Planning Your Website

When planning your website a lot should be going through your head. The last thing to think about should be the design of your site, and how flashy it looks. What is the aim of your website? Surely it is to sell a product, promote your business, or just get found on Google. There are a lot of things to take into consideration here.

Planning your website content & goals are vital to your success online

The single most important step in designing and building any website is planning. Without a good plan, you cannot hope to design a good look-and-feel, you cannot hope to present useful and informative content to your users where they can easily find the information they want or need and you cannot hope to achieve a successful website on your first try. Without careful planning, you’ll have to re-build your site many times to achieve your goals.

The problem with planning is that it is something that is rarely taught. Web design courses will teach you how to build HTML pages, with all the extras like CSS etc, but most will have nothing on how to plan a website.

Many professional web designers have no idea how to plan a website, and there are no books called, “Planning Websites for Dummys” or “Planning Websites in 21 days”. You could try taking a professional (and expensive) project management course, and then ignore two thirds of what you learn. After all, many of the skills they’ll teach you in planning an oil refinery, or the software to run it, will be unnecessary for a small project like a website. The basic one third, however, will stand you in good stead. The other way is to use logic, basic common sense, trial-and-error and experience.

You could also try hiring a professional web designer to do your site for you, but in my experience, most designers expect you to provide the plan. They simply take what you’ve given them, and turn it into a website. The better the plan you supply them, the better the website they produce, so this brings you back to creating a plan yourself. Remember that no web designer knows your business as well as you do, so they are going to require a lot of input from you to create the site, no matter how good they are. The basic steps to planning a website are as follows:

1. Set out your goals

2. Define your minimum requirements

3. Decide what types of content you are going to offer your visitors

4. Decide how to structure the content you are providing

5. Design a look-and-feel

Set out your goals

This is the most important step in planning your website. You cannot possibly create a successful website, if you have no goals, and the wrong goals will result in failure. You can look at this step as a kind of mission statement. Consider the following example of a set of goals.

The site will become the definitive resource for search engine optimisation and internet marketing information in South Africa

The site will offer free, useful and relevant content to it’s visitors

The content will be keyword rich

The content will be organised so that users may easily find the particular information they are looking for

Users will be anyone who owns or controls a website, and wants it to succeed in its goals, usually financial, or other professionals in this field.

The site will establish the company’s credentials as experienced experts in their field, and thereby attract new clients.

The success of the site will be measured by the number of new clients achieved

The site will be search engine optimised, using the latest techniques

The site will dominate the search engines for its selected keywords, initially locally, but ultimately globally.

As you can see, the goals above define the purpose of the site, and the direction it should take to achieve them, without spelling out how the goals are to be achieved. This is done in the later sections. Each of the goals is realistic and achievable, and none are mutually exclusive success in one goal doesn’t prevent the success in any of the others. The example above lists very general goals for simplicity, but the more specific your goals, the more accurate the rest of your planning can be, and the easier it will be to measure your success. There are a few important elements that every set of goals should have:

Target Audience

You need to know who your target audience is. All the content of your site will be written to these people, so you should be aware of who you are writing to. Simply writing your content to “anyone who reads it” is not going to get the best out of your writing. It is generally not a good idea to have more than one group of target users if you find yourself in this position, you should consider creating a new website for each group, or specifically defining which parts of the site are targeted towards each group. Each section of the site, at least, should be targeted to only one type of user, so that any single visitor can be sure that, if one article is relevant to them, all the other articles in the section will be too. Your users shouldn’t be forced to filter through your articles to find something relevant to their needs you should do that filtering for them.

Measure of Success

Defining how you measure the success of your site is vitally important. It tells you not only whether your website is a success or not, but it allows you to measure the effectiveness of any changes you make to your site. Remember that the initial plan you lay out will change often over time, as you develop the site, and move closer towards achieving your goals. You need to be able to decide what is working in your content, structure and look-and-feel, and what is not. The only way to make this decision is with an objective measure of success.

Define your minimum requirements

The minimum requirements define the boundaries within which you need to design and build your site. Consider the following examples:

The corporate logo must be displayed on every page

The corporate colours must be used as the basic colour palette

The site must be visible without horizontal scrolling for screen resolutions 800 x 600 and above.

The site must be compatible with Internet Explorer 4+, Netscape 4+, FireFox and similar browsers.

The minimum requirements differ from the goals in that the goals are all positive, forward-looking targets, whereas the requirements are as often as not negative, restrictive and all apply to the initial design.

Decide what types of content you are going to offer your visitors

There are any number of types of content, and your site may offer just one, or many, types of content to your visitors. The types of content will, to a large extent, define how your navigation will be structured, so it’s important to differentiate between them. It is usually a good idea to design a separate navigation system for each type of content. Here are a few examples:

Instructive Articles:

These are custom written, informative articles that explain to the reader how things work, or generally educate the reader. These are not usually topical; in other words, they don’t depend on current events to be relevant. This article, for example, is instructive. Navigation systems designed for instructive articles will have to be able to grow, because the older articles don’t become irrelevant, and the newer articles will often build upon the information in the older.

News Articles:

These are also custom written, informative articles, but these describe new incidents or changes to the current state of events. These are topical, and will often become outdated fairly quickly. A site that includes news articles will have to be updated often, and the navigation system will have to include archives for old news articles. Navigation systems will typically offer the latest news articles directly, rather than categorising them first, and offer a categorised archive section for older articles.

Product Pages:

These pages offer a product to the visitor. They will use a completely different style of writing from informative articles, because now you are trying to sell something. If you have a large number of products, you will also have to categorise them, with pages for each category as well. Navigation systems will typically offer the top level categories, with a drill down menu system to get to the relevant products. You may also choose to supply “product finder” tools for your visitors to easily find the product they need, but these need to be custom built for your type of product, and require advanced programming knowledge.

Decide how to structure the content you are providing

Once you have decided what types of content you have on your site, this step is easy, but still a lot of work. This is where you define the complete hierarchy of information, page by page, category by category. Obviously, if you have a database-driven site, with tens of thousands of products, you don’t need to include every product in your hierarchy, but you should include every category. In this case, it is also likely that the categories will change fairly regularly, but create an initial hierarchy, so that you can see what you’re dealing with for the next steps of planning. Consider the following extract from a plan for an imaginary sports website:

Home Page

  • Informational Articles

-Skiing

Where to find good skiing?

How to put your skis on.

-Swimming

Should you shave your legs?

  • News Articles

-Skiing

2005 World Cup results

-Swimming

Famous swimmer fails drug test

-Archive

August 2005

o Skiing

-Preview of the 2005 World Cup

-Swimming

  • Governing body “tough on drugs”

-Products

  • Skiing

-Skis

  • Cross-country skis
  • Downhill skis
  • Jumping skis

Snowboards

-Swimming

Costumes

Accessories

Obviously, this is just an extract to illustrate all the important parts of a hierarchical structure. You may not have all the sections shown above, but hopefully you’ll have far more content in each of the sections you do have.

The structure will look very similar to a design for a navigation system, but that is not what you are designing here. A successful design here will make designing your navigation system easier, but the two are not the same. This is a logical structure for your content, without any consideration for how it will look, or how easy it will be to navigate by a user. In the example above, I would create three navigation systems based on this structure, one for each content type.

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