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Where content meets technology

Sep 20, 2011

Why you should do your homepage wireframe last

When building websites, I always recommend developing the home page last because the purpose of the homepage is to highlight content within the site. You need build out the site so you have something to highlight before you build the homepage. Over the past year, I have started to realize that the same advice holds true for design. In fact, I now feel even stronger about that rule for design. Here are four reasons why.

  1. A homepage wireframe doesn't tell a whole lot.

    Wireframes are helpful to express content structure and site functionality. When I look at a wireframe, I see a content model (what elements make up a particular type of content) and features (how the visitor interacts with the content — commenting, voting, sharing, related links, etc.). The home page is more of a summary. You don't see that level of detail. The things that matter to a homepage (branding elements like font, imagery and palette) are not even captured in a wireframe. Talk about those things near then end of the project because you can make sweeping visual changes by editing a few lines of a style sheet.

  2. The biggest functionality decisions are in the inner pages of the site.
    Although you may think you have scoped the project during your requirements phase, the devil is in the details. How the functionality works will have huge implications on project cost. The sooner you have those conversations, the sooner you will be able to adjust budget and scope so you can spend resources cost-effectively. Leave those decisions to the end and everyone gets surprised ... in a bad way.

  3. Internal audiences care more about the home page than external audiences do
    Let's face it, if your site is like most sites, most of your traffic is coming from search engines and link sharing (Twitter, Facebook, etc.). If you have something worthy of your audience's attention, Google is going to know about it and take your visitors directly there. The homepage doesn't do much more than give a visitor something to look at when he doesn't know where to go. The homepage is more about corporate vanity than serving audiences.

  4. It is easy to get bogged down in political issues that have nothing to do with the functionality of the site.
    While there is very little functional substance on the homepage, that doesn't mean people can't argue about it. If the homepage is treated as a symbol for what is important to an organization (which it often is), a design session will quickly degrade into a turf battle. Your designer will try to mediate, but there is no way he will be able to settle such a fundamental argument. Don't waste time arguing in the beginning of the project when there is so much productive work to be done.

Unfortunately, I regularly meet resistance from designers who habitually begin with the homepage. I understand the temptation. On the surface, a homepage wireframe seems easy and uncontroversial. It is just a bunch of blocks on the page that stakeholders can privately fill with their imagination; there are no assertions on how major site features behave. But, from a technical design perspective, we don't learn anything from the homepage wireframe. We can't start thinking about content structure and end-user functionality that will have major implications in scope and planning. The longer we delay that work, the greater project risk.