Saturday, April 16, 2011

Above the Fold?

When I've designed home pages for websites, I've often needed to carefully plan which content should appear "above the fold." That catchy phrase originated during the newspaper era, and it refers to the content that is visible when newspapers are folded and stacked, or when a paper is displayed in a sales rack. In Web terms, the phrase relates to the content that is visible in a browser before a visitor needs to scroll. There are many factors that should influence such decisions. Here are some of the factors that have influenced my work:

  • Anticipate the needs of the target audience: I have many years of experience, working as a Web guy for an institution of hiring learning. College websites serve a wide spectrum of audiences across a wide range of ages, from teens to retirees. Many would tell you that parents of teens are the most important target audience for a college home page. Parents are often in control of the money that's so vital to a school's existence. I know from first-hand experience what it's like to shop around for schools for a child. It's very exciting when the [paper] brochures start arriving in the mail. When that started happening at my home, I think that I was determined to jump online and to fully investigate every school that showed an interest in my child. But here's the reality: I'm a busy guy, and it's very difficult to find the time to visit college websites. If a school's Web team doesn't have the good sense to place the most important--or the most persuasive--messages at the top of the home page, then what motivation do I have to dig deep? I simply don't have time to scroll. Now, if you have a product for which your target audience is 20-somethings in Silicon Valley, then you should design for different considerations.

  • Listen to the direction of leaders within your organization: High-ranking people in the organization may have very strong feelings about specific elements of the home page. Executive-level people may determine the dimensions of your site, or even the font that you use. Some of those people may have weak eyesight, and their monitors may be set at a low resolution. You may try to convince them about the merits of creating a site with broad and deep dimensions. Good luck.

  • Let your traffic data influence your decision: Take a look at your analytics package. It's possible that most of your visitors--or the most important portion of your visitors--view your site with a particular resolution. Take screen-capture images of your competitors' home pages, and paste them into Photoshop, looking at their dimensions, and sizing them up against the most popular dimensions from your traffic data. What do you see? There's a good chance that you can learn something important from that exercise.

It's a difficult and a time-consuming art, trying to create a finely calibrated home page with dimensions that appeal to lowest-common denominator users and to tech-savvy early adopters. Many designers don't have the skill or the patience to be successful at such work. Some have so many demands on their time that they're not really able to give much focus to the task. Also, the reemergence of blogs and the popularity of "scrolling" social media feeds are factors that influence some designers to think that everything should scroll. If you're a seasoned marketer, then you know that scrolling really isn't the best approach for all home pages. Know your goals. Know your target audience. Use your data.

In case you haven't noticed, this article is specifically about *home* pages, not the other pages of your site. The principles discussed here are also important for landing pages, or in other words, custom pages that a user might encounter after they click on a link that you included in an email marketing campaign. Vital information on those pages should be above the fold.

I'll be posting this article on a blog-based website. The site is just a repository. I'm not selling anything. Dimensions don't matter on this site, but I'm sure that I'll be paying attention to dimensions as I design other home pages, later down the road. Scroll away...

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