FutureQuest, Inc. FutureQuest, Inc. FutureQuest, Inc.
Planning (The first step in web development)
Posted on 06 December 2003 06:16 AM
The first step in building any well designed and worthwhile web site is planning! If you do not take the time to get out some old-fashioned paper and a pencil to sketch out what you want your web site to look like beforehand, you will probably end up spending more time redoing the content on your site than you spend putting up new content for your audience to enjoy. This is possibly the worst rut any web site can get stuck in. As much as people enjoy seeing fresh 'eye candy' the bottom line is they have come to a web site to gather information (with the exception of web sites dedicated to only providing graphics/eye candy). If you are not adding any new information to your site then you leave your audience no reason to return.

Ask yourself two questions:

What does your audience want?

When you visit a Web site, you usually have a reason for going there. Although you often stumble onto a site that interests you while you're browsing, you normally have something specific in mind when you start. Thus, as you begin planning, you will want to think about what visitors expect to see at your site. If you needed what it is you plan to offer on your web site, what questions would you need answers to? What information would you want to see? How would you want it to be presented? Do you already know of potential visitors--if so, ask them what they would like to see.

Another great way to find out what your visitors want is to visit other web sites that are offering similar types of things as you plan to offer. Notice what is working and what is not. View their FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) to see what the trend is.

What do you want to provide?

In a perfect virtual world your web site would provide all the information that your visitors want; however, what they want isn't necessarily what you can or want to provide. For instance, you might not want to publicize a product's unstable repair history or a competitor's cheaper rates. If you are selling a book, it probably is not a wise choice to place the entire contents of the book online. If you are selling a service, you may not want to tell your customers how to do everything you do on their own.

A good place to begin trying to determine what you want to include is to take a look at materials you already have on hand. For example, marketing materials about the company, products, and services, such as catalogs, flyers, newspapers ads, etc., often include information which would be suitable for use on a web site.

Another method that is helpful in deciding what you want to provide on your web site is to begin asking yourself a few more questions.
  • What do I want people to know about my organization? What is the mission statement? What are the goals?
  • What products or services am I offering? How do they help people? How do people use them?
  • How do customers order my products or services?
  • What information can I send to customers if they request it?
  • Can I provide answers to frequently asked questions?
  • Can I provide information that is more timely, useful, or effective than other marketing materials, such as brochures or pamphlets offer?
After you answer these and any other questions that are helpful in your situation, you should be able to develop a list of what you want to provide. As an example, let's look at Widget International. Widget International decided to provide general information about the company, tell potential customers about the various models, show a few snazzy pictures, and brag about the reliability records of their widgets. They were unsure about discussing prices because they were higher than those of their competitors. Likewise, they were unsure whether to publicize safety records as they were only average. The final list for Widget International looks like this:

Company information
Widget models
Contact information

Safety records

Finding the Middle Ground

You may well find that visitors want information that you simply cannot provide. For example, they might want to know product release dates or be privy to product previews, which may be information your company doesn't want to disclose. Other times, you might want to provide your audience with information that they do not necessarily care about. For example, you might want to tell people that your company received a big award or just reached one million in sales this year -- certainly interesting information that's good for marketing, but it is probably not on your visitor's priority list. What you want and what your visitors want do not always coincide.

Consider the two want lists for Widgets International:
Visitor wants
Company information
Widget models
Reliability records
Contact information
Cost of widgets
Safety records
Request brochures
List of distributors
Widgets Intl. wants
Company information
Widget models
Contact information
Safety records
Although these two lists have items in common, each list also contains unique items. At the very least, all the items common to both lists should be included:
  • Company information
  • Widget models
  • Safety records
  • Contact information

Now, what do we do about the items that are unique to each list? It is recommended that first you consult with your colleagues and see what they think. Getting a consensus before you start to build your website is always a good rule to follow. The last thing you want after your site goes public is the vice-president or other member of your organization announcing that you cannot publish information that is blaring off your web site. If you are doing this alone, then it's a judgment call left on your shoulders. Widgets International can easily integrate their want for photos into the content of the other items. As for the visitor's wants of requesting brochures and having a list of distributors these, of course, depend on Widget's ability to provide them.

You may wish to classify the items common to both lists as primary web site information and classify unique items as secondary information. This should allow you to easily decipher the priority list when you begin building. Try to always construct your primary web site information first. By doing this, you will be able to better justify or remove items from your secondary information list and offer your visitors the vital resources sooner.

Maintenance Planning: Initial Phase

Although maintaining your documents after you create them and throughout their existence on your site is a separate issue all together, you also need to include maintenance in the initial planning that we are doing now. This is even more true if you answer 'yes' to any of the following questions:
  • Will more than one person be involved in developing the content?
  • Will more than one person play an active role in maintaining the site?
  • Will your site include more than about 20 HTML documents?
  • Will you frequently add or modify a significant number of pages--say more than 20-25 percent of the total number of documents?

As you can see, you need to plan for both content and site maintenance.

Planning for Content Maintenance

If you will be depending on others for content, you need to make arrangements at the onset for how you will obtain updates. Will content providers actually develop and update the web pages, or will they simply send you new information via e-mail? You need to plan accordingly if they are going to merely send you a publication (for example, the annual report) and expect you to figure out what has changed. Planning now how you will handle constant revisions and updates will save you time (and grief) later.

Planning for Site Maintenance

Regardless of whether you or someone else will maintain the site you develop, you need to carefully document the development process and include the following information:
  • The site's purpose and goals
  • The process you used to determine the content
  • Who provides the content
  • How the site is laid out (as you build, keep notes: images are in the graphics directory, archives are stored in the archive directory, hardcopy of passwords, email addresses, etc...)

Documenting the development process will help those maintaining the site later, whether it's you or someone else, to fill the position correctly and keep everything up-to-date.

Now that the planning phase is complete, (I promise you will make revisions later, but the initial burden is over with--Yeah!) it's time to begin organizing your web site. Taking the time to organize the information carefully is often the difference between having frequent visitors to your site and having none at all! How often do you return to a site that is not well organized? If you cannot find what you need easily and quickly, you have no reason to go there, and the same will be true of visitors to your site.

Click here for a guide on organizing your web site!