Planning Your Website
Website planning is an essential first step when creating a website. It’s also the most important step and often the most difficult. A number of factors must be considered during the planning phase to ensure your website aligns with your business objectives and provides a good user experience.
Much of the terminology used in this article assumes your company is in the business of selling products or services and that you will use your website to promote your business. If your organization doesn’t fit this admittedly narrow view and/or your website will serve some other purpose, be assured that the concepts presented here apply to all types of organizations and website projects.
The intent of this article is to provide some guidance and perhaps stimulate ideas that will help you plan a website that will serve your company well.
The Planning Process
A comprehensive plan is essential to ensure business and customer needs are met. It’s not enough to decide that you need a website. You must determine why you need a website.
Some basic questions must be answered before the actual process of designing your site can begin:
How will a website benefit your company? Identify specific goals that your site will help you achieve. Goals could include things like increasing revenue, reducing costs, attracting more business, reducing phone calls (regarding your location and business hours, for example), building a mailing list, or raising your company’s profile.
How will a website benefit your customers? A website cannot be effective unless it meets customer expectations and needs. Customers will visit your website with a specific purpose in mind, so your site must help them accomplish what they set out to do.
What content should be included? A basic rule is that content must be useful to site visitors. Content needs to inform, persuade, and convert prospects into customers.
Who is your competition? You probably have a good idea of who your competition is right now, but your arrival on the web will introduce all new competitors. Resist the temptation to simply base your site design on what the competition already has in place. Instead, try to think of ways your site can provide your company with a competitive edge.
I recommend writing a brief mission statement to define your site’s purpose, its intended audience, and features that will distinguish it from your competition. It’s also good practice to develop measurable goals to provide an objective framework for making decisions during the course of the project. The mission and goal statements can prove invaluable in keeping your project on track.
Determine How Your Website Can Benefit Your Business
Take advantage of what the web does best. Broadcast and print media have their purpose, but the web offers opportunities and advantages not available in those mediums. For example, you can use your website to:
- Reach new markets and customers by removing geographic barriers.
- Improve customer service.
- Encourage repeat business by announcing new products and services, sales promotions, events, etc.
- Create marketing opportunities by collecting email addresses and other information from site visitors.
- Save printing and postage costs by replacing print media with web content, emails, and downloadable documents.
- Reduce bad leads and phone support costs by clarifying who you are and what products and services you offer.
- Measure user interests by examining site traffic patterns. This information can be used to forecast sales, manage inventories, and evaluate the effectiveness of your site.
It’s important to recognize the unique opportunities available on the web. Before using an existing marketing approach on your site, try to think of ways it can be tailored to suit the medium.
Content and Usability Are Key
Your mission statement, goals, and available resources will have major roles in determining your site’s content. Your goals must be combined with customer needs in a manner that ultimately makes your site useful to your customers.
Budgetary and/or time constraints may very well limit your site’s content. If this is the case, you’ll need to identify the core features that the site must have, and then prioritize other content that you would like to include. Your mission statement and goals will provide the objective framework needed to do this.
Usability refers to the user-friendliness and efficiency of a site’s interface. This is largely the responsibility of the designer, and includes things like:
- Visual elements. Your website should reflect your company image. Color combinations should be visually appealing and complement your logo and branding. Images should be used to reinforce your text or draw attention to the important parts of your content.
- Layout. An intuitive layout should be used so information is easy to find.
- Navigational elements. Menus should be intuitive and consistent across all pages so users can easily accomplish what they set out to do. Text links should be self-explanatory through the use of descriptive text.
The need to emphasize content and usability cannot be overstated.
Website projects run the risk of expanding beyond their original scope. This can happen if team members stray from your mission and goals, causing the project to be pulled in too many directions. Don’t let this happen, because it will result in a bloated project that will likely exceed your budget and result in a site that falls short of your goals. You can avoid this risk by clearly defining what you’re creating, deciding how decisions will be made, and learning how to say no to ideas that are inconsistent with your original plan.
Other Planning Considerations
Two additional matters need to be addressed at some point when planning your site:
- Name and register your site. Don’t underestimate the importance of choosing a good domain name. Try to keep your domain name as short as possible and free of symbols (like hyphens). Many desirable domain names have already been taken (especially if you want a dot-com name), so your first choice may not be available.
- Choose a web host. Care must be taken when choosing your web hosting service to ensure it offers the services and features needed to support your site.
Although these are not core components of the planning phase, they shouldn’t be left to the last minute either.
Building a website is a big undertaking for any business, and a well-thought-out plan is essential. Careful planning will help you attain your goals by reaching your target audience and meeting their needs.