New homepage: the story so far

Posted by Ian
It is something of an auspicious day. Yup, it’s precisely two months until Christmas. It’s also, and you’d be forgiven for not noticing, exactly one month since the redesigned MSN homepage was launched.
Those who have worked for the company for many years claim it was the biggest, and the quickest, makeover ever inflicted upon the website – in other words, the greatest number of changes unfurled to the world in the shortest space of time. Apparently these things can take up to several years to conceive, plan and produce.
Faced with such a wide-ranging shake-up in one fell swoop, it’s fair to say those of us who work on the site felt a mixture of anticipation and nervousness. I’m not going to bore you with facts and figures about how much the homepage matters in the minds and the budgets of the big suits up on the top floor of MSN Towers, suffice it to say every single dot – or pixel, to use the technical term – is regularly examined and rated for its financial worth and money-making potential.
Yikes. That’s a lot of cash up for grabs. Couple this with the fact that one third of the population of Britain casts its eye over the homepage at some point during each calendar month, and you have an intimidating compound just waiting to blow up in our faces. No wonder we were anxious.
How, then, has it all gone? Is the website doing its job? Is everything, for want of a better word, working?
Not everything, no. We’d all agree the new design, while striking, often gives the impression of being a bit, well, imbalanced. By which I mean it’s not always clear what is the most important thing on the page, and by extension where our priorities lie.
It’s great having more images on the page to break up the text, and it’s a demonstrable fact that people tend to click on pictures rather than merely words. But what, on the old site, used to be our indisputable ‘lead’ item – that large image at the top of the site – is now competing not just with a similarly-sized advert but a trio of near-equally sized images a bit further down. Our news headlines are even lower, while the hithero flagship area known as ‘Today’s Picks’ is now rather dwarfed by its neighbours.
Does all this matter? We can see, and feel, that it does.
From our daily statistical reports we can see people clicking on the website in an inconsistent, almost random pattern. The new design is only one month old, sure, but we’d assumed – hoped – that by now things would have settled down more than they have. It looks like people are not finding the site to be an intuitive, user-friendly one.
From opinions canvassed around our own team we can feel the homepage isn’t the best it can be. The design doesn’t quite support or show off all the different features in the best light. More areas of the whole MSN website are getting a look in, it’s true, but sometimes in spite of, rather than because of, the new design.  
We’ve also had lots and lots of feedback.
All of which has given us much pause for thought. It’s made us consider where, for instance, we should run big news stories. Are they best served by sitting in that main spot at the head of the page, or in one of the three smaller slots? Where would readers’ eyes naturally gravitate: to one single image, or a concentrated band of three? Indeed, do readers expect the news of the day to always take precedence on the MSN homepage, both in terms of design and content, or does the site ‘work’ best keeping topical matters confined to a muted, secondary, albeit clearly highlighted, stamping ground?
The site, clearly, is a work in progress. And, clearly, we have lots to chew over. Perhaps a redesign like this, being so all-encompassing and instant, was by definition never going to be over just like that and always bound to involve ongoing refinements. Perhaps all redesigns are like that, or rather, *should* be like that.
Anyway, one month in, rest assured we’re still working to improve and enhance the MSN homepage, and we do value all your comments and opinions.
As British Rail and Sir Jimmy Savile once said, we’re getting there.
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