What to Expect: Websites

A few helpful tips to know before you dive in.

Diana Lillicrap 4.16.2013

Last month Wendy wrote a post about knowing when you might need a new website. If you’ve decided you’re ready, we thought you might find it helpful to know the typical steps involved, what you should expect as part of the process, and a few helpful tips to know before you dive in.

1. Planning

We often compare creating a website to building a house. And like constructing a home, you would never just grab a hammer and boards and start building. You need a good plan that thinks through all the ways you want to use the space. You may want to look at other current and best practice structures, and you’ll likely benefit by engaging an external expert who can really think about the architecture and structure so it’s easy to live in, safe, and comfortable for you and your guests.

Define your needs

To begin, get your team together (internal decision makers, designer, developer, content providers/writers, and any other key players) and define the needs and opportunities of your new site. Start with the big picture and then dive deep into strategy and content details. What are your organizational and marketing goals? Who are your target audiences? What content do you have to offer and what will visitors expect to find at your site? Remember to think about ways to integrate your online brand with your other marketing efforts.

Now is also the right time to identify content management needs, desired functionally, tone and voice, and the overall scope of what your ideal site will be, how it will function, and what makes it unique. Make a list of all the distinctive things you want as part of your site—calendar, blog, mapping feature, directory, shopping cart, etc. This will help you and your design team establish a realistic budget and timeline.

Do your homework

Once you’ve identified what you need and want out of a new site, it’s time to do some homework. Audit your existing site to gain a complete picture of your current content. Take a look at your web analytics to see what worked or didn’t work on the old site. Examine key search words and traffic patterns to and from your site. And don’t be afraid to seek out best practice ideas by evaluating competitors, peers, or other industries with similar audiences or goals.

2. Site Structure and Content Strategy

Once you’ve discovered the needs and opportunities for your site and you have a good sense of your full scope, it’s time to create the architectural plan. A detailed site map can act as a visual blueprint for your new site. It should illustrate in a simple way the navigation, hierarchy, flow of information, and general content for every section and page of your site. Creating a good site map requires thinking about how visitors will move through the site, where content will be expected, and how to thoughtfully plan for new content as your site grows over time.

One of the most important aspects of a good website is valuable content. During this step in the process you should start gathering, organizing, editing, and generating content that will make your site a success. Remember to let key words and initial site goals drive your decisions about what to include (or not include). Establish editing guidelines that are web appropriate to help you create a consistent voice, style, and treatment for all content areas. Determine a plan for who will generate ongoing content, how often it will be added, and what process will be used for reviews and approvals. Setting this groundwork early will encourage long-term success for your new site.

3. Design

Now that you have a comprehensive site map you’re ready to start designing the look of your site. Your design partner should show you design directions that give you a sense of the visual concepts, navigational hierarchy, content organization, and general styles. Be sure to ask to see design applied to more than just a homepage before you make a decision about a direction for your whole site. Subpages of a site are often very different than the splashy homepage, so you’ll want to be sure the concept translates well to different content areas and page types.

Your designer should work closely with your developer to identify the multiple page types needed to produce the site in the end. The bigger and more complex your site, the more template pages you’ll need. Small sites may only need 3 – 5 styles, larger sites may need 20 – 30+ to illustrate styles for diverse content types such as photo galleries, blogs, calendars, shopping carts, news posts, events, forms, etc.

4. Production

Once your site design is complete, you’re ready to move into production. At this point your development team will build out the site and integrate it with your content management system (CMS). The site will be hosted at a test URL so you can review the way the navigation works, the pages look, and the site functions. Through this process, your site will be built as a shell, technology will be applied to create any unique functionality that you’ve requested, and the site will be tested and debugged. In the end the full site should be in place and ready to be populated with your final copy and assets.

Now comes the fun part—putting in the copy, images, videos, and other assets as needed on every page. If you have the staff and time, doing this step in-house can be laborious, but a great way to learn your CMS and perfect each page so the user experience is top notch. If you need the site to go live quickly and/or you don’t have the internal resources, your design and development partner can populate the site for you with your provided content. Either way, it’s best to plan for a final review with a second set of eyes once everything is in place.

5. Launch and Evaluate

Hooray! The site is ready to go live. So the project is done, right? Not so much. Remember that house analogy? Owning a website is like owning a house. There’s always something to be done—another project, something to add, something to fix. A good site is dynamic and current with relevant content. The best time to start making updates is right after you launch. You’ll learn a lot by going through the process. Sit down and create a wish list of things you decided to table along the way. Establish a process (see our post on Editorial Calendars) to review the site on a quarterly basis so you stay on top of updates and regroup at least once a year to prioritize, add, or edit things on your wish list so you continue to address the big picture needs of the site.

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