Changing That Home Page? Take Baby Steps

Tapan Bhat of Yahoo with a new version of the home page, left, which is being introduced and tested in stages, and the current page, right. Mr. Bhat is leading the redesign.

A FEW weeks ago, Yahoo began what may be its biggest overhaul of its home page. But if you are among the roughly 100 million Americans who stop by every month, the odds are that you havenโ€™t noticed any changes.

Thatโ€™s because the job of revamping the Webโ€™s most visited portal page is fraught with risk. If even a small fraction of Yahooโ€™s audience doesnโ€™t like the changes, the company could lose millions of users and millions of dollars in advertising. So Yahoo is introducing changes in small stages and to small segments of its audience at a time, all while soliciting feedback from its users.

You could call it stealth innovation. The companyโ€™s goal is to end up several months from now with a completely different, and presumably better, front page โ€” with its audience intact. The effort is as much art as science and seeks to balance the companyโ€™s desire to innovate with its fear of alienating users. And it offers an example of how online services are designed and improved in a world where a rivalโ€™s offering is just a click away.

The challenges are not unique to Yahoo. All kinds of Web sites, big and small, face similar issues as they leap from version 1.0 to version 2.0 and beyond. But the largest, most successful sites have the most to lose by springing sudden changes on their users, so they often exercise particular caution. Google, for instance, has said it tries to make changes to its search engine that, on their own, are imperceptible, but that taken together result in a better product over time. With the same goal in mind, eBay once took 30 days to gradually change the background color of its home page from gray to white.

Those who donโ€™t exercise caution do so at their own peril. AOL, for example, set off a user revolt in 2006 when it suddenly transformed the portal into a โ€œsocialโ€ news service, where usersโ€™ votes determined which articles received top billing. By the time AOL reversed course the next year, the Netscape portal had lost half its audience.

โ€œPeople become attached to the way things are done and donโ€™t like changes,โ€ said Dan Clifford, founder and managing partner of AnswerLab, a company that conducts usability tests for clients like eBay, Intuit and Yahoo. โ€œAt the same time, users are pretty vocal about what they like.โ€

Jerry Yang, Yahooโ€™s chief executive, has often spoken about its goal to transform itself from an Internet portal to a โ€œstarting pointโ€ for millions of Web users. To some pundits, it sounded like a distinction without a difference. But to Tapan Bhat, the Yahoo executive charged with transforming the home page, the differences are vast.

Users will be able to customize the new home page, which eventually will include more content from other popular Web sites; applications allowing people to track their activities on places like eBay, Netflix or Facebook; and social networking features.

โ€œWe are fundamentally changing the front page into a dashboard for the Web,โ€ said Mr. Bhat, a senior vice president.

In mid-September, after months of research and testing of early prototypes, Mr. Bhatโ€™s team began introducing a redesign of the home page to randomly selected fractions of Yahooโ€™s audience in the United States, Britain, France and India.

Feedback poured in quickly. Comments like โ€œI hate itโ€ were not uncommon. Users also had more specific complaints, like โ€œYou made this more clutteredโ€ and โ€œThere are fewer stories.โ€

Each of the more than 10,000 comments that Yahoo has already received has been read by someone on Mr. Bhatโ€™s team. โ€œYou can dismiss it, which is stupid, or you can try to understand what it is that users are telegraphing,โ€ Mr. Bhat said. There were actually more stories on the new page, he said, but because it was less cluttered, some users perceived fewer.

In the new design, Yahoo created an applications module on the left side of the page that included a tab called MyMailboxes and gave users access not only to their Yahoo e-mail but also to accounts they may have on other services. But what Yahoo thought was an enhancement felt like a detriment to some users. Before the redesign, the e-mail icon was in a module on the right side of the page, and many users complained that they could no longer access their e-mail easily.

Yahoo tried many solutions, including putting an icon for mail back on the right side but keeping the MyMailboxes tab in its place.

That seemed to work. As users returned to the page, they rediscovered MyMailboxes and said they liked having access to their other e-mail. โ€œWe were able to turn a negative into a positive,โ€ Mr. Bhat said. โ€œSix months from now, we may be able to remove the mail icon from the right.โ€

Testing of each feature is proceeding in stages. Each group of users, typically less than 1 percent of Yahooโ€™s audience, is selected for one design change. Other groups of users are picked for other changes. When the new features have been tested and fine-tuned, they are combined into a new page, which becomes the โ€œbaseline designโ€ and may be introduced to another, larger group. Then the process begins anew, with more changes.

THIS approach requires flexibility, Mr. Bhat said.

โ€œYou have to have a very clear understanding of where you want to go,โ€ he said. โ€œBut users will help you figure out how to adjust your course. If you end up going in a completely different direction, you did something wrongโ€ in the design process, he added.

Does the process slow innovation? Not necessarily, Mr. Bhat says. He compares it to lighting a room gradually with a dimmer switch.

โ€œIf you go from light to dark by flipping a switch, your eyes may hurt for a minute or two,โ€ he says. โ€œYou may end up being able to see faster if you use the dimmer.โ€

From NYT


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