You don’t need a website. You don’t need a website unless you have something to say. If your job is to build websites, you’ll often be asked to build them before there are any words or images to carry on them. Sometimes, there’s nothing to say; the client simply knows that they want a website. Everybody has websites now. It’s standard. Your client thinks that they need one. But do they really? Your first step as a web designer is to help them figure out what they have to say.
When presented with the need for a website, ask “why?” Why is the cornerstone of every communications project, whether it be a book, an article, a brochure, or a website. “Just because everyone else has one” is not a valid reason to start a website construction project. The possible justifications are vast, ranging from the need to sell a product, to the need to make people aware of a program’s existence, to the need to get important information out about scandalous political or corporate behavior. Any justification is valid as long as it can be clearly articulated.
If you have something to say, here's how to build your site
Let’s say your client deals in licensing technologies that scientists have patented. They license those patents to businesses that want to take a technology to market in the form of a consumer product. Who would read a website about that topic? You have to know who they are in order to ensure that the website that you’re going to build speaks to every group that cares about the topic. After all, the purpose of your site is to influence the site’s users to take some action. In this case, there are several groups who would use this website: the scientists who are creating and patenting the technologies, the license holder looking for a business partner, and the business that’s going to take the technology to market. You now know what the purpose of the website is and who’s going to be using it. Half of the planning process is already complete.
You need your client to supply words that explain what action each audience for your website is expected to take if they want to be successfully involved in this licensing process. Those words have to speak to scientists (“Do you have a technology that you’ve patented? Let us know so we can add it to our catalog! Here’s how.”), and they have to speak to business partners (“Did you know that we hold patents that you can license? We do! Want to turn one of them into a device and sell it? Here’s how.”). You’re not the subject matter expert here, your client is. You can’t write the words that describe the process, but you can do some clever editing on the documents that your client supplies that explains these things in detail. You now have your content–the words that need to go out to the world–collected.
On your physical desk or on your computer desktop, you now have a collection of documents explaining some process that you expect future website visitors to follow. You can’t simply post them in a bulleted list, PowerPoint-style, and expect anyone to claw their way through them and synthesize an ad hoc approach. Your job as the web designer is to arrange your client’s content in some logical fashion that will allow someone who knows far less about the process than the client to successfully complete the tasks that you established in the project. How can you arrive at the optimal arrangement for this content?
You’re going to need to create a site map–literally a map that shows how your various bits of content will be arranged to guide your future site visitor along a path of information that will allow them to complete their task. Your site map will show how each piece of content contained within discrete web pages will be connected to the home page, and interconnected with each other through hyperlinks. There are many ways that content can be arranged in a successful pattern, making this step as much art as science. Since there’s so much flexibility in creating this map, you’ll want to use software that allows you to freely move the pieces around until you’ve found the most logical structure. Lots of trial and error is normal here.
Good news: you’re almost ready for the fun bits. Working with the client, you’ve established the site’s reason for being, what it has to say, who it’s meant to appeal to, the words that will be used to pitch that appeal, and how you’re going to arrange the web pages that will hold those words. One last thing before you can get to the part your client wanted to start with first (deciding what color the home page will be): you have to decide what kind of interactivity, if any, the website will support.
Interactivity. That’s a word that was casually thrown around at the dawn of the Internet age. Interactivity was seen as a great thing, the unique promise of this new medium that could be influenced by button clicks initiated by the user. A search box is a form of interactivity. The user types a word or phrase into an input box and a search engine returns results. Your site will likely need some kind of interactivity.
In our example, there are two areas that call out for user input: one is for the user to select which audience they belong to. Are they a scientist who has a patentable technology, or are they a business partner looking to market the technology? You’ll need to create a form or a selection of tabs or radio buttons or some other interface to allow them to choose. Next, you’re going to have a big catalog of licenses for your potential business partners to sift through. How are you going to facilitate that? You’ll need a database and a series of forms that allow the user to rummage through it. Uh oh, you’re going to need a database developer. No worries, no one can do it all. Web design is a complex business. There’s a lot of room for career specialization. Call for help here.
Now, the fun part. It’s finally arrived. What color will you make the home page and how big do you want that big hero image to be? You know the one: it’s got two fresh-scrubbed 20-somethings staring into a computer screen like they’re watching Beyonce perform at the Super Bowl. How big?