Services & Software

Yahoo to streamline redesigned home page

It's adapting to gripes about difficulties checking e-mail with new front page, but changes are arriving slowly. Also, My Yahoo to be aimed at Net power users.

Yahoo's Burke Culligan
Stephen Shankland/CNET

This story has been corrected. See below for details.

SUNNYVALE, Calif.--After getting an earful from disgruntled testers of its revamped home page, Yahoo is working on a new incarnation that will dramatically speed up access to e-mail.

The new home page, code-named Metro and due to launch later this year, will let users customize what they see and install a range of applications. But upon beginning "bucket testing" last September, in which different subsets of Yahoo users are involuntarily presented with variations of the new home page, Yahoo found out it was making it too difficult for people to continue with their accustomed practice of dropping by the page to scan for changes, said Burke Culligan, senior director product management for Yahoo front doors, in an interview at Yahoo headquarters here.

In particular, people were incensed that it took too many mouse clicks to glance at their e-mail inbox. But changes are coming to fix that, Culligan said.

"We have moderately addressed it in this round and we're going to radically address it in upcoming testing," Culligan said. "We've rethought the flow and design based on feedback we've gotten from users. I think users will...feel much better about it."

The change is part of a bigger discovery, that many Yahoo front page users want to keep abreast of events with updates a few times a day. "The biggest thing we've learned is that these are quick-hit check-ins--tell me what I want to know and let me see it quickly," Culligan said. "We developed a philosophy we call quick in, quick out."

Yahoo faces an enormous challenge with its site, which despite the company's strategic troubles still is used by hundreds of millions of people monthly. Changing too fast or too deeply risks alienating users, but changing too slowly risks losing those members to challengers such as Facebook or iGoogle.

My Yahoo for power users
Another complication: Yahoo already has a customizable home page, My Yahoo. The company has a plan for keeping the two properties relevant, though: as becomes more flexible, the Internet company will reposition My Yahoo for sophisticated users who demand even more customization such as themes and movable modules, Culligan said.

"We'll move the mass market to the Yahoo front page," he said. My Yahoo will be "the powerful high-end product for the users who really want to go to the nth degree."

For the main home page, Yahoo has opted to proceed cautiously to avoid shedding loyal users.

Yahoo redesign, home page
Yahoo is testing a new home page. The new site is more personalized and customizable. This version is a 'baseline' for user testing; Yahoo will add more features later. (Click to enlarge.) Yahoo

"You want to bring them along with you. You have to find the right things that are familiar but innovative. We walk that line," Culligan said. "We want to make sure we don't miss on something major that's going to cause retention issues."

So far, Yahoo hasn't seen overall problems retaining that loyalty among those in testing, he said. And the company has seen improvements in both page views and time spent on the site.

"Overall the story is positive and heading in the right direction. With our refinements we hope to push it further," he said.

Easier reconfiguration
That doesn't mean the company isn't learning from its missteps, though. Another change: Yahoo has made configuring the applications easier. A cautious start required people to fill out forms for the customizable list of services on the left edge of Metro. Now, though, Yahoo has moved to more of a design in which changes can be made on the fly.

Culligan is particularly proud of a new horoscope application that lets people add a different sign of the Zodiac to their pages. The only drawback of the faster approach: settings are stored locally on the computer, so logging in elsewhere won't show the same horoscope. A similar change was made with the weather report module.

"When we originally launched, we were thinking users would want to sign in and store locations as part of a Yahoo profile. But a lot of people wanted to just add cities without signing in," he said.

One internal advantage for Yahoo is that Metro's customizable interface will be simpler to manage internationally. Today, "We have 30-plus front pages. This puts us all on the same platform but allows for local customization," Culligan said.

Correction 9:53 a.m. PST to correct the spelling of Burke Culligan's name.