Business leaders are well aware of planning process in every project they encounter. But the same leaders seem to throw out all their knowledge when approaching the building of a new website.
The process seems simple enough because we know our business in and out. So all we need to do is organize our knowledge, hire a designer to make it pretty, and push it to the public.
Unfortunately, this approach will get you a broken system. Like every other flawed foundation, you will soon see the symptoms bubbling up to the surface. Your most obvious problem will be frustrated users. Your structural problems won't be visible until it's too late.
Systems in web designs
When you plan a website, following a system is essential for your success. Systems are the structure of every successful web project. They are the boundaries that allow us to think without anxiety and create with a focus.
Our best efforts and even excellent execution will be overshadowed by the infections of a broken system. With time, it will rare it's ugly head in subtle ways. A lot of major problems can often be traced back to fundamental flaws in the system. The list goes from mistrust to miscommunication all the way to dropping sales. Your new website might look flashy but it's structure is rotting away your sales and alienates your customers.
The problem is that none of it makes sense. Even if you hire help, it takes time to find the problems and even harder to fix them. That's why planning is so essential for every web project. We have to get the foundation right. Like building a house, coming in and messing with everything after the structure is in place is not only difficult, but also costs a lot of time and money.
Our job is to know exactly what we are trying accomplish with our website. Make sure all project stakeholders are in the room and on board when you define your goal. Ask each stakeholder, what success of the website would mean to them and how you they can measure it. It is very difficult to build a website if you don't know your destination.
We also need to define why we are building the website in the first place. If a company asks for a redesign, it's important to understand why they ask for that in the first place. Answering this question will strengthen your stakeholders commitment to the project. It will also help the team to bring this project to the finish line successfully.
Our goals are ours to define but our website requirements need to resemble a deep knowledge of our target audience. We can draw our requirements from our understanding of what our customers want. All requirements fall into three categories. It's things people
- say they need
- actually need
- don't know they need
Each of those "requirements" exist because we all see the world in a certain way. Our experiences determine how we make sense of everything. Our internal system helps our brain to explain our experiences and file it into some sort of logic. Once we explain why something happens the way it does, we feel secure.
In reality, however, things often don't work like that. We put random things into a system to make us feel good. What seems to make sense gets categorized as explained and never touched again. The problem is that we don't know what we don't know.
In this world, we tell ourselves that we need certain things. Any group of people will give you a long list of needs ready for you when you ask them. But as every parent will know, just because your children think they need something, do they really need it?
Adults are the same way, just a little more sophisticated. We are emotional beings and the way we see things can easily be swayed by our current mood.
Thinking vs doing
There is big difference between thinking how you will interact with a website vs. actually using it. Convenience will often trump best practice. You'll have to ask the right questions to distinguish the true requirements from the rest. You have to listen very carefully and not treat gathering requirements as a gathering exercise. Your requirements have to be generated.
Make sure to document everything. Capture what's essential and exclude everything else. It will give you a sense of scope and will serve as a reference point. You will thank yourself later on.
Who are you building for?
When someone visits your website, they already know what they want from it. They might be
- looking for an article they saw
- researching your products
- searching for a specific service they saw on facebook
Clicking on a link and finding what they were looking for will built trust. If that happens a few times, they'll trust you enough to come to you when they need what you're selling.
Your ideal customer is someone who can benefit from your offer. When they visit your website, they have a certain expectations of it. They need proof that what they came for is actually there.
We often ignore this crucial importance. Visitors don't mind the design too much as long as it solves their problems and their journey to get there was not too complicated. Designers often want to build a cool website with lots of flashy features but the users just wants to fix their problems fast and easy.
Next, you also need to know why it matters to them. Will your website improve their business or their lives? Will they learn something new or maybe learn the score of the latest game? Your solutions have to work in their context. If it's a great solution for a problem they don't have, they'll leave your site faster and never think about you again.
Knowing your ideal audience is the best way to answer all these questions. However, building content for a vague group of people is difficult because there isn't one person to address and focus on. That's why you'll want to create an imaginary person that matches your target audience. Give them a name, age, gender, and any other attributes that person might have. The fine folks over at Hubspot even build a free tool that will help you build your persona.
Also, try to find out which tools they are using. They might come to your website for you calculator but there are other tools they are using to accomplish the same thing. You'll want to differentiate yourself from that and make your offer stand out.
Competition is part of the game. You have to know who your competition is and what they are up to. The best way to find out about them is answer the following questions:
- Who are our top 5 competitors?
- What are the primary differences between our business model and theirs?
- Why do people use our competitors instead of us?
- How will we position and differentiate ourselves from our competitors?
Analyzing the Industry
Every industry comes with their own set of rules. There's a way people relate to each other and a certain language they use. They have best practices and certain requirements that you have to fulfill in order to even compete.
If you want to fit into an industry, you have to built your website around a system that is already in place. Depending on the industry you happen to be in some of the flexibility is defined by the system you want to join. The health industry is heavily regulated while tech isn't.
Different industries also vary greatly in the tone of voice they use. It could be friendly and informal or highly professional. With that goes also a very specific terminology that your ideal customers will look for.
The customer journey
Now that you know what you and your visitors want from your website, it's time to bring those two needs together.
Our goal is to educate the customer about the value we can provide for them. If they don't get it, the fault is completely with us because it shows that we don't really understand our prospects. It's not that our product isn't right for them. It's that we fail to communicate our value.
The chances of that happening are now a lot smaller because we defined our ideal customer already. Now we have to put ourselves in the shoes of Jerry, Darryl or Rachel. We need to take them by the hand and guide them to our goals by using a principle called progressive disclosure.
The idea is to give them only the information they are interested in in that moment. Anything more than what they are looking for is just noise. We only need enough to take the next action. Users will follow the path you put them on as long as they get what they expect. But it's always one step at a time.
Take my hand
The best way to guide our visitors is to lead them along the following steps:
These steps will help you map out where your visitor is. You can focus on going in the right direction without overwhelming them.
Let's say your visitors are looking to travel the world. They heard about the beaches in your area and can't wait to explore the local cuisine. Their research brought them to your website and they can see that you offer dorm rooms where they can stay for very cheap ( Purpose, Step 1). They are intrigued and want to find out more.
So they click on the preview image to find out more. They learn you offer female-only dorms with a maximum of 10 people. You charge $35 per night and even throw in free coffee in the morning (Context, Step 2).
That looks great. But I wonder what people are saying. Fear sets in and they are not sure if it's the right decision. Rest assured, you did your homework. You tell them the stories of those who were there before. Life-long friendships and memories they will tell to their kids one day (Convince, Step 3). They feel like your hostel is a great choice and hit the Book Now button (Convert, Step 4).
Planning a great website is a lot of work. There seems to be no initial progress and things move slowly. You are laying down the structural foundations that will probably outlast even your website. It will benefit your company culture, affect your view of your customer and even reveal a lot about who you are as a company.
Once you are clear on where you are going, everything else will fall into place a lot easier. You will have a guideline throughout the whole process that will validate your ideas. Your leads will be exactly the people you want because those were the people you build the site for.