How to build your website from the inside out

February 14, 2007

I have utilized a technique called epicenter design for most of the website interfaces I've created over the past few years. The methodology encourages me to focus on the most important pages of the site first and then gradually design outwards, adding related elements (navigation, links, footer, logo, etc.) one at a time. The homepage comes last.

A benefit to epicenter design is that it helps to ward off feature bloat. Instead of dumping everything onto a page and forcing people to figure out what the purpose is, a website designed from the epicenter will appear to have a crystal clear rationale throughout. This inherently makes the site more usable.

Websites have traditionally been created from the homepage out. My guess is that this is because the homepage is thought to be something of an all-purpose doormat; the first thing you encounter upon landing at the site. Problem is, the homepage isn't how people actually use a website. They arrive to accomplish any number of tasks: proceed forward from a search engine result, view and respond to email, check the weather, comment on a story, buy a product, click through photo galleries and so forth.

Yet, the majority of client requests for a new website design will include a homepage composition along with a empty text page, y'know, for everything else. The core actions - e.g. the rooms of the house - wrongfully fall to the wayside. Flip that work request around, concentrating on the most critical components, and the homepage will inevitably build itself.If you're wondering how to employ epicenter design for a website project, here's a handful of questions to ask during the planning stage:

  • What are the core purposes of the site? Think not from a corporate perspective, but rather from the user's point of view. When people come to your website, what functional goals do they seek to accomplish?
  • What else is required for individual functions? If your website has a member profile page that allows people to upload a picture of themselves, the epicenter is the upload form field. Concentrate on this first and then build outwards: instructions for uploading, size restrictions, copyright authorization, the ability to preview or remove the picture and so on. Take it one step at a time. Once you nail the absolute core element, move onto the dependents. Make each of them earn their spot on the page.
  • What are the business process hoops that people need to jump through in order to perform these tasks? For example, do they need to be registered members in order to access a feature or are certain areas of the website not publicly accessible? In both cases, ask yourself why these hoops exists and if they can be eliminated for the sake of simplicity.
  • Finally, onto the homepage. Of these functions, how do they rank from most popular to least popular? The results of this ordering will dictate how much emphasis each should be given and where on the homepage their links should be placed. Boom! Instant content.

There are a lot of different ways you can build a website, including homepage first. In some cases this may actually be your best route to take. It all depends on what you determine your site focus to be.The key is to start with an epicenter. Do that and everything else will fall into place.