Online Extra: Building Yahoo's New Front Door

Design honcho Larry Tesler says the portal's home-page redesign will happen gradually -- and only if it provides a delightful experience

Yahoo! may not have the prettiest home page, but with nearly 14 million Web surfers visiting it per day, it's doing something right. And Larry Tesler, Yahoo's (YHOO ) new vice-president for the User Experience and Design group, doesn't want to screw that up.

The user-interface guru known for his work at Apple (APPL ) and (AMZN ) joined Yahoo on May 11 and has some big changes in store for the site -- including making it fun again and lessening some of the clutter.

But don't expect to see big changes made overnight. Comparing the job to remodeling a house, Tesler says Yahoo will make modifications continuously, bit by bit, so as not to spook users who rely on Yahoo for news, e-mail services, or finding a date.

BusinessWeek Online reporter Sarah Lacy recently talked with Tesler about his design philosophy and how it will change the iconic Yahoo home page. Here are the edited excerpts:

What was it that attracted you to Yahoo?

Primarily, the size of the opportunity. Hundreds of millions of unique users come to Yahoo every month. It's the largest Internet audience in the world. For someone who is interested in user experience, having such a large user base and [getting to work at such a] cutting-edge company -- I can't imagine anything better.

Anything I do will have a huge impact on a lot of people. And it's not a single-function Web site. There are dozens of properties and a lot to work with.

Were you an avid Yahoo user before taking the job?

I was a heavy user in the early days of the Internet. Then I drifted more away from it. I'd still end up at Yahoo, but I wasn't thinking of myself as a Yahoo user.

Then, about a year ago, a redesign of My Yahoo kind of grabbed me, and I started using Yahoo again. It was easier to customize the page, RSS feeds were available, and it really filled a need I wasn't getting anywhere else. That happened around when they called me, so I was very receptive to talking to them.

Does Yahoo have a specific design philosophy?

Well, I have one, and they seemed to like it when they hired me. The way I articulate it is that a good design will provide both a useful set of functions that meet an unmet need and deliver those functions through an outstanding user experience. The design has to maximize both of those and get them to support each other. Everything has to be very fast, which can be an issue on the Internet, and be very simple. Sometimes things appear to be simple, but aren't.

The other thing I've been pushing hard since I got here is that using Yahoo should be a delightful experience. I'm getting people to put more focus on that aspect. The last part of my philosophy is that product development needs to be observed. [We need to] build prototypes and put those ideas in front of customers.

How risky is it to change the home page?

When you've got hundreds of millions of customers of all ages and different cultures and all backgrounds, it is hard. It's one of the challenging things. You can't just change it around one day. People will say, "Wait a minute, I can't find the news anymore."

We try lots of things. We're trying those small and large changes constantly to all of the pages on our Web site. But before we put them out there, we have to make sure they're actually improvements.

How do you balance being a portal to the greater Web and promoting Yahoo's own services?

That is a big design challenge and one thing we work on a lot. We don't want to be a walled garden where you come to Yahoo and can't leave. We love it that people spend 13% of their time on the Yahoo network by choice. We're not trying to lock them in there.

But each property within Yahoo wants to make sure it's getting traffic links from other places -- and one that it would obviously consider important is Yahoo's front page. Because of that, we do a lot of collection of usage metrics. What drives traffic to different areas? And what is the most effective use of the front page? We can't really make a couple of square inches of front page be everything for everyone. We make some choices based on that objective data.

What do you think about the home page's current design? Critics say most of Yahoo's impressive designs are deeper in the site. Do you agree?

I think there's a reality, which is that the home page can't be everything to everyone. We try to make it as much as we can for as many people as we can. With, say, the video-game site [within Yahoo], we have a certain demographic and can make the design of that much more targeted. There's a lot more freedom of design.

But the home page has to appeal to pretty much everyone. But that doesn't mean we want it to be uninteresting. We want it to have a delightful feel. We've been successful in the last year with adding a little more personalization: If we know where you are, we will give you the local weather. If you frequently visit "In the News," we will put that icon at the top of the page.

We are looking at more ways to personalize the experience. Also, we're always looking at ways of simplifying the navigation. We have taken things off [the home page], and I hope we will find more things to take off, but until we've proven that it improves the user experience, we won't do it.

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