Websites that go wrong are very often fatally flawed before a single page is created. For numerous reasons, the phrase ‘we need a website’ isn’t a brief, and starting out with such a loose concept is a recipe for failure.
Planning what the website will achieve, who it is aimed at, why it exists, and why those who visit would ever come back, are all questions that need answers before any constructional work is begun.
So with that in mind, here are seven core elements to any website that need to be thrashed out at the very beginning.
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1. Do plenty of research
It might seem a crass statement, but in the immortal words of Benjamin Franklin: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”
The first job in any web project is to create a long list of critical questions that need answers. These might be about your potential visitors, the uniqueness of the site you want to create, what the initial budget will be, what ongoing costs might be, and so on.
If you have a competitor that already has a site, it might be worth considering what’s good about it, and perhaps more importantly, what it fails to achieve.
If the budget can handle it, some market research might be worth considering, because everything that gets thought about at this stage is a cost-saving later on when it isn’t necessary to redesign the site or change its focus.
2. The sitemap
Ever played a computer game where you couldn’t just wander anywhere?
While there are games that allow much more freedom, the majority of single player affairs are designed to guide players through a level along a predefined path, where they can interact with game-generated characters, puzzles and traps.
In many respects, a website should be much the same – because the majority of visitors will arrive at a common entrance, before travelling to the pages that they’re most interested in.
How they navigate there and how easy it is to find likely destinations is a critical part of the planning process, and an early task you must complete.
Remember, it isn’t vital that the whole site structure must be a tree diagram, but some logic as to where substructures are is important, if only to make navigation easier to follow, and visitors less confused.
The other value in creating a sitemap is that you can use it to create a list of the pages that will be needed, along with any special features required (like contact forms).
3. Prepare content
Those wanting to get their website up and running as fast as possible should already have the content that they wish to use prepared well ahead of the site construction phase.
Situations where the website can’t go live because a board member left to go on vacation without his biography being finalized aren’t acceptable where deadlines are concerned.
If the content is all created in advance, it’s a relatively minor exercise to populate the site with those words, images and videos – but only if they already exist.
If work on assembling and creating content can happen at the same time as the structure and design of the site are finalized, some time can be saved in the delivery process.
Unless you’re looking to use a unique visual metaphor, there will be other sites out there which you’ve seen that incorporate elements or aesthetics that you wish to adopt.
Perhaps printing some of these out, and even manually combining these with visuals (like company logos) sourced elsewhere might be a starting point.
Those who have chosen to work with a designer should attempt to give them as many hints and preferences as possible, so that they spend their time working towards a design that is acceptable and fulfils the brief.
5. Choose responsibilities early on
Depending on the size of the company involved, the resources available to support a web project can be vastly different.
The fewer resources and technical experience you have on tap, the more you’ll need to rely on others to convert concepts into web pages connected to a domain that people can find with a search engine.
What the business will contribute to the process should be decided early on, as well as what work will be contracted out to professionals.
Once these divisions are determined, those involved will have a much better idea of what tasks they must complete, and what will be done by contractors or as part of a hosting service.
These days, all websites need to be protected against legal action, and clearly outline to visitors their responsibilities and any rules for using the site or its contents.
If the site is involved in any direct selling, these legal elements will have to cater for any rules that cover resellers, especially those regarding the return of goods and the warranty on products.
Having this all defined before the site goes live is critical, and so is creating the various ‘small print’ elements for the pages, and deciding where on the site the full detailed ‘conditions of use’ will be published.
7. Always define a budget
Even the most basic site costs time and money, so decide what you are prepared to spend and then formulate your plan on that basis. A website needs to have regular updates, so an ongoing cost projection is also a necessary part of defining the budget.