization's goals and the prevailing organizational culture; there is no absolute answer. The three alternatives presented above are prototypes and can be the basis for integrated designs in order to maximize benefits from the homepage and its compatibility with its users.

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