If you have never developed a web site before or you are a novice and are planning to develop a web site in the future but wonder how to communicate your site to a designer, here is some information that may be helpful to you.
If you are reading this, you probably know the purpose of the site you want to build. However, there are many steps between where you are now and actually having a web designer build the site. The first thing I suggest you do is build what we in the industry typically call a "Requirements" document (a.k.a. site requirements). This is typically a written document that has everything you can think of in it. Examples may be what elements you want on the site, design ideas, how you plan to support it, marketing efforts, etc. The last two are typically not in an 'official' Requirements document, but it will significantly help you put your head in the right frame of mind and know what commitment is necessary to make your site a success.
Building a great site is not enough. You need to get the word out. You also need to make sure you have the time to give to making your site a success. Of course success is different for everyone, but defining that success and how you will reach it will go a long way to help you develop a winning web site.
For the marketing directors I work with, I have them answer at least three questions:
- Who's this site for
- Why are you building it
- How will and why are you promoting it
They seem like common questions, but each one helps:
- a web designer know visually what the site needs to look like and how easy-to-use vs. artistic the site needs to be,
- you to know what your goal is,
- you to know what you're going to do to promote the site, and
- you to know what your mission is with the site.
By going through these questions, you can then have an end in mind and can begin planning your site out in more detail with the Requirements documentation.
I've put together my suggestion on what you should begin with for a basic or small web site. My example only contains three sections. In the past, I've had Requirements that number of 50 main sections and hundreds of pages. Starting small is important. You'll find that as you build your document, it will naturally grow as you think through each element and what you want to acheive. The sections I would start with are are:
- Key Features
- My Support
The key features are probably what you already naturally have in your head when you're thinking about your web site. This includes a list of the most important elements you want on your site, what you think visitors will like about it, and the basics of what you know you need on the site but that may not be as interesting. For example, if I wanted to build a site that sold 60s style furniture, I would develop the following list (phrases in parenthesis are to help you know what I'm thinking behind each feature):
- Photos of furniture (With furniture or any product, photos are the best selling points of an items. This needs to be as many as I can get my hands on. Interiors of images, photos of all angles of a product, etc. People can't handle the product like they can in a store, so you've got to help them do so online. This is one of the weakest elements of large retail sites. But if you're starting small, you have the advantage and maybe time to provide excellent information on each product or service you have.)
- Rotating home page furniture feature (This is a flashy element and serves as an ad for your products. Target.com and other retailers use this feature. Doing this feature cheaply is hard, and thus requires more maintenance on down the line. So, if you want this, make sure you know what the process of updating the images will be. If the designer says it'll be easy, force him to be detailed. Sometimes what is a small task, won't be so small for you.)
- Videos talking about the quality of the pieces and how they are made (This will be hard to do well on small budgets. But the idea of this is similar to feature #1 where since people can't handle the product, you should help them. This is not a necessary feature, but one I think would be great and helpful to the users. Plus, I also need to make sure to look into its feasibility.)
- Ecommerce using PayPal (PayPal is an inexpensive and easy way to add ecommerce capability to your site. However, if you want ecommerce capability on your site that is seamless with your design, your web designer may know of inexpensive services.)
- My business description
- Seasonal promotions (If you are selling products, be sure to categorize them. But more importantly, if you plan to advertise products based on season, special events, or other format, thinking through those in detail before designing your site will make it much easier and less expensive when it comes time to begin that promotion. Thinking through it will help you know what you need to have on the site and what you want it to look like.)
- Monthly eblasts (Sometimes this can be quite an undertaking, but if you are an author or someone who has a small list of people, it may be simple to do. In your eblasts, you may want to use some of the design elements of the site or include links to specific locations in the site--even maybe on a page. This is important to know for a designer so that he can include that in his design initially. This will avoid you having to pay for him to make a change down the line when it will be relatively more expensive.)
- Search engine marketing (This is important because you will need to know how to optimize your site for search engines. This is a science in itself, but some basics are to make sure you have a descriptive and specific page title for every page in your site, for section headers or any important pieces of content on the site the designer use html header codes [H1, H2, H3, H4, etc.], and finally write your text on the page with the keywords people may search by to find your site. Sometimes using industry terms is not what most of your buyers will use when they think of your products. Include the common terms many times in all three of those elements, and you'll go a long way to improving your placement in all search engines.)
- 60s motif (I'm basically talking about the look and feel of the site. If you know of others out there, or you have pictures of your furniture, give these things to the web designer. It will go a long way to helping them create a design that reflects your intention on the site.)
- Image heavy design with bright colors (Image heavy sites are slower to show for people than mostly text sites like Amazon.com. However, images are worth a thousand words. Finding that balance is challenging. I just how image heavy a site should be based on how artistic or creative what I'm selling is. If I'm an author, a cool looking site is great, but people aren't there to see a cool site. They are there to find out about me. The rest is icing. If I am a designer, however, a cool site is important to showing my capability and eye for design to my clients. If I sell excentric furniture, don't use low prices to attract buyers, then I would choose a more artsy design to represent the quality and care in design I take to my products.)
- URL (have you reserved it yet? You'd be surprised how many marketing directors start developing a site, but don't try to buy the url until they are ready to launch the site, only to find it's not available. This is the very first thing you should do. If you're going to build a business around this, don't delay.)
Making a list of features or site needs is the most important list you can make prior to talking with a designer. Additionally, he or she may have other ideas that will improve your web site and make it more fun for them to design and for your visitors to experience.
If you need recommendations of designers I have used for small and medium sized projects, check out the following:
This section is a list of what you can offer to support the site as it is developed and once it is up and running. It could include places you realistically can advertise the site (i.e. Marketing), how often and how much time you can give per week to update information on the site, contacts you can utilize to help gather content and find out information, and the budget you have for the year on this. For my furniture web site, I would include:
- Monthly eblasts
- Search engine marketing
- 4 hours per week
- $9,000 for first year
- Trade show brochure ads
- Local newspaper ads
- Grassroots efforts
- Johnny Doe Web Designer (the person you want to design your site)
- Long John Hosting Company (the company that you will use to host your web site. A designer can help you with this. There are many cheap services out there. One I strongly believe in is www.dogbark.com.)
- eBusiness 2.0
The purpose of this section is to understand the efforts required and the limitations you have to make the site successful. When you discuss your web site with your potential designers, they may know how to develop a system that will work within your means and not just your budget.
On a side note—regarding your budget, I recently read an article that said companies creating a new web site should expect to spend on advertising at least twice the amount spent on creating the web site. That’s a hard call for small businesses or personal web sites. But that should also give you an idea of what to expect to spend to promote your web site—whether it be business cards, web banners, direct mail, etc. Many people have this belief that if you build it, they will come. A web site is similar to products; you must market it before people can know about it. Even then, there is a lot of advertising noise out there. Getting past it is quite a challenge. …But that’s a posting for a later time.
As a novice planner, you probably have a ton of questions. Write them down before you talk to a designer. Be honest with yourself. Categorize the questions. This will help you be clear with the designer as to your level of web understanding. One note of advice, do not select a designer until you feel like you have an understanding of the project and what is required. It may take a while to get there and a lot of reading. However, if you are hasty in your selection and the designer begins working on your site, it’s possible you may have incorrectly identified your needs, your customers, and how to meet those needs with the web site. Most especially when funds are tight, haste really makes waste.
Questions I may have written down for my first web site:
- What ecommerce options do I have?
- What is Flash?
- What is web hosting?
- What’s a server?
- What is ASP and PHP?
- What can we do to make this site as easy to maintain as possible?
- Do I need any special software?
- What do you need from me to make your job easier?
Utilizing the expert advice from designers can be very valuable. Sometimes you don’t know what questions, support, or offerings you have until you begin talking with them. But having something written down from the beginning, no matter how vague, can be helpful in gathering your thoughts and letting you know where you stand—and where you need to go.
Utilizing Requirements documentation will help spur further discussion when you talk to potential designers. They also become what the contract is based off of so that both parties know what to expect. The documentation will also help you conceptualize what you are really asking for and whether or not you can afford it. The designer can then work with you on developing a plan that will still meet your needs but also be within your budget. Never rush a low-budget project and plan as much as possible prior to beginning the work. It will pay off when the site is finally ready to launch.