Planning Your New Website: A Quick Guide

What is probably the most common problem when it comes to setting up a website? It’s the failure to plan.

Here, then, is a short guide to help you establish a successful website, whether you run a small or medium-sized businesses (SME) or an organization of some kind, or are a sole trader.

Website designer and a website developer

First, a little definition. What’s the difference between a website designer and a website developer? The two terms are almost interchangeable now, since web companies tend to use both to describe their services. But they refer to two different aspects of the website building process, which require different sets of skills.

A website designer is concerned with how a site looks and how visitors interact with it. They want a site that looks great, is user-friendly, and easy to navigate. A website developer is concerned with how a site works and how visitors get things done on it, and thus focuses on the back-end of the website, the programming and interactions on the pages.

Why plan your website?

People often don’t plan a website adequately because they’re simply too busy. But planning a website is no less important than planning for other aspects of a business. If you don’t plan, you risk a lot of headaches and misunderstandings, as well as wasting time and money.

Clients often go to a website designer/developer with a rough idea of what they want, and have perhaps sketched out a simple map of their proposed website structure. But generally it’s not enough to enable the designer/developer to write up an accurate proposal.

Unless it’s a fairly simple website, it’s wise to do a full needs assessment before asking for a proposal. A needs assessment that takes one day might well save four days of development time.

Without clear information, the designer/developer is forced to make assumptions about content and presentation, which may not reflect your wishes. There’s also the risk of repeated backtracking, wasting time in back-and-forth communications about minor details, delays, cost overruns, and so on.

This map gives you a useful overview of the main pages and sub-pages of a website

This map gives you a useful overview of the main pages and sub-pages of a website

Planning your website structure

It’s important to build a site map to show your website’s structure. You can simply create an outline showing the main pages and the sub-pages (indented), or you can use a flowchart.

Unless it’s a very large site, the pages should be easy enough to decide: from those listing your products or services, to your About Us and Contact pages. But it’s best to give some detail; for example, your Contact page would include your business name, address, email address(es), phone numbers, and, in most cases, a simple form for people to fill in to contact you.

If you don’t specify, the developer will guess, or have to get back to you to ask about the details.

It’s not enough to say you want an event calendar, photo gallery, staff listing, blog, discussion forum, banner advertising, or RSS feeds. Give clear details about the purpose and nature of each.

You also need to consider if your website will gradually accumulate content, such as news reports or press releases. Will you show just the most recent news, or archive old news?
If you’re able to do it, it will be very useful to do a wireframe for each of your webpages. That will show clearly the layout of each page.

Deciding on the website content

Depending on the size of the business or organisation, the number of people engaged in deciding on the content for the website will range from one person to ten or more. If too many are involved, there may be long delays in arriving at decisions.

Apart from bare text, no matter how powerful it may be, you should consider multimedia elements such as images, audio, video, Adobe Flash files, documents such as pdfs, content feeds, a Twitter stream, RSS feeds, etc.

Poor images will give a poor impression of your ‘brand’, so if necessary engage a professional photographer to take good photos of your staff, products or services, storefront, etc. For generic images, you can use stock photos, but avoid the bland and boring.

Excellent written content is crucial

The written content on your site is arguably most important of all, yet it’s often given least attention. Part of the problem is that only some people can write code for software, say, but everyone can write (more or less). Good writing is thus undervalued. People are generally willing to pay substantial amounts for website design, but expect even an experienced copywriter to cost relatively little.

Not only is good writing a skill that only some people have; writing effective content for a website demands specialized knowledge and skills. If your business or organization lacks someone who can write clear, concise and strong copy, you need to hire a copywriter.

On a website, every word counts. It’s not just about the words (and correct grammar and spelling), it’s also about the tone: how you address your visitors. There’s no point in having a great-looking website if the words are poor.

It’s not just about the writing, but also about the presentation. It’s tiring to read for long on a screen. Your website visitors will tend to scan, so you need to avoid big blocks of grey text, use headings and bulletpoints, and so on.

Designing your website

If your website is attractive and easy to navigate, your visitors will get a good impression of you and your business.

The designer will do an initial design. This usually consists of mock-ups of your home page and at least one internal page. These will include your visual branding elements such as your logo.

If you can’t supply good graphics related to your brand, then the designer may come up with ones that reflect your business.

Designers generally use ‘Lorem ipsum’ to fill the empty space where body copy will go, but it’s best if they have actual headlines to work with, since these will define the layout (eg, a long headline will differ from a short one in its effect on the page design).

When these initial mock-ups are sent to you for approval, be careful to avoid seeking the approval of too many people. If too many get involved, delays and gridlock can result.

Some clients are keen on unworkable or ugly design features, such as a big chunk of copy in capital letters or bold red type, or an unsuitable image. Designers may resist, or give in with a sigh; or resist at first and then give in. It depends on how long the project has been going on, how many such requests are made, and so on. If you selected the designer because of quality of work, then you should probably take his or her advice.

Once your website design is completed and everything is in its place, all the content should be proofread by a competent person, unless the text was written by a professional copywriter, in which case s/he should do a final check.

Testing the new website

When the website appears to be ready to launch, you should check it in the main browsers (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Chrome) and on mobile devices. Do interactive features work well? Are the images sized properly? Does the contact form work as it should? Is every word in its place? Etc.

Your website maintenance plan

After you’ve launched your website, don’t forget about it … you need to look after and feed it in order to keep it alive! If you have a blog attached to it, how often are you going to post pieces, and who is going to do it? Do you need to add photographs or graphics now and again? And so on. Your website is a long-term tool of communication. Not only the search engines but also your visitors will be looking for new, relevant content.

It’s useful to gather visitor statistics to see how people use your website. Google Analytics is most commonly used for this. After a month or two, you should check:

  • Which are the most popular pages?
  • Where are your visitors coming from? From the search engines, links from other websites, or adverts, etc? Are you getting some direct traffic (that is, visitors have typed your website’s url into the address bar)?
  • What is the geographical range of your visitors? Are they mainly local or regional, national or international?
  • How long are your visitors lingering on your website?
  • What is the bounce rate? That means the percentage of visitors who arrive at your site but move on to another one without looking at other pages on your site.

Back up your site regularly

Make sure you schedule regular backups of your website files and database. If your site gets hacked, or your files or database get corrupted or erased, you can restore them with copies from the previous day or week. Your hosting company may provide automated backup.

If you follow the suggestions in this short guide, you’ll avoid a lot of headaches, time-wasting and extra costs. If you need further assistance, particularly about the written content on your site, just get in touch and I’ll be glad to help.

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