Web Site Planning: Suggestions and Guidelines

When you're ready to begin considering a web site, there are a few things that you must do to prepare. What you'll find here is a summary list:

Step 1: Write a Web Site Goals Statement

Where to begin? Start with a couple of obvious questions to stimulate the conversation:
  • What distinguishes your organization from the competition?
  • What is the mission/creed/purpose of your organization?
  • What role is the web site meant to play in the public image of your organization?
  • Can your company branding be translated to a web site?
  • How is your mission/creed/purpose relevant to the purpose of your web site?


Step 2: Identify Your Site Audience

Consider the following suggestions to stimulate discussion:

  • Identify possible user "experiences" you will offer on your web site.
  • Rank the importance of each audience group.
  • Identify the special needs or requirements, if any, for each audience group. For example, people with disabilities may be unable to access your web site, or do so only with great difficulty.

The outcome of this exercise is a collection of user experiences that match the site goals.
Also, remember the expectations of ALL users:

  • They want useful content;
  • They want easy and clear access to that content;
  • As a general rule, they are impatient; that is they are reluctant to wait beyond a reasonable time (12 seconds and shrinking) for content to display;
  • They have more faith in well-designed sites.


Step 3: Web Site Content Development

This step is an opportunity to consider the content of your web site. At the end of this exercise you should have a content inventory and a content development plan.

Consider the following as you begin to compile a content inventory and development plan:

  • Will the site offer content currently available in other formats? If yes, does this content need to be revised for a different medium?
  • Will you produce new (Web-only) content? If yes, then you should open your word processor and begin development. Start with identification of unique pages for your site e.g., home page, contact, newsletter, calendar, etc. Remember that the visitor to your site should recognize the purpose of your organization from the home page. Concise statements keep your visitors from having to scroll excessively.
  • If the blank page prevents you from progressing, start by surfing the web and pulling bits of content from other sites. Bring them into your word processor and modify them to suit your organization.
  • What is required to properly present that content for your intended users in the "user experience" of your choice?
    • List these requirements in detail.
    • The list may include everything from images used to support and enhance text-heavy content to the complex programming requirements for interactive Web pages.
  • What features from the web do you wish to provide to your visitors?
    • Sharing Snapshots (Gallery)
    • Sharing Thoughts (Blogs)
    • An online Brochure
    • An online Store (E-Commerce)
    • Forums and Chats (Bulletin Board or BBS and Chatrooms Possibly Moderated)
    • Newsletters or E-Zines
    • Forms, Reports and Unique Needs


Step 4: Create a Site Structure

This step takes your labeled content groups and builds a model structure for your site. more...

Step 5: Design a Site Navigation Plan

Now that you have identified the major content sections, fill them in from the content inventory. Once the content is labeled and sorted, you need a navigation system to help users travel throughout your site in such a way that they don't get lost.

At a conceptual level, you want your site navigation scheme to work on a gradient of complexity. High-level navigation milestones identify major sections of your site. As users move deeper towards specific content the navigation becomes more detailed and complex as the "distance" between milestones grows shorter.

The goal, regardless of the complexity involved is to create a "sense of place" for users, no matter where they are. A user-friendly approach to site navigation will enable users to answer the following:

  • Where am I? Users will never create a mental image of your site plan unless they know where they are at all times.
  • Where can I go from here? This is answered by visible navigation options and other links on the page.
If users cannot answer these questions to their satisfaction, there is a problem with your site organization scheme.

We offer the following suggestions to help ensure your site provides users with the contextual clues they need to navigate confidently.
  • All pages should include the organization name.
    • Display your logo on every page and make it a link to your the home page. This is a common feature on most web sites.
  • The navigation system (tabs, topic lists, a menu of choices, etc.) should present the site structure clearly.
    • The major content categories are obvious milestones for your site's primary navigation elements.
    • Specific content areas should have a local navigation system to supplement the primary navigation.

A common site navigation scheme uses tabs arranged horizontally across the screen to label the main content areas. Within a content area a menu in the left margin to sub-divides the content into logical sub-categories. As users click towards specific documents a full range of navigation options remains available. The horizontal tabs offer direct links to every major content category on the site. The left-side menu offers links to every major sub-category within the chosen category. Reversing these roles, with the main content areas in the left margin and the subordinate navigation links arranged horizontally is also very common. more...

Step 6: Site Visual Design

Now is the time to take the site plan and build a visual design around it. This step is often the most satisfying aspect of a web site project.

Remember: Settle the intellectual property issues early on. Determine who owns what aspects (HTML code, graphics, scripts, etc.) of your web site. For more information on copyright issues, see detail here. Understand the benefits of using proprietary resources and the costs (time, money, inconvenience) of opting out.

Consider the following points as you approach the visual design phase:

  • Consider a unique graphic identity which incorporates your organization logo or a unique logo for your site.
  • Consider a distinct color palate. Use color to generate a visual vocabulary** which supports your site content.
  • Remember, the eye tends to see the pictures first. Consider how visual images can reinforce the text.
** Visual vocabulary is a set of symbols used to describe a system, structure, or process. Web designers use the vocabulary to describe, at a high level, the structure and/or flow of the user experience of a web site. For example, one approach is to make every page appear similar with a distinct color for each category of pages (think of colored tabs in a notebook).

Layout grids

Layout grids are the foundation of your visual design. Grids and design sketches lead to page mock-ups. The goal, as you begin, is to have pages similar in form across all major sections of the site. Consider the following points as you begin:

  • Strive for three or four generic page templates.
  • Block out space for the following:
    • Page content.
    • Organization logo (often in the upper-left corner of the grid).
    • Navigation information.
    • Page title.
    • Supporting graphics.
    • Sponsorship acknowledgements/advertising.
    • Page footer, including copyright information, link to a privacy policy.
    • Contact information for document author and/or site webmaster.

Important Information about Copyright: Copyright should be respected both as a matter of law and of conscience. If anything on your web site is subject to copyright, identify it with the copyright symbol (©), and make a statement to show that the material is published under copyright. If you wish to allow people to distribute your material free of copyright, make a statement to that effect requesting, if you so desire, that you be shown as the source of the material in any subsequent distribution.

Design Sketches and Page Mock-ups

Consider the following points as you begin your design sketches and page mock-ups:

  • Sketches establish the site's look and feel. They may been done concurrently (and approved!) during earlier steps in this process.
  • Mock-ups integrate design sketches with layout grids
    • Mock-ups should closely replicate actual pages by integrating design sketches with the layout grids
    • Mock-ups serve as the basis for your site prototype, if the site is large, or actual pages if the site is small.

When the design seems too simple for the work it required, then you know you are done!

Final Thoughts

  • Designing a web site is a team effort. Anyone who insists they can do the job on their own is not someone you wish to have planning and building your web site.
  • Remember, your site should revolve around its content. If you build your site before you have your content you've done things backwards.
  • If a visitor cannot identify your business from the home page, your web site will have failed.
  • Understand and approve the costs and fees before you begin. It's your money and your web site. Don't waste either.
  • Every site will require regular maintenance. Information has to be updated and the site design has to be kept fresh. Ensure maintenance costs and responsibilities are understood and agreed upon as you begin developing your web site. Consider using a Content Management System (CMS) which allows you to update your web site content without additional cost.
  • What makes a good web site? Common Sense! If nothing else, build your web site so that it makes sense to your visitors.
Don't forget! Once your site is up and running, plan for a formal and regular evaluation of the site. Suggestions for points of discussion include:
  • Has the site met its goals?
  • Are you getting adequate feedback to evaluate the site?
  • How would current stakeholders evaluate the site?
  • Have new stakeholders come forward since the site was launched?

To you, your web site is a tool for marketing and perhaps selling products. To your web site visitors it is their impression of you and your company.