If you were building a house, you wouldn't decorate, hang the curtains and lay the carpets before you completed the construction work. Yet this is the type of mistake that many people make when building a website. A little extra time spent at the planning stage will save you a lot of headaches later on when you're designing a website. Before you even think about the website's design or the structure, you need to ask yourself three important questions:
Who is the website's audience?
Some websites are aimed at a global audience, but most target a specific geographic area, interest group or age range. You need to ensure that the style and content of your website are appropriate to its audience and that the choice of domain name and hosting are appropriate for the country or countries you are targeting.
How will visitors interact with the website?
Many websites simply provide information, but increasingly visitors expect to be able to leave comments, interact with other visitors or purchase goods from a website. The demand for this additional interactivity may steer you to include a blog, forum or an online store in the plans for your website.
How will the website be maintained?
If you are a competent web designer who is building and maintaining the website yourself, then you have a great deal of freedom as to the software or technology you use to build it. However, if the site is to be maintained by a number of different contributors, some of whom have little or no web design experience, you'll need to provide a suitable multi-user development environment. In most cases, this will involve using either one of the online website builder programmes such as Weebly and Mister Web or a content management system, such as Wordpress, Joomla or Drupal.
The next stage of the planning process is to consider the three main elements that will come together to create the finished website:
The Site Structure
Begin planning the site structure by working out all the different pages you will need to launch the site.
Next, find a large piece of paper and map out the structure of your site. Put the home page at the top of your sheet and then decide how the other pages will group together into categories and subcategories and add these, using connecting lines to show the main navigational links. If you know that you will be adding extra sections of the site at a later date, include these in a different colour so that you can see how they will integrate with the site. The number of main categories impacts on the type of navigation that you can use, so try and restrict yourself to 4 or 5 categories and leave yourself the choice between a horizontal or vertical navigation bar. It really is vital that you have a clear idea of the website's physical structure before you start building it, because changing its structure at a later date will mean a lot of aggravation altering file names if it's a static site, or database structure if it's a dynamic site.
The Written Content
Assuming that there is a desire to have a website and a potential audience, there should be people who are willing to write the content. If the work falls to one person, ensure that they allow sufficient time for the task so that they don't delay the whole project. It's very easy to underestimate the amount of time it takes to write good website copy. As a rule of thumb, allow two hours for a typical 400 word page, plus an additional 15 minutes for page title and meta data. Working with a team of writers throws up additional problems, both practical and stylistic. The most sensible approach is to allocate the writing of the site on a section by section basis, with some sort of stylistic guidelines to ensure consistency throughout the site. Your readers won't want to jump between pages written in the style of The Times mixed with that of the tabloids. Finally, make sure you have a system in place to ensure that all the copy is proofread and also checked for factual inaccuracies or inconsistencies. The ephemeral nature of the web and the slapdash nature of many sites don't relieve you of an obligation to use correct spelling, grammar and punctuation.
The Design of the Web Pages
While the design of the pages of a website impacts enormously on its visitor appeal and usability, it is the least important element to consider at the planning stage. Provided you decide on a suitable page structure, everything else can be changed quickly and easily at a later date. Page structure includes choosing the number of columns, where to place the banner, navigation and main images. Contemporary CSS based web design relies on a single set of commands to control everything from font sizes, faces and colours to background images and the positioning of elements. There is much to be said for launching a new site with a design that you like and then either tweaking or radically redesigning it in the light of feedback from site users, friends or colleagues.
Once you've sorted out in your own mind how the three elements of structure, content and design will dovetail neatly together, it's time to start constructing the site. However, it's always as well to remember that designing a website requires a degree of humility. You may adore your chosen site design, but it's your visitors' views that really matter.