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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 steal borrow 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.


Follow-up questions/comments:

  • 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".

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5 Answers 5

up vote 4 down vote accepted
  • Be more definite.

Think about what your home page is for. Is it a landing/starting page that functions somewhat as a splash screen? Is it a navigation page to go to different parts of the app? Is it where you expect users to spend most of their time? Is it a summary screen that users 'pop back up to' after doing detail work? How will it be used? Is it a 'workflow' screen that shows steps done and steps to do? Asking these questions helps you clarify the purpose of the screen. You need that before you design it in detail.

  • Think 'Discoverability'

Ask yourself, "Is every function available through a standard mechanism?" (e.g. a menu item or named button). It is easy to get attached to a piece of non-standard design, that you have truly excellent reasons for, and that some of your users might never discover. You owe it to yourself to think discoverability long before being alerted to it by user tests.

  • Engage brain and emotions.

It sounds like you're looking for a magic formula that if you follow will guarantee a great home page. What process can do is draw your attention to problems and help you choose between alternatives. It can help you get a logical structure before you style it. It can ensure you collect input from stakeholders. It can be great for guiding incremental improvements. All that is no use whatsoever if you're not thinking and caring about the design. There is no magic formula. There is no way to actually test usability without user testers.


Edit

So, it's now clearer that you have/want a home page organised around tasks. It's a navigation page to help people get directly to the custom screens from which they can perform the tasks.

Common problems are:

  • Large numbers of different tasks, so it's hard for the user to find the item to click to take them where they need to go.
  • 'Different' tasks that aren't so different. So, two seemingly very different task descriptions should actually take the user to the same screen. How do you decide whether to list both or one, and if one, which one?
  • Common vs rare tasks. Nice to separate - e.g. bigger icons for the top five tasks, set off from list of minor tasks with smaller or no icons. A recurring problem here is that what one user regards as common tasks may be different to another user's view.

It sounds obvious, but the first step is to identify the problem most critical for you. I'd suggest that you identify the problem that matters most for your application and then ask a more detailed follow-up question of ux.stackexchange.


About asking users "what they want" for the home screen, this is related:

What are the pros and cons of getting design recommendations from usability test participants?

A different question such as 'What have you wanted to do and had trouble finding how to?' might elicit more useful answers - particularly if you encourage them to elaborate.

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I really hope it doesn't actually sound like I'm looking for a magic formula. I'm asking, in a nutshell, what questions to ask and what research to do in order to make it better. I did upvote this for the first paragraph; defining the purpose is important and the examples you list are familiar; any resources or examples that you might recommend to further my understanding of what sort of analysis tends to go into each subtype? –  Aaronaught May 14 '11 at 22:17
    
Huh? You'd like me to cover all types of analysis of all application home screens? LOL. You identify the subtype that matters to you. That comes first. –  James Crook May 14 '11 at 23:06
    
No, I didn't ask you to identify anything, I asked if there was an external resource or a list of examples I could refer to. If the answer is "no" then that's fine too. I feel as though people are a little on the defensive here; I'm not asking for anyone to write a book, just for help locating and/or identifying the information that's relevant to my scenario. Thanks very much for the update. –  Aaronaught May 14 '11 at 23:33
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For what NOT to do (or to stop doing) I read a great article on UXMovment.com about bad practices you should avoid on your homepage.

For what to do, they suggest making your homepage a tease.

Also, make sure to check off everything on the quick UI checklist on UXbooth.com

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This seems to be very web-centric... it's interesting material but I did specify that this is for a desktop application. Pretty sure that making the home screen of a desktop application a "tease" is not a good practice... –  Aaronaught May 14 '11 at 17:53
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1 - Why do you want to redesign the app? Just for the sake of it, to freshen things up? It's a legitimate reason, but it's not a very constructive one. See if there's a more "objective" one - is there anything that bothers you or others? Can you improve it without changing your users' standard practices?

2 - Analyze the home screen. What's its purpose? Does it serve it well? Any useful info that's not there that you can add to it without overloading it? What are the behaviors/actions that you want to encourage/enable from the home screen? Can you research the current state of those things? Ask what can be improved about it, but keep in mind that everything is a tradeoff and see what are the downsides of each change, and whether it's worth it.

3 - Regarding pitfalls. You haven't specified what "this type of UI" is :). In any case - when redesigning, make sure you don't violate your user's habits, don't change the workflows they're used to (e.g. the transition from MS Office 2003 to 2007). Or at least don't do this without a good reason.

4 - You say that there aren't any available similar apps. It may help you to analyze the app, disregarding the specific domain, and identify the abstract tasks your users perform. These building blocks are very often the same across very different apps.

5 - There's some good advice on conducting contextual interviews and some more on user observations, you'll surely benefit from both.

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Follow-up (will add this to question): 1) Not redesigning the whole app, just the home screen; I'm considering a redesign because all it is is navigation, and it seems like it would be more effective to perform actual functions or present information. (2) It's used by a lot of different people with different roles, so there's no universal answer, which is part of the difficulty. I'm sure I can research, but research what exactly, and to what end? (3) The current UI is very reminiscent of the Vista/Win7 control panel, i.e. an entry point for a variety of distinct tasks. Not a lot to violate. –  Aaronaught May 14 '11 at 22:04
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You could talk to users what they liked, what sucked, what helped them, what slowed them down, what improvement ideas they have and so on. If you have the feeling that the software wasn't a desaster in the first place you could adopt features to the new version to avoid that existing user have to relearn everything. If the previous version was bad (UI wise) it's maybe time for a total change.

It totally depends on the content what your mentioned home screen should look like. Would a dashboard kind of thing make sense for you? Maybe a flexible dashboard with modules that users can configure and move around. Or a set of layouts that are covering most of the users needs.

Some basic things: it should not be just a branded image area. Try to jump directly into content/workflow/relevant data. Individualize if possible. Localize if needed. Remove features that were not used. Improve features that slowed down workflows. Check icons if they are really helping (this needs to be checked with first time users. others already adapted to the errors). Beautify if people have to spend years on it - they might want to have it comfortable.

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Can I just say, please do not move main things around. I'm sure you know this, but it's an obvious one and it gets left behind sometimes. I mean, if your buttons have been in a certain place for a while, try not to move it, this can be very jarring to people who are used to the layout of your site.

Also, I know you said that you find it hard to do testing, but definitely try to conduct some user testing, to see what you need to change (or keep as is). I asked a question earlier and got some good responses on User Testing, so check that out too.

For a good app which helps you create a UI, try Microsofts Expression Blend 4, they have recently gotten into UX and have come up with that program to address the usability of applications. Good luck.

-b

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