As the old adage goes, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail. Building a website without a plan is like constructing a building without blueprints. Things end up in the wrong place, features are overlooked, and the situation is ripe for miscommunication between website builder and client. Planning your website ahead of time will give it clear direction as well as prevent missed deadlines and backtracking. If you are a web designer working with clients, then this guide will help both of you to plan properly. If you are a business owner or employee of an organization, then this guide will help lay the groundwork for your coming website.
1. Set your purpose and goals.
What is the purpose of your website? Is it to gain publicity for your business? To sell your inventory? To rally support behind a cause? It’s important to identify your website’s purpose, as well as your target audience. You should also define your goals. How many visitors do you expect per month? How many do you expect will sign up for your newsletter? How much in sales do you expect to make? Set measurable, specific goals for your website that are in line with your marketing goals. An analytics tool like Google Analytics will allow you to monitor your website’s performance over time.
2. Create a2 budget.
Whether you’re an established, mid-sized organization or a fledgling start-up, you should always set a budget for your website expenses. This will probably include funds for web design, programming, and web hosting (though other expenses may apply). Research the market by shopping around and consulting with professionals. Don’t sell yourself short by comparing prices alone. What you save in money you may later pay for with a lackluster site and lots of headaches. It’s better to choose team members based on experience, insightfulness, references, and examples of work.
3. Assign roles.
- Company stakeholders (owner, marketing manager, or whoever else represents a primary function of the business)
- Web developer
- Content writer and/or editor
- HTML/CSS professional
- Web and graphic designer
Make sure everyone on your team knows their role and what is expected of them, and that they stay abreast of deadlines and new developments.
4. Create a content strategy.
What kind of content will you be displaying on your website? Content is basically anything that gives your visitors information. It can include, but is not limited to:
- Blog posts
- Pictures (such as in a gallery)
- Embedded social media feeds (such as your Twitter stream or Facebook page updates)
Your content strategy is the way that you plan to present your content over time. For instance, you may want to publish two blog posts a month, and put out a free quarterly report for your subscribers to download four times a year. Since content is such a vital aspect of a website, bring in help if you need it. Hire a writer who is experienced with writing for the web, and invest in some professional looking pictures of your storefront and employees.
5. Structure your website.
Decide what pages you’ll be using and what features will be on each one. Most websites have an About and Contact page, but the pages you use should meet your business’ needs.
6. Create a mock-up.
A page mock-up, also know as a wireframe, is essentially the outline of your website (with the initial design being the first draft). Usually created in Photoshop or Fireworks, you don’t have to put too much detail into your mock-up. Use placeholder text to fill pages, and don’t worry about details. This is just to give everyone an idea of what the website will look like.
If you don’t have a design program, you can also map it out with pen and paper! When you have a general feel of what you’d like, you can send it to a designer to create or do so yourself.
7. Start designing.
The importance of good web design can’t be stressed enough. Good website design includes both usability and aesthetics. An ugly website will drive away visitors, as will a website that’s difficult to navigate. Keep in mind some basic concepts of usability as you go:
- Make your navigation easy to understand and easy to find. Research shows that most users expect website navigation to be vertical and centered at the top of the page.
- Use an easy-to-read font for blocks of text. Choose a background color and text color that contrast well (Hint: No red text on a hot pink background).
- Make sure your site fits the screen. Use responsive design (or an equally effective approach) to make your website one that adapts to all screen sizes.
- Keep your web site light so that it loads quickly.
- Make the company logo and tagline prominent on the page.
- Keep styles and colors consistent across the website.
- Make copy clear and concise, and put important information and features (e.g., your newsletter sign-up form) above the fold.
- Make notes about what to include in the style sheet as you design, as you want to keep style and function separate. This is important, not only to comply with web standards but to make it easier to change something in the future if you need to.
- You should also design with the future in mind. For instance, your website may only have a few blog posts now, but what about when you have two hundred?
8. Test it out.
Testing is important for getting out bugs out and catching details that you might have missed initially. Make sure your website shows up the way you want it to in all browsers, including Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, and mobile web browsers like Safari and Opera Mini. Test it on your cell phone, your tablet, and your colleague’s cell phones and tablets too. You want your site to have a consistent appearance no matter what screen it shows up on. Make sure all of the links work, that the images are properly sized and that you’ve replaced all of the placeholders with actual content. See to it that all of the forms and other input fields are working.
9. Maintain your site.
Once your site is launched, the work isn’t over. A website is an ongoing entity that continuously represents your company, so maintenance is very important. Monitor your analytics software to see how your website is performing with the public. Keep an eye on metrics like your number of unique visitors, bounce rate, and which pages are most popular on your website. You might find that certain metrics are more useful to you than others, but that is information you’ll find out over time.
You should also have a plan for maintaining the website, such as who is responsible for posting new content or monitoring site security. And of course, get feedback from your users. Feedback is a valuable tool for improvement.
Planning a website ahead of time is just as important as planning anything else in business, yet this step often gets overlooked by those anxious to claim their piece of internet real estate. Taking the time to plan your website is a great investment, and it will better your chances of having a finished product that serves you well for as long as you need it.