Seventy-five percent of a successful project is planning. That means beginning with measurable goals and objectives. Your goals and objectives should always tie back into your company’s mission. So, if your company’s mission is to be the market leader in widgets, your site’s purpose should be to do that. It’s also important to set measurable goals. This will prove that investing in your web site, pays off. Plus, it’ll make you look good to your boss.
Once the goals are set, your planning is still far from done. You’ll want to examine your target audience or audiences and get in their heads. This means finding out who they are and why they are on your site. Then, you’ll need to make sure you are fulfilling their needs. Identify what actions each target audience will take on the site. If it’s someone purchasing a widget, make widgets easily available from the homepage. Research show that people who buy on the web want to see products right away and they want to see images and prices. Put your widgets on your homepage with a small image, title, description, price (users hate to drill down to get pricing), and a “Buy Now” link.
The next step is to determine the specifications of your functionality. It sounds scary, but it’s not. Most developers can work with a list of statements like, “I want a user to be able to rate products on a scale of one through five.” Write down everything you want the site to do and even include what you might want it to do. For example, “An administrator should be able to log into a content management area and add a press release.” You get the idea. Along with your specs, you’ll need to include a database discovery. This means determining all the possible fields for everything that might be stored and served in a database. For example, a product might have an image, a title, a description, a price, a product number, etc.
Now that you know who your target audience is and you have identified key user paths and you know what the site should do, it’s time to start creating your information architecture. This determines the flow of the site. Build the flow of the site to best accommodate those key user paths. These should give the user what he or she is looking for in three clicks or less.
After you have determined your information architecture, it’s time to create wireframes. Wireframes are like a blueprint of your web site. You’ll want to identify all of the content that will be represented on each page including navigation, logos, images, and content. This is a very important step because it takes all the guess work out for the designer, and you can do a usability gut check on your key user paths and the flow of the site itself. You can even build a test site based on the wireframes and run a usability test.
The next step is to get your content together. Start with a content strategy. What are you trying to accomplish with your content? Don’t forget to include a search engine strategy that defines what your key words are and how you will leverage them in your content. Is all of your content working toward your goals and objectives? Too often I see meaningless stock images like the ubiquitous handshake. Web users are jaded amd images like these just distract the user from their mission. Do yourself and your users a favor and leave it out. Instead, use images that are meaningful and I’m not talking about the butterfly that signifies growth.
Only once all of the above steps are taken should you even start to think about design. So many web design companies lead with design. Then the client ends up with a site that may be gorgeous, but doesn’t support goals and objectives. It is also of the utmost importance to design around content rather than creating a design and then stuffing the content into it. Your design should support your brand and serve as the wrapping paper to the gift. And again, make sure the design supports those key user paths; the first question your web designer should ask you is, “What’s the first thing you want users to do when they come to your site. Don’t forget to integrate the look and feel of your site with your offline materials– if you don’t, you’ll just end up diluting your brand and your marketing efforts.
Your planning is still not done. The last bit is to plan the actual work–who is going to do what when. Who needs to give approval for what when. Throw in some milestones, stakeholders, and deliverables and you’re done. In other words create a project plan. And by all means, plan the launch of the site. Make it deliberate, not an incomplete, rushed event because someone has it in their head that this just must be done before the end of the year, or else Create some buzz and PR for the launch of your new gorgeous and effective web site. Remember, you only have one chance to gain or lose users; if a new user comes to the site and does not see what their looking for, they’re gone, forever, and you’ve just lost a possible new lifetime customer.
By planning, and doing it right instead of quickly, you’ll have an end result that is not only effective but also matches everyone’s expectations– your boss, your sales team, your marketing people, and most importantly your users and your bottom line.