UX Magazine

Defining and Informing the Complex Field of User Experience (UX)
Article No. 1011 May 1, 2013

Are You Putting the Home Button to Good Use?

I have a three-year-old daughter going through a struggle at the moment. It’s time for her to give up the teddy bear that follows her wherever she goes. But we’ll hear a little more about her later, including what she can teach us about providing a richer user experience.

There is something comforting about knowing how to escape from a situation; knowing how to start again and knowing how to return home. Recall the famous in-flight safety demonstration you get each time you board a plane. What’s the most memorable line? “In case of emergency, your exits are here, here, and here.” As much as we mock the repetitive instruction, deep down we appreciate that if anything goes wrong at least we know how to get out alive.

Bringing it back to UX, a key to giving the user confidence in navigation is to help them know how to get back to the homepage. It’s similar to the back button but with superpowers. The homepage can be a safe haven and a place to regroup or explore, but let’s not give it too much credit. Sometimes going back to the homepage isn’t a comforting experience, it’s through pure frustration or defeat that you can’t figure out where you are or where you are going. Returning back home can be a last resort, similar to going on a 10-hour car journey, getting lost 9 hours in and then deciding to go home and start again.

In Steve Krug's excellent book Don't Make Me Think: A Common Sense Approach to Web Usability he writes: “Having a home button in sight at all times offers reassurance that no matter how lost I may get, I can always start over, like pressing a reset button or using a ‘Get out of jail free’ card.”

It may be comforting to users that they can return home, but do we actually want them to?

What’s the Value of Going Home?

Search engine optimization has resulted in the homepage losing its place as the single entrance to a website and in many cases is being bypassed more and more each year.

Gerry McGovern sums this up perfectly in his article “The decline of the homepage,” stating: “Many marketers and communicators think their homepage is a giant billboard or megaphone. They become obsessed with its redesign and with placing lots of happy talk and smiling faces on it. Your customers don’t want to get to your homepage. At best, the homepage is merely a series of signposts that will help them head in the right direction.”

Of course the homepage plays an important role in any website and should not be ignored, but an unbalanced promotion of returning home can work against you. Suppose the user has just filled out a form or signed up to a mailing list (therefore showing an interest in your services) and the most obvious route to them is to return home. You may even have added a new button to make it easier for them to do so. Is that really the best option?

How Many Ways Home?

Users have varying expectations of where to find the home button and what it will look like based on their level of web experience. That wasn’t always the case, have a glance at these original pages of some top sites when they were launched. It is difficult to see any consistency between the routes home on these original sites.

Today there are several standard ways to return:

  • Home button with text “Home” or an icon of a house
  • Clickable logo
  • Breadcrumb trail

Research shows that a clickable logo isn’t yet a universally understood way of returning home even though it is widely used that way. Leaving out a dedicated home button in the navigation risks confusing many users, but that isn’t stopping the practice from gaining popularity. A study was conducted in 2011 by ProMediaCorp who looked at the top 500 websites (defined by Alexa) to determine if there was a home button in the site navigation. The results showed that 37.4% had a dedicated link and 62.6% did not.

So if many of the top sites are leaving out the home button, is it working? Here are the names of eight popular websites. Your task is to recall the main way to get back to the homepage. Answers at the end of this article (no cheating):

For sites where the homepage is a key feature, such as social networks, which can include a personalized news feed or act as a central hub for user activity, there are clear markers to direct you home. Over the past couple of years Facebook has even made some changes to the tool tip when you hover over the logo, reflecting a change in user understanding of how to get back home.

On the other hand, sites where the homepage is not the central hub of activity (such as eBay), the trend is to make the route home less prominent. One notable exception to this rule is Pinterest, in which the homepage is hugely important to the user but has no dedicated home button, only a clickable logo in the top center, and search in the top left.

Providing a Richer User Experience

Let’s go back to my three-year-old daughter. The new rule in the house is that the teddy stays in the bedroom, always there if she wants to go and see it, but it isn’t allowed to follow her around the house anymore as a constant companion. She initially found this difficult but it has introduced her to a new way of living and a richer experience. Some users will be in for a shock when they start to live life outside of the home button!

As UX designers, we have a responsibility to provide a rich user experience. By relying too much on sending the user back home, we limit the possibilities at every level and entry point of the site. Take a look at where you are driving your user base and decide if your user journeys rely too heavily on the homepage as the starting point. If you do not already know the behaviors and activities of your audience then consider using the Lean Startup approach and test your assumptions, then “pivot or persevere.” Maybe it’s time for a change.

If your audience is technically savvy, use it to your advantage. Make the navigation less cluttered, reduce the barrage of homepage routes, and instead enrich the user experience throughout. For those sites aimed at a less technically savvy audience, you may be forced to give up some real estate above the precious fold and provide an obvious way home, but you can still avoid this route becoming the be-all and end-all.

Let me know how you scored on the quiz and how you have chosen to employ the home button on your site. Share your viewpoint on whether the home button, whatever form it takes, should be active on the homepage itself. Apple and Google disagree. That’s a great one for filling an awkward silence on a first date …

 

Answers to the quiz (correct at time of publication):

  • Apple: clickable logo - top left in the primary navigation
  • eBay: clickable logo, no separate home button
  • Facebook: clickable logo and home button top right (when logged in)
  • LinkedIn: clickable logo and home button top left (when logged in)
  • Twitter: home button top left (when logged in)
  • YouTube: clickable logo, no separate home button
  • Google: clickable logo, home button bottom left
  • Wikipedia: clickable logo, no separate home button

 

Image of girl and teddy bear courtesy Shutterstock.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

User Profile

Paul Brooks (@okpaul) is the Global UX Design Authority for PRGX Inc. Paul previously worked at a digital marketing agency and as a freelance designer for PR agencies. He studied in London, France, and the US before moving into product management and user experience. He has three young children with his wife, Sarah, and lives in Essex, England.

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Comments

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@Olli well pointed out about the RSS feed! Glad you enjoyed the article though.

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@Jamie Let me give a little clarity to the ProMediaCorp research to see if it answers your question.

The study looked at "what percentage of the Web uses a home button in their navigation". They also go on to say "What constitutes a home button? The most obvious use is the actual text “Home”. However, some sites use different text (Mashable uses “All”, Huffington Post uses “Front Page”). We counted this as a home button as it is fulfilling the same purpose, taking up site navigation real estate and being redundant to the site title/logo."

So in this research a clickable logo would not count as a home button. It would have to be a dedicated button in the navigation.

An example of a "No" response is the Fox Sports website - there is a standard navigation bar but no dedicated home button. The only way to return home is to click on the logo.
An example of a "Yes" response is the ABC website - there is a standard navigation bar with a separate home button as the far left option. There is also clickable logo to return home.

Hopefully this makes the research a little clearer. I would like to see this repeated to see how much the results have changed.

(Also just to note that this research is not connected to the statement "Research shows that a clickable logo isn’t yet a universally understood way of returning home". The ProMediaCorp research is linked to my statement "even though it is widely used that way". The research supporting the fact that clickable logos are not universally understood is explained below in my response to Erin.)

Hope this helps

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@George 123 thanks for your comments. Yes I agree that on news websites the value of going home is slightly different, mostly because it is similar to social media in that the homepage can represent the feed of the most important information.

Many news websites are very effective at using the contextually relevant content as a way of keeping you in the site especially if you have no specific content you are looking for. Sections such as “Most read”, “Most bizarre” or “Also in the news” (or even "Top Stories") enable you to navigate through the site without ever going back up to the homepage. I personally have fallen prey to this on many occasions!

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You stated "Research shows that a clickable logo isn’t yet a universally understood way of returning home even though it is widely used that way" but I'm not certain the research really asked the question properly.

The 2011 ProMediaCorp study is unclear (at least to me) as to whether the users reviewing sites included logos that linked to the home page. I selected 10 sites in the "No Home" column and each actually had a logo that linked to the home page. So does that mean the above results are what people think but not what the sites actually have?

However, the more salient point is how ProMediaCorp phrased the question. According the ProMediaCorp, "workers were asked to visit the websites and report back “yes” or “no” if a home button appears in the site’s navigation."

The question is confusing and instead might have been better asked "Is there a way to return to the home page?" I think the former question implies that the Home button has to be either labeled home or part of the site's navigation (i.e. in a menu or appearing as a button labeled "home").

Looking at a site like kayak.com, where the logo is clearly a link, I might be tempted to answer "no" to the above question asked by ProMediaCorp since the logo doesn't necessarily feel like a "home" button.

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I enjoyed your article Paul.

I think the "Value of Going Home" is quite different for news publishers like the Guardian and BBC because their homepage represents the editorial news agenda (commonly labeled Top Stories). This is the most important news across the world right now - the 10 headlines readers should be across if nothing else. Because this collection of content isn't promoted as a complete set very prominently anywhere else on their websites / apps their homepages offer a unique and pertinent content offering. This is not to say this content shouldn’t be offered as onward journeys on all entry points such as articles, but it isn’t showcased very well at the moment. Instead contextually relevant content is given preference, so users can follow a topic thread - e.g. Read Boston bombings articles and then look at pictures.

My feeling is that every landing page should act as a 'mini home' on News websites, more so than other genres because of this user need and behaviour. What do you think? Thanks.

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@Erin, in the early stages of researching the ideas in this article, I hoped to find studies showing the exact percentage of users who are familiar with clickable logos.

Instead what I found were case studies showing that there is definitely still a gap, even though we do not know exactly how big it is. The phrase I use in the article is that clickable logos are not "universally understood" though as you rightly point out, it may be the case that the percentage of users unfamiliar with this concept (such as those highlighted by Suzie below) is not a significant figure. However it could be much larger than expected.

You can see an example of this type of study in the blog post below by the team at Normal Modes. In their own tests last year there is still a user base which has not adopted this understanding.

http://normalmodes.com/blog/2012/02/08/ux-tips-provide-a-text-link-to-home-in-primary-navigation/

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@Stacia it's a great question and will be good to hear from others their experience with "double homepage" links.

I have seen this done in a variety of ways and will share some examples with you in due course. It might be worth you briefly explaining the type of content on the public site as this will certainly be a factor as to whether it is valuable to a user once they are logged in.

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@Srk glad you liked the article and good luck with your new website, You can search for uxmag articles which mention e-commerce by pasting the following URL:

http://uxmag.com/topics/e-commerce

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Great comments and questions, I will start at the bottom!

@Suzie Mitchell, thanks for your input regarding the 50+ audience, I enjoyed reading your article on this subject a few weeks ago. I have a couple of questions for you which I am interested in, as your point is very valid.

1. Why exactly do you think this group of users are not familiar with knowing the logo is a home button?

2. Do you have any research based on the work you do that is applicable to Erin’s question?

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It's a bit ironic that site that educates us (pretty well btw) about UX requires us to click "read more" link when reading your content via rss-feeds. Its a minor inconvenience and I know why but still it's annoying especially for mobile-users.

Otherwise thanks for a great piece of reading

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I have no disagreement here, the older the user the more the home button seems to be used. That being said, I find it's use often to be incredibly odd. A lot of time the stats I see have people clicking on the home button while on the home page. Which is just strange.

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Hi Paul,

I see the research you cite for what percentage of sites in Alexa's top 500 from 2011 actually include a home link.

But I didn't see a citation for the research that users don't understand how to get home without a home link. Since many of the most highly trafficked sites on the web haven't offered a home button for years, I'd be surprised if a significant number of users are unable to find their way back.

Can you share sources on that? I want to dig a little deeper.

Erin

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Nice article. I'm glad you added the "when logged in" bit for Facebook, etc. I'm in a situation right now where the site I'm working on essentially has two very different home pages: one public, one authenticated. Some new blood believes we should always link to the public home, but the old guard believes we should keep the status quo and link to whatever home page is true for your authenticated status. I'm somewhere in between. I can see it both ways.

I'm wondering if anyone has experience with this kind of double home page, or just what you think of that situation. Maybe we should remove the home links all together? Thanks!

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Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Ecommerce development company india, so it will be helpful info for my works.

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Thank you for your observations. As a consultant who specializes in Boomers and Seniors I can tell you the Home button is essential. These cohorts have NOT adopted to knowing the logo is the Home button. So if the 50+ audience is a designers target, I strongly recommend using the words Home or the house icon.