Knowing what you want is the only way to knowing what you need.
Before even considering the practical aspects of creating a website, there are some important fundamental questions you need to ask yourself first. For example, what do we want to achieve through this website, and who exactly is this website for? Who's our target audience, and how do we best communicate with that audience? What information needs to be included, and how should that information be structured, etc, etc?
The fact is, the more planning & preparation you do, the easier it is to make informed decisions on technological or design issues; like deciding the best way for the 'visitor' to navigate your website or choosing the right hosting package.
Another advantage of thorough planning comes when you bring in the professionals; you can save a great deal of time (and money) by having everything ready and in place for them.
First, you need to consider the central aims of your website and what approach is needed to best translate those aims.
A few examples of the kind of things you might want to answer. Not a definitive list!
- What are we hoping to achieve?
- Who's our target audience?
- What catergory, if any, does our site fall into: ecommerce, informational, educational, social networking, etc.
- How visually exciting does it need to be to be effective?
- What tone do we want our content to convey, could it be serious or witty, complex or simple?
- Are we trying to raise money or sell something?
- What conventions should the website follow, if any?
- Does it need to be a interactive, two-way application?
- What overall 'image' of our organisation do we want to communicate?
- What media is best suited to carry the information, e.g. does it require sound or moving images?
- etc ...
Site Content & Information Structure
Having established the basic aims of your website, you need now to consider how the content (text, images, etc) should be organised and structured. These considerations will of course at some point need to take account of the type of web technologies you might want to make use of - See Web Technologies. But to start with it is a good idea to try and find websites with similar aims to yours, to see how they've designed and organised their content. What have they done well and what have they done that could be improved upon?
Probably the most important aspect of website 'structural design' is how you breakdown the content into logical sections (Main Areas, Pages, Headers, Sub-Headers, Lists, etc). As a general rule, things should be kept short and sweet. You need to create a strong hierarchy for the site and breakdown content into small units.
It is a good idea to create a graphical schema/flowchart/sitemap for the site. This can help you visualise a logical hierarchy, and to see how easily information will be accessed. It will also help others to understand how your website is structured.
Generic Sitemap, Site Schema:
Navigation And 'Usability'
The modern website can now include a whole spectrum of functionality and application usages. Think of web applications like Facebook, Google Maps, Flickr, and YouTube. As the complexity of a website increases, so does the importance of its 'usability'. Usability, as the name suggests, is the attention paid to how easy or not, a website is to use.
The usability of a website may sound simple and obvious, but it needs to be kept under constant consideration as part of your planning. You never want the situation where your visitor's are thinking "okay, so what do I do now?"
A major aspect of usability for a website is the need for people to be able to find what they want, and quickly. Logical, practical and sensible Navigation is essential if your site is to succeed.
Present clear, consistent, well-ordered Navigation (main menus, primary links to pages), and include Sub-Navigation if necessary. Include Search facilities too if you have a large site that include forums, blogs etc.
Conventional Primary and Sub-Navigation Layout:
Within individual pages, separate content further using lots of headers, sub headers, lists, short paragraphs, etc. Try to make the hierarchy explicit using colour schemes, icons, font sizes, spacing, etc. Try to avoid overly long scrolling pages (like this one).
Finally, include lots of context based links (links within text) to other pages on your site, cross referencing is something the web is particularly good at.
Writing For The Web
It needs to be remembered that the web is different from other communication media. So it is not recommended for example, that you just transfer existing print media unedited, directly to the web. Website pages or 'areas' need to be self-contained to a large extent, as users may not 'read' the site in a linear way, like they might a print brochure.
Generally people don't read text based web content the same way they do print, they tend to be more impatient! A common approach is to have a 'overview' and 'details' structure to a site, giving people a choice in how deep they want to delve. You can use a 'Main' and 'Sub' Navigation structure to achieve this. Remember also to consider the use of other presentation media - Illustration, Images, Animation, Audio, or even Video.
As mentioned above (Site Content & Structure), an important part of writing for the web is breaking down texts into smaller, more easily digestible parts.
It is no accident that the software you use to view websites is called a 'Browser'. Many use the web in a similar way to reading a magazine, as opposed to reading a complex in-depth document. Your writing needs to reflect this, so in many cases a website should be seen as a means of introducing the ideas you are trying to communicate to people.
If you already have texts in print form and you want to transfer them to the web, consider rewriting them using a 'web style'. If there are long, dense, passages of text that need to be included on your website, give the user the option of also downloading a printable version of these documents (PDF, DOC, RTF).
Writing For Search Engines
There is another important consideration when writing for the web, one that relates most importantly to your site's 'homepage'. The 'homepage' is the entry point for your website, the page that automatically appears when people first arrive at your website. This page is important because it can be used to help people that are trying, through the use of 'Search Engines', to find your website.
Search Engines use the content of your 'homepage' to determine what your website is about. It then uses this information and matches it to ' search phrases'. So in writing your homepage you need to consider what search phrases might be used by someone trying to find a website similar to yours. You then need to make sure these same phrases are included in the text of your website's homepage. This is covered in greater detail in: Promoting A Website.
This idea of matching 'search phrases' or 'key phrases' can be applied to all the pages on your website, but your homepage is definitely the place to begin.
For more on Search Engines See: Promoting A Website
The overall look of your website is extremely important. Even before reading a single line of text, visitors will form a opinion about your organisation based on how they interpret the visual aspects of your website's design - colours, shapes, density, hardness, softness, animated, static, type-faces, relative sizing, etc, etc.
Notice the order of this 'Planning' page; and where the idea of 'Design' is first mentioned? Many people make the mistake of thinking about visual design as the first step of the 'website development' process. Don't! You can't think about design until you know what it is you're designing. Content considerations and site structure always come first.
The basic building block for creating most web pages is HTML (Hyper Text Mark-Up Language). This allows for a basic rendering of static text and images. Everything else you see on the web is using technologies that have been 'bolted on' to this foundation.
You should not make any assumptions about the cost of designing and developing a website. Make sure you consult with your designer/developer as to what can be achieved and at what price. Some things that are easy and cheap to do in other media, may not be for the web.
See: Web Technologies
Site Maintenance & Updates
When formulating the structure and design for your website, you need to consider who and how it is going to be maintained. Depending on the nature of the website, changes and updates may need to be made on a daily basis. Will these updates, etc, be made in-house? What level of expertise is required to do this?
A website should have a structure that reflects the level of expertise of those who'll be responsible for maintaining it.
When you pass your plans on to a web development specialist, make sure they are aware of your proposed site maintenance strategy, so that this can be taken into consideration as part of the development.
Consider also 'future proofing' your website. This means your site having a built-in ability to expand. You don't want to have to rebuild the site again from the ground up, every time you have a new idea you want to add to it.
If you have neither the time or confidence to do a great deal of planning yourself, your web designer can do the whole thing for you. This will obviously make your website more costly to develop. Ultimately, the more help you give your web designer the easier it will be for them to develop the website you want.
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