I've been considering redesigning the home screen for the next release in a desktop application I'm responsible for. This could probably be thought of as a brand-new design, since I have virtually no usage data to work with at this point.
I'm not a total newbie to UI design, but I am essentially self-taught. What that means is that I grasp the basic concepts and don't have too much trouble refining an existing UI or even building a task-specific UI, but when faced with an empty white canvas, I get lost pretty easily.
What I'd like to ask is, how can I methodically approach the design of an application's home screen?
What are the main concepts or principles that I should be focusing on for this screen/page?
What preliminary information/requirements would be useful to gather from users/stakeholders?
Is there anything I need to avoid at this stage? Any common pitfalls for this type of UI?
How can I self-evaluate the design before engaging users in a usability test (given that there are extremely limited resources available for the latter)?
Is there a well-known/documented process I can follow? Are there several?
Just a few quick additional notes about my particular (probably common) scenario:
It's not a document-oriented app, so one thing I can't use is a "new/blank document" or a page of templates. It's more along the lines of a CRM or financial system, with many different features of relatively significant importance.
There really aren't any similar apps that I can
stealborrow concepts from. Some do exist, but they are either (a) so hideously expensive and secretive that I have no chance of ever laying eyes upon them, or (b) horrible. Or (c) both, based on what I've heard second-hand.
The users are a passive bunch when it comes to usability; if there's an actual bug, I'll hear about it pretty quickly, but if a UI is just awkward then it might be months or years before that gets out in the open. I've got no objections to involving them in the process, but it tends to be difficult to get any useful feedback (or maybe I just don't know how to ask the right questions).
I don't mind being redirected to books or other resources if they'll effectively answer this question, but please do keep in mind the context of a "landing page", as opposed to very general UI patterns or tips.
I am not trying to redesign the whole app - there are dozens of screens and the home screen is the only one I'm concerned about at the moment.
The home screen is essentially just navigation at the moment, and use of the application is very task-centric. Most of the users are themselves pretty task-oriented, but I still think the home screen could be more "functional" - convey some information or enable certain functionality.
Once upon a time, the home screen was sort of an Explorer-like view. That did not scale well and many found it difficult to use; that functionality has been relegated to a separate feature (one which is used infrequently).
Since it's used by many different users with different roles, I don't want to enforce an imperialistic view unless I can be sure that it's going to serve (almost) everyone. By the same token I don't want to overcomplicate the usage or the development itself by implementing a whole bunch of "customization" features (in fact the old design had a bit of that - nobody used it).
Just asking the users what they want to see on the front page generally doesn't get me far. Blank stares from most, highly-personal or even nit-picky tweaks from others (like, change the colours). Again, I'm not opposed to engaging the users, but I think I need to ask more targeted questions than just "what do you want".