How do you design a website home page to give the best impression of both the quality of the site's content and the update frequency? Take a walk down memory lane, and see how Artima's home page has morphed as the site evolved.
In my previous weblog post, I announced a new feature, Artima Developer Spotlight, explained its purpose, and asked for feedback. Vincent O'Sullivan replied with the following comments:
I like the new, cleaner look to the Artima site but I'm not so sure about this new "Developer Spotlight".
Previously, the central area was occupied by interesting articles that, although they weren't updated very often, the were generally thought provoking and frequently generated a lot of interesting discussion.
Now the central area seems to be dominated by frequently updated shortcuts to more-or-less unintesting blogs. One of today's items basically refers to a blog where one guy disagrees with what another guy says in another blog.
A quick scan of the central area shows that no-one has found any of the last thirteen items sufficiently interesting to reply with a comment on their own.
So please, can we have a return, in the central area, to quality over quantity and a return to good, Artima based content rather than just have it become a collection of pointers to dull blogs and obscure software release bulletins (which have their placebut not in the middle of everything).
Vince makes some good points. Such quality versus quantity tradeoffs has been a central design tension for Artima's home page. Let me illustrate with a bit of history.
The Evolution of the Home Page
Here's what the home page looked like in October 1996, when I should have been starting Ebay:
Actually, by October 1996 it may have been too late to start Ebay. Note the quaint and prominantly displayed email address. Little did I know that by 2004 such innocent honesty would result in 5000 spams a week. Note also that in the first paragraph I wrote, "At this time I am focusing my work on developing products related to or based upon Java technology, and I am not accepting new consulting or custom software contracts." I don't recall what "Java-based product" I had in mind in those days, but unfortunately it wasn't a search engine.
I devoted much of the following year to writing my book, Inside the Java Virtual Machine, and the monthly column in JavaWorld, Under the Hood. By late 1998, I had decided consulting was a good idea, and had transformed the site into a brochure for consulting and training:
Over the next several years, I tried to add useful material that would bring people into the site, in the hopes they would notice the "brochure" for consulting and training. I wrote three columns at JavaWorldone on the JVM, one on design, and one on Jini, and I reprinted all my JavaWorld articles at Artima. I added discussion forums to Artima, and created a new discussion forum topic for each new JavaWorld article. When Jini came along I started creating resources for that community, such as the Jini-Users FAQ and links to Jini Resources. When my book Inside the Java Virtual Machine came out, I created an online companion site of Interactive Illustrations, and reprinted much of the book itself on Artima. By early 2002, I had a lot of material on the site, and it had become difficult to link to it all from the home page. My solution at that time was to create "corners" devoted to the main topicsJini Corner, Design Corner, and JVM Corner, and Java Corner. I linked to all resources from the corner pages, and linked to highlights of the corners from the home page:
While this Corner approach kind of worked, it had one major problem: the home page was very static. By 2002 it had become well-known among webmasters that regularly updated content on the home page encourages return visits to the site. If you look closely at the February 2002 version of the home page, you'll see I was already trying to add a little dynamism. The Featured Resource automatically pointed to a different resource each day. In addition, by that time the home page was changing colors each day to help provide an illusion of activity. I had chosen seven colors and assigned each day of the week a different color. Those same seven colors showed up in the letters of the then new Artima.com logo. (Note: This tradition continues to this day. The home page has a different color scheme each day, one for each of the seven colors in the Artima Developer logo.)
In addition, I offered a Java News page that showed news I syndicated from Moreover.com. In those days, Moreover.com offered free news feeds on various subjects in various formats, including tab separated variables and even XML. (This was an RSS-like feed before RSS was popular.) The Java News page updated as often as once an hour. This activity was not on the home page, but once people discovered it, I figured, they might come back repeatedly to the Java News page.
In the summer of 2002 at a J2EE retreat in the mountains of Colorado, I met Floyd Marinescu. Floyd had founded TheServerSide.COM and built it into a popular and profitable site. He told me that for four months during the early days of TheServerSide.COM he had come to Artima every day to look at Java News, until he figured out I was getting the news from Moreover. He also suggested that I make Artima's home page more dynamic, and basically helped me redesign the home page to include a TheServerSide.COM-like news feed. He suggested that I focus Artima's home page on Jini news, just as he had focused TheServerSide.COM on J2EE news. I liked the idea of a more dynamic home page, but was concerned that Jini was too narrow a focus. Whereas J2EE had taken off like a rocket, Jini had taken off more like an airplane, gaining altitude steadily, but gradually, and to a great extent staying under the Java developer radar. So although I had decided to create a news feed on the home page, I was left with the problem of deciding what to post there. How would I focus the editorial content of the home page news feed?
I ultimately decided to call the news feed Cool Stuff, because I didn't know yet what I was going to post there. I figured I'd let the feed find its voice, and let the community help decide the focus. Around the same time, I started publishing a new article each week. The home page showed the new articles of the week at the top center, and Cool Stuff just below that in the center. Older articles were listed on the right hand column:
July 2002 really marks the site's transition from being a glorified brochure for my consulting and training business toward being a full-fledged publication and community site. You can already see the tension between quality and quantity in July 2002. Articles are the highest quality content on the site, and publishing them its main mission. However, due to the large amount of human labor required to create a high-quality article, I was unable to bring them out faster than once a week. The intent of the Cool Stuff news feed was to quench the user's the thirst for frequent, ideally daily, updates, and to help build communityto bring people together and get them talking to each other.
By March of 2003, I had split Cool Stuff into News & Ideas and Releases. I was likely inspired in part by JavaLobby.org, which had a separate releases feed on its home page in addition to a generic news and discussion feed. But I also had found that I simply didn't like mixing software release announcements in with pointers to articles and thought-provoking posts in the Cool Stuff feed. In addition, taking a cue from both IBM DeveloperWorks and JavaWorld, I had by this time added a feature article graphic at the top of the home page:
This seemed like a workable home page, but I found over time that a) the Releases forum was kind of boring, and b) I wasn't very good at ensuring new content appeared the News & Ideas every day. It took sometimes several hours to find interesting news to post each day, and I just didn't seem to have the time. Besides, the main mission of Artima was to publish great articles. By December 2003, I had closed the News & Ideas feed and replaced it with a center column full of previously published Artima articles. The Releases feed is still in the left hand column because I hadn't yet removed it, but it soon joined News & Ideas in news feed heaven:
Devoting the center column of the home page to articles gave Artima more the appearance of a publication-oriented site (like JavaWorld or IBM DeveloperWorks), and less the appearance of a community-oriented site (like TheServerSide.COM or JavaLobby.com). It favored quality over quantity. Yet even though the update frequency of articles was relatively slow, by this time I had added several other features that brought in new content at greater rates: Weblogs, News, Buzz, and Forums. The general trend with all these features is that the higher the update rate, the lower the quality.
The quality of weblog posts has been pretty high, but not as consistently high as articles, because weblog posts lack the editing step. Once the author thinks he or she is done, the weblog post goes live. The quality of News posts has been pretty high, because it contains syndicated news from RSS feeds chosen by me from among edited feeds from other sites. For example, posts appearing in Artima Developer News includes pointers to new content at JavaWorld, IBM DeveloperWorks, TheServerSide.COM, and JavaLobby.com, to name a few. Buzz is the most noisy feature, because it consists of posts from bloggers who volunteered to syndicate their RSS feeds in Buzz. Buzz is the least edited, and therefore represents the lowest and most inconsistent quality content on Artima (except perhaps for the Forums). But despite the noisiness, or probably because of it, Buzz turns out to be quite useful in a different way.
Artima Developer Buzz is a distributed water cooler conversation, inspired primarily by JavaBlogs.com. I designed Buzz pages to be easy to scan, so you can quickly identify posts you are interested in. If you are willing to do the scanning work, Buzz enables you to find out about things you wouldn't find out about from an edited feed. For example, Artima is badly in need of clustering, and I have, therefore, lately been thinking about different ways to do load balancing. This very morning while scanning Buzz, I came across a weblog post by someone who had tried out an open source load balancer called "Pound." I want to check into Pound and could very possibly end up using it, and I found out about in Buzz.
More recently I created a feature called the Artima Chapters Library, which represents an exception to the usual relationship between quality and update rate. The Chapters Library has an update rate a bit faster than weblogs, but its content is very high quality. It contains chapters from technical books, all of which have been thoroughly reviewed and edited by the book publisher. I also created a feature called Artima Interest Groups, which are like little TheServerSide.COM's for focused interest groups. The quality there is pretty good, but as yet the update frequency is fairly slow.
In the right hand column of the home page, I pointed to the latest posts in Weblogs, Chapters, Groups, News, Buzz, and Forums. Despite all that activity in the right hand column, however, the center column of articles was being updated relatively slowly, and that gave the site a static feeling. So just as in 2002, I was once again faced with the problem of a static-looking home page.
At the most recent Jini meeting in Boston in March 2004, I discussed this issue with Daniel Steinberg, an old friend and current editor-in-chief of Java.net. Daniel suggested to me that since I now have a lot of content flowing through the various parts of Artima, why don't I highlight some of that content every day on the home page? That's bascially the approach they take on Java.net's home page: Each day Daniel points to interesting content on Java.net, be it weblogs or articles or projects. So this time, it was not Floyd but Daniel who helped redesign Artima's home page. The seed Daniel planted in my brain last March flowered into Artima Developer Spotlight. The center column on Artima's home page now shines a spotlight on interesting content for developers, on Artima and beyond.
I have a big advantage now that I didn't have back in days I was struggling to post regularly to News & Ideas: I now have a ton of content on Artima to draw from. Instead of spending several hours looking around the internet for interesting tidbits to post, I can now spend a few minutes looking around Artima. Here's the current home page:
I am concerned that by swinging the home page back again into the quantity direction, I am making it harder to see the quality. I think that's the gist of Vince's comment. The list of articles he liked seeing in the central column of the home page is still available on the Artima Articles page, but it isn't as obvious when looking at the home page. In my next blog post, I'll discuss some other approaches I've considered, and ask for your feedback.