It's that time again or maybe this is your first time, but you have to get a new website developed because the current one is horrible or so you think. Planning a website can be a lot of work and most projects take 6 - 12 months. At least a third to half of that time should go towards planning and user interface design. Failing to plan is a plan to fail, so here are seven steps to follow when planning your website:
You don't need a website. You need a website strategy. I advocate that only 25% of your time is devoted to building the website and the other 75% is focused on efforts to drive traffic to it. Don't bet the whole farm on your website; keep things simple. Budget more for maintenance and marketing after the site is built. Search engine optimization, pay-per-click advertising, blogging, continuous content creation, email marketing, social media integration, etc, are more critical to the success of your website than the website itself.
Establish your budget and then be prepared to adjust expectations. Properly constructed websites are built for change so do not worry about cramming everything in at once. Ensure you choose a platform or technology that can be easily modified and consider doing things in a phased approach.
Prioritize your needs and wants. Determine what is the most appropriate based on evaluating things from a feasibility and importance perspective. Those features with both high importance and that are feasible to achieve within the timelines/budget should be your priority.
If you have an existing site make sure to take inventory of all the pages and assets it currently has. Create a site map of the existing architecture so you know how things are organized. In addition, run some analytics to determine which pages are the most viewed. A common statistic is that 80% of website visitors only read 20% of the content. By understanding what pages are most important to your visitors it will guide how much content needs to be kept, discarded, or built upon. In addition, you may have some valuable information that is popular with search engines so be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water.
Carefully consider the needs and online behaviors of your target audience and what they value. Understanding whether your audience is interested in fancy design or if they want to consume multimedia content or perhaps want to connect with others or maybe they want the ability to submit reviews and feedback are important insights when choosing features for your website.
Create a new site map based on prioritizing content and arranging logical groupings for it. Creating the information architecture is probably the most important part of the planning process. Falling short here can sacrifice the entire project. There are various methods and tools that can be used to help organize content but the most simple practice is to write down every major content area on sticky notes and then group them together based on relevance and relationship. Start with three major groupings - Main Navigation, Tertiary Navigation (utilities like client login, locations, and language), and Features (animations, sign-up forms, and web applications).
Once the site map is developed you will want to develop some low fidelity mock ups of the unique screens so that you can understand how things will layout spatially. Most websites only require a handful of different templates (I.e. home page, sub page, application page, etc) so try to standardize things as much as possible so that you do not need a different design for every page. At this point you should also begin thinking about how the new content will be laid out and styled to fit. Wireframes can be hand drawn sketches or put together in a drawing program but it's important to keep them simple since the designer will add complexity and pizazz later on.
Bring a technical analyst or programmer into the process during the information architecture stage so that they have an understanding of the objectives and reasoning behind the site's organization. By the time wireframes are being created they will be able to provide insight as to what technical considerations and approaches should be considered to ensure what is being proposed can be built within the timelines and budget. A technical strategy should be drafted at this point and then refined as the designs take shape. It is critical that there is congruence between the technical aspects of the website and the designs being created. Many projects go over budget when designers and technical analysts do not collaborate to ensure things stay in scope.
Once the aforementioned steps have taken place then a designer can actually develop some high fidelity visual concepts regarding how things will look. It is tempting to start with designs right off the bat but doing so will end up costing a lot of time and money with revisions as other things come to light. Unless your site is very small (Less than 5 pages) then it is important to follow the previous steps before actually having a designer create something.
Depending on the complexity of your project there may be a few other planning steps to consider like User Case Workflows or Storyboards regarding how tasks would be carried out, but for most websites that are not application or eCommerce intensive then the aforementioned steps should provide a suitable framework for planning your website. Once you have a plan in place then the remaining design, development and implementation will flow smoothly.
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