This article is about knowing where you are, what to do now, and what to do next. I’m describing a generalized process flow, and exceptions to it are natural.
There are three phases.
- Planning / Organizing / Designing
- Building / Testing
- Deploying / Maintaining
Phase 1: Planning / Organizing / Designing
A. Planning: The core issue, resolve THIS first!
Every website is there to answer a need. Anyone who thinks they need a website should be able to say in not many words exactly why they need one. They should be able to list the things that the website is meant to accomplish for the business (or project, institution, or individual). The best websites are based on an absolutely clear understanding of that need. The planning period should be treated very seriously. It’s helpful to have a large enough planning group to generate excitement and ideas but small enough to not founder on large group dynamics, 3 to 5 people seems to work well. Two can be fine. If only one person does this task it will not be done as well as it could be.
The timeline can’t be determined until the website is well defined. The COST can’t be determined until the website is well defined. If you aren’t sure why, interview some contractors and tell them your project is an unknown size and contains unknown features, then ask for a quote.
Step one: Imagine the website as a machine and decide what things this machine needs to do. Generate a concise laundry list of these functions. It should fit on a single page. The schematics for a real machine might require hundreds of pages to print, but a description of what it does shouldn’t require more than a paragraph. You need a few bullet point items with checkboxes to even understand when you are done. “Are we there yet?”; make sure you and any developers share a common definition of the conditions that indicate the goals have been reached. This is your criteria for success. A project with unmeasurable goals will wallow and fail. There is no absolute time period for this process since it depends on individuals (and how excited or even ready they are) but I would say a week or two of serious consideration should be done to get it right.
The less obvious but essential critical thinking task for this stage is developing a portrait of the target demographic. Imagine these people and their needs and desires. Without this knowledge, your design will lack insight.
Time: One to two weeks
Once we know what the “machine” has to do, we begin considering what techniques and tools are required to make it work. This might include reserving a domain and acquiring virtual hosting for the website.
The other thing that begins here is called Information Architecture (or IA): Every website has things to say and communicate. IA is the way that that big blob of unstructured information gets chopped up into categories and subcategories and then organized and positioned within the website. This is the underlying logic structure of the site. The content leads to the form: The content determines the navigation! The IA for every site should be unique and arise very naturally from the content itself and the needs of the site visitors. This is another planning process. It should probably have a lead decision maker but with at least one other to be a sounding board, idea sparker and mistake catcher.
Imagine you have to give a 2-hour speech or write a research paper, think of organizing your site content in a similar way. Think of all the ideas and facts your website has to convey to the public: If you were writing that as a paper, how would you break it up and group it into sections? How would you organize and prioritize those sections? Since these groups and sections ultimately become the navigational interface for your site, you must name them in unambiguous, helpful ways. If you use profession-specific names will people know instantly what you mean? If your target demographic shares your profession they will and all is well. If not, think of what ordinary people might call it instead. Just use the language of the people you are talking to!
Once the IA has been planned you have a defacto sitemap. Content Mapping should now begin. This means that we make a master list of all the pages etc. that need to be present and we begin systematically accounting for them. Where are words that need to be on these pages? Who exactly is responsible? Documents are either found or written for each one. We check them off on the master list as we get them and make sure we are keeping them all in a safe, well-organized place.
Time: Probably 2 to 3 weeks
C. Designing – Possible Delay Warning
If branding is a settled issue then designing is a straightforward process. But if it needs to be done or redone then we stop here until this is settled. Logos, colors, fonts, emotional tone, etc. etc. All flow from branding. So if this is undecided the designer has no starting point. Just as we have to have every word accounted for, mission-critical images and styles have to be ready before we can design a site the uses them well. For projects that don’t already have any specific branding, we begin by thinking about what this place should FEEL like. What sorts of fonts speak your words in the right “voice”? Some fonts will make you look silly or stuffy, once again it’s about the content and the visitors you hope will come to look at it. Build so it makes them FEEL GOOD and like they have arrived at a good place worth exploring. This is your website’s version of that feeling you get when you step into a new restaurant or a possible daycare for your child, that instant optimism or pessimism of the first impression.
Fortunately, if you’ve kept to my plan, that isn’t very difficult. Function guides design and you figured out the functions in step one. You also have a path to follow for the appearance because you thought long and hard about your target demographic right from the start. If you can imagine them properly you can design a welcoming place. This place is for them, not you.
Everything grows organically out of clear thinking and considerate imagining.
Once branding is finalized the designer combines the established IA with the branding “bible” and works up one or two preliminary designs. This is run by the client who can accept it outright, reject it or best of all thoroughly critique it, which gives the designer a clear direction. This is a period of “Getting warmer…colder…” which eventually settles on a complete design. There may be five or six iterations but it should be much beyond that or people are not communicating clearly. If you are the client let me warn you not to cling to the perfection you imagined before there was anything to actually look at. An amorphous idea of perfection stalls many projects. Push for what you want but make sure it’s actually achievable. Ground your thinking and hold yourself to being specific.
Time: One to two weeks
Phase 2: Building/ Testing
This phase depends on how complex and extensive the site is but it is relatively swift as long as all the earlier steps were finished. If they weren’t followed this stage can become limbo.
If we are developing the site on a WordPress platform, we install WordPress on the site server. Then we configure all the settings for it to the needs of the site and install the designer’s theme. Then we install all needed plugins and begin creating all the pages and populating them with the content we banked during content mapping.
Time: Allow one to two weeks
This phase overlaps with building and probably a bit beyond as uncertainty underlies everything in web design due to device dependency and browser variation.
Phase 3. Deploying / Maintaining
Pulling the trigger. This the act of publishing, the moment the thing is out there to look at. In another sense, it is also about publicizing the debut of the website. Background plans for this should start back in the planning stage. If pr and advertising are involved then you obviously must know when this is going to happen.
Time: This is a moment but it should be a planned part of the overall timeline.
This is the process of updating and editing content as needed but also keeping an eye on site security and related issues.
1. Planning / Organizing / Designing = Probably six weeks
2. Building / Testing = Probably two weeks
3. Deploying / Maintaining = The duration
Your results may vary. But if you plan for each step your process will be smoother and faster!