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I'm tasked with planning a usability test for a health information website's homepage (think WebMD but more of a public service/encyclopedic website - not commercial, not for profit).

Emphasis on homepage - understand that the vast majority of the site exists as child pages - detailed encyclopedic pages about symptoms, treatments, etc.

So of course as you might imagine, the vast majority of site users arrive directly to child pages via Google (e.g. "symptoms of COVID"). And this works fine; the child pages have usability tested successfully.

The homepage has long existed before I joined the team, and wasn't necessarily designed with any specific user goals in mind. It suspect it was more of a "well we have to have one anyway so..."

My struggle is: If the home page serves almost zero utility for the vast majority of visits to the site, then what kinds of tasks do I propose for evaluating the "usability" of a homepage?

Seeking input from Stack Exchange on what kinds of usability tests are appropriate for a homepage on a massive information website, understanding that very few users need to use it, as they arrive to their targets via Google search successfully anyway.

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Every homepage has both user goals and business (or in the case of a nonprofit, mission) goals. You could start by documenting both. What do your internal stakeholders expect the website to do, and how does the homepage aid in the performance of those goals? And what do visitors expect from your website?

A public service / not-for-profit health website might need:

  • Your audience to understand why you're a good source of information in an ocean of medical mistrust
  • A way to influence support for the mission. Private donations? In the case of public funding, something that will convince policy makers of its value?

Your internal stakeholders will know what these goals are. You can base a lot of your content on that.

Next, your site has user goals. Collect as much information as you can on why people do come to your homepage.

  • If you have analytics, where did they go next on your site after the homepage?
  • What search activity did they engage in?
  • If you don't have analytics, send a survey to your database and ask them what they'd like to accomplish on your site.
  • What are your most popular and timely pages for users who prefer to browse instead of search? Your homepage could be a starting point for those particular users.

In the ideation phase of a redesign, it's important to talk to people – lots of people – so you might also pull in a focus group of your target users and find out how your website could be improved to serve their needs. In that ideation session, you'll likely hear some information that could be useful on a homepage.

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The primary use case might not involve the homepage, but the secondary use cases might.

Even if the majority of your traffic is coming from search results directly into child pages, that doesn't mean there are zero visits to the homepage. If you have analytics on your site you can discover if people are hitting the home page after reading an article, looking for a careers page, bookmarking the home page, or many other uses. Yes, a user might have found the answer they need right now, but how can you save them the "hassle" of googling next time?

If there really are negligible direct visits, you might reconsider who your "users" are and look at ways to aid webcrawlers and search engines in discovering the child pages you have. How long does it take for a new page to turn up in a search engine? What sorts of SEO can the quality of the home page influence?

Since it sounds like someone else asked for this research, do some meta-UX and figure out what their goals are and what they need. It could be they are on the hook to decrease the bounce rate or increase email signups or some other metric and you can shape your usability test to get them some useful insights.

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