A website is often a company’s primary channel for customer engagement. Building a website is akin to building a house: you research, you make a blueprint, you build from the blueprint, then you maintain what you’ve built. Obviously this is a bit of a simplification, but I think it serves as a nice analogy. When I design a website - whether it’s a new website or a redesign - I go through a specific process each time which includes three stages: planning, iteration, and launch.
A goal without a plan is just a wish. - Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
While some (including myself) hate it, planning is a critical part of any project, from cleaning a toilet to building a house to running a business. For website design, this involves getting to know the client and their business through interviews, questionnaires and research, and then crafting an appropriate project plan. I work with clients of all ages and technological experiences, so I tailor my planning process to each client. For example, if I’m working with a client that isn’t very comfortable with using technology, I’m likely to do a face to face or phone interview with them to learn more about their business and website needs. If I’m working with a client overseas, I’m more likely to use email, chat, surveys, and other forms of communication to do my initial research because of the time difference. Regardless of the way I conduct it, research is the most important aspect of the planning phase.
Not only do I conduct research on the client and their business, I also conduct user research at this point. User research involves finding out what the users want from a business or website, known as user goals. Of course, users nearly always want to find information about your business (address, phone, hours, etc), but when we talk about user goals we mean the specific information users can obtain or actions they can perform on your website. For example, if your business is an organic “pick your own” apple farm, a user goal might be to schedule a picking appointment. If your business is a small farm who sells to private owners, a user goal might be to see what animals you currently have for sale, or what animals you have sold previously. Even businesses within the same industry might not have the same user goals. Determining what these user goals are helps me make the right design choices to make sure your website allows users to achieve those goals. By discovering what’s important to users and designing around those elements from the beginning, I can provide a more enjoyable and satisfying user experience to your users, which will make your customers keep coming back.
Design is an iterative process. The necessary number of iterations is one more than the number you have currently done. This is true at any point in time. - Akin's Laws of Spacecraft Design
The next stage is the iteration stage, where we spend the most time during a project. To iterate is to repeat something until you achieve a certain goal, in this case a beautifully designed website. Think of it as the blueprint drafting stage: changes will happen, and often.
Design is the first part of the iteration phase. I begin by sketching out a layout on paper using thumbnail sketches, or simple small sketches that help focus on the basic layout without the distraction of styling. This is honestly my favorite part of the whole process because I get to just let myself get as creative as I want; the point is quantity not quality. Once I’ve made enough sketches, I pick the best ones out to make into wireframes or even a prototype (espcially if I’m working on a redesign) and the rest get archived into Trello (and eventually Evernote).
After design comes development, or actually using the blueprint to build the structure. This includes boring* things like setting up development environments and exciting* things like creating HTML frameworks. This is the phase where you’ll start to see working pages or features on your website. Of course, every project is different, but often nearly as much time is spent in development as in design making sure that the structure is sound and ironing out any bugs uncovered by user testing.
In my process, I test during both all phases, just with a different focus relative to each phase. During planning, user research is conducted to help determine what users need from a website or how they are interacting with a current website or business. Design phase testing involves showing users a sketch, wireframe, or mockup and focuses on aesthetics and how the design “looks” and “feels”. This is the perfect time for a client to give detailed feedback about styling including color palettes, imagery, branding, and typography. Testing during development is usually focused on whether the website or application meets user requirements, or what we call usability. This is the best time for feedback about how a website or its specific features function.
After we’re done iterating through design and development until we meet all the requirements, it’s time for the phase clients are usually most excited about: launch! This phase includes administrative details like purchasing a domain name, website hosting, and setting up the servers, and marketing or content tasks like publishing content. If we were building a house, this is the point in time where you start putting down carpets, painting walls, and moving in furniture. Once the website framework is published and populated with content, I conduct quality assurance (QA) testing, or testing to make sure everything works properly and looks great. Depending on the size and budget of the project, QA testing might be done with users but is always completed by myself and the client. Optimization is the last step, where we test how the website looks to search engines and results pages and make the final tweaks that will make your website rank highly.
Some people might think that once the website is launched everything is done, and for others that might be the case. I try to make sure my clients have a custom maintenance plan in place before the final hand-off is made and the project is officially closed. A detailed maintenance plan helps keep a website running smoothly and helps prevent critical issues from taking your website offline and losing customers. This plan is tailored to each client and project, but can include backup plans, project review (how successful the project was), and a security plan. I also offer maintenance packages for clients that wish for me to maintain their website for them. Regardless of who designs your website, make sure you have a maintenance plan in place to keep your new website running smoothly for years to come.
From planning the project to iterating through designs and framework development to finally launching the site and maintaining it, building a website - like building a house - is a lengthy, detailed, and rewarding process. Fortunately, there are lots of free resources available to help you plan for a successful website launch, or you can hire a professional (like me!) to do it for you. Just don’t start building without a plan.
References & more reading
- Close Photoshop and Grab a Pencil: The Lost Art of Thumbnail Sketches
- Why You Only Need to Test with 5 Users
- Following A Web Design Process
- 6 Phases of the Web Site Design and Development Process
- Website Maintenance Checklist - Renegade Empire
- Akin’s Laws of Spacecraft Design
*Other designers’ opinions might differ.