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How to Plan a Website

Whether you are a Web designer, or the buyer of Web design services, the planning phase of the Web design process is the most important phase. Planning requires a significant amount of effort before there is a visable product, so it is sometimes a hard-sell to business people, especially those who are used to "flying by the seat of their pants." I often find, however, that once involved in the process, the client gains valuable insights into their business, their market, their clients, and their competitors. Taking time to really plan a Website project, which requires stepping back and thinking, in a systematic way, about how they are approaching their business, gives the Website buyer an unexpected added value, especially if they are in start-up mode.

The first step in planning a Website is define the project. You want to make sure that you, as Web designer, and the client are on the same page, and remain on the same page throughout the project. The following are questions that need answers:

  • Project Scope - What will be included in the project and what will not be included?
  • Audience - Who are the main types of people who will be visiting the Website, what are their characteristics, and why will they be visiting the Website. What will the want to do?
  • Competition - Who are the competitors and what do their Websites do and look like?
  • Niche - Specifically what market niche does the business occupy or want to occupy?
  • Positioning - What is the company's positioning strategy for their niche? Why buy their product or service over the competition?
  • Overall Goals - What does the business want to acheive through the Website? Sell products? Provide online resources? Present a professional image?
  • Business processes - How will the Website fit into the company's business processes? How will it integrate into those off-line processes?
  • Marketing and branding strategies - What existing marketing or branding stategies can be leveraged for use on the Website?
  • Workflows - What processes will need to be completed on the Website, described in a step by step fashion?
  • Goals for Web site - What specific, numerically defined goals exist for the Website. What are the expectations?
  • Keywords/Search Terms - What words will people searching for products/services/information use to find the client's Website, using the major search engines?
  • Message - What message should the Website communicate to the user, either explicitly or implicitly?
  • Perception - How should the user percieve the business, based on visiting the Website?
  • Action - What action or actions should the visitor take while on the Website?
  • Technology - What technology should be used in designing and building the Website?
  • Marketing - How will the Website be marketed? How will the business get visitors there?
  • Administrative - How will the Website be administered and maintained after it is launched?
  • Schedule - When does the Website need to be complete? When will decision makers be available or unavailable to approve deliverables throught the process?
  • Budget - What is the budget for the project? What is the ongoing budget for maintenance and updates? What is the budget for promotion?

The answers to these questions should be put into a "creative brief" or "project definition" document that will be used as a touchstone throughout the design process. The information in the planning documents should be as detailed as possible, and based on as much empiricle evidence as possible. Having someone fill the a questionnaire off the top of their head will be useful, but to the extent it rely's on guesses or false assumptions, it will provide flaws in the planning and therefore flaws in the finished Website.

Three Reasons to Have your Website Professionally Designed

The temptation to do a Website on the cheap can be overwhelming. The casual, non-technical Internet user may find it hard to see why they should pay hundreds of dollars for a website, when they get one for free with their Internet service. They have people on staff that are good with computers and can handle putting the Website together. Those employees know the company, so should be better for the job than somebody from the outside. These may seem like valid reasons for not choosing to have an outside company design and maintain your Website, but consider the following:

Ease of use is not easy to design. Nothing is more frustrating than going to a Website and not being able to find what you are looking for. Chances are that a person not educated in information and interface design is going to make some serious errors in designing a Website, which will lead to negative user experience. Studies have shown that a negative experience such as this does reflect negatively on the company or brand associated with the Website. You can be seen as the best in the field at your core business, but a poorly designed Website can undo this reputation, or at least prompt your customers to question it.

Websites made for free look it. Unless you have someone on staff that is experienced in graphic design, your Website, created in-house, is going to look cheap. Like it or not, appearance does effect the way current and potential customers evaluate your organization. An unprofessional looking Website can affect your credibility in the eyes of your customers, and influence the overall feeling they have about your company.

Web Design is an inexpensive professional service. Thanks to the Dot Com crash a few years ago, the Bay Area is awash with unemployed Web Designers. It has never been less expensive to have a professionally designed and maintained Website than it is now. If you don’t have plans to upgrade your Website, chances are a number of your competitors do. Have you looked at your competitors’ Websites lately? How do they compare with yours? Are you willing to give them that edge?

Conclusion – It’s better not to have a Website at all than to have one reflecting less quality, expertise and effort than you put into your core business.

What you need to know BEFORE you build a Website

ImageYou're probably expecting some basic information on html coding, page layout, graphic design tips... the typical basic Web design primer. You might want to dive right in and finish your Website tonight! As with many aspects of work and life, rushing in without proper planning can have disasterous consequences. Lack of planning often leads to failure.

There are many reasons for wanting a Website. Among them are:

  • To take advantage of the global marketplace that is the Internet, and sell products.
  • To show that your business venture is legitimate.
  • To make information more readily available to customers.
  • To migrate businesses processes online.

Knowing the answer to the question "Why do I want a Website?" is the first step - the first answer to a long list of questions that need to be addressed if the Website is to be a success.

When designing a Website for a client, I always ask the following questions, or variations on them. I don't always get all of the answers, and even when I do, I'm not always allowed to address them in the design. However knowing as many of the answers as possible is a big step towards the goal of a successful project. Documenting the answers in a creative brief or similar document is also helpul in keeping focus on the goals.

Questions:

  • Who will be visiting the Website and what will they gain by doing so?
  • What specific actions do you want visitors to take when visiting your Website?
  • How will visitors find your Website? If they use a search engine, what terms will they type in to find your company?
  • What is your market niche?
  • What is your position or desired position in that niche?
  • Who are your competitors? Do they have a Website, and if so, how would they answer these questions?
  • What do you want to accomplish in this business venture? Where do you see it being in 5 years? How can the Website help you achieve that?
  • What business processes will the Website be a part of, and how can it improve efficiency? Which processes do you want to move completely online, which do you want to move partially online, and which do you want to keep offline?
  • Do you currently have a branding strategy? What is it? What do you want a visitor to come away thinking about your company, products and services?
  • How will the Website be used in your overall strategy to promote your products and services?
  • What montly budget are you willing to allocate to the promotion of your Website so that it satisfactorily achieves its goals?

Armed with this information you are much more likely to stay on target, all the way to your goal of a successful Website.

Web Design Definition

What is Web design? The definition of "Web Design" can vary, depending on who you ask. Web designers working for one company may perform different tasks than Web designers working for another company. The basic answer is that Web design is the design of a Web page or Website, including the information and user interface design, but not including programming. Programming falls under the definition of Web development, or Web application programming (to name two of many).

At a smaller company, with fewer people and more overlap of job descriptions, Web design can be defined as the whole production of the Website from start to finish. To clarify this a bit, let's outline the process of creating a Website from scratch.

1. Discovery

In this step, the Web designer finds out as much about the company and its clients as possible, paying special attention to the user audience of the Website.

2. Planning

Project definition documents are created as a guide to the creation of the Website. It is important that the scope, audience and goals of the Website are clearly defined during this stage, so the resulting project definition can be used as a touchstone to keep everyone on track throughout the process.

3. Information Design

How will the information be broken down and presented to the user? If what the user will be looking for is well defined in the discovery and planning stages, this will be an easier job. The information design, or information architecture, step includes design of the navigation and is the most critical step in making the Website user-friendly.

4. Graphic Design

Graphic design may seem trivial to some, but it is also a very important factor in the usability of the Website. It isn't just about making the Website look pretty. It is also about visual balance and readable typography, both of which are critical in the creation of a user-friendly Web design.

When these steps have been completed, you have a finished Web design. Loosely speaking, putting it together is called Web production, and making it work is called Web development.

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