An Extensive Website Planning Guide
With over 1.74 billion websites already in existence you would think that planning a website would be a common practice. In reality may websites are created as copies of other websites or brought together through a website design process not through a consistent step-by-step planning process.
The Complete Website Planning Guide came into existence from a need to help both companies looking to build their websites as well as the development teams looking to improve their website planning methods.
Whenever you are beginning to build a new website or looking to rebuild an existing website you should ensure that you begin with planning and not progress to selecting the developers, designer or CMS until you've completed the entire planning process.
What is a website plan?
What is a website plan?
Think of it as the blueprint for your website much like the architectural drawings and specifications for a new building. It provides you all of the information needed to make the best possible website for your needs.
it SHOULD PROVIDE:
- Background information about your history to date and your needs
- An understanding of your target market/s and your goals
- Clear directions about what you want to be built and why
- A guide to how each part of the website will need to be built, including structure, content and design direction
- Exact metrics on how you will measure the success of the web site
What isn't in this website planning guide?
What isn't in this guide?
We don't include discussions about brand and and understanding the importance of a brand. Brand development is a process in it's own right and it deserves your full attention separate from the tactical implementation of that brand. Brand development should consider the places it will be used, including online, and you should get brand advice from suitable specialists in that field.
We don't tell you how to design or code your website. The technical processes of building a website don't fit into a plan, neither do discussions about hosting, choosing a domain name or even what CMS you might use to build your website in. We do not discuss budget either.
If you want to build the best possible website then you should be outlining what you need, irrespective of both cost, technical tools or any other micro level detail. It is our belief, from over 15 years experience, that once you have clarity about your needs, the decisions on what tools to use and which team you should work with almost answer themselves.
If you can't afford everything all at once that doesn't remove the fact that to achieve the goals your business has set you will need to build all of the requirements, and as such you then need to establish how you can do that in stages or modify your goals to suit what you can afford.
Is it absolutely necessary to create a website plan?
Any form of business that you want to improve needs to have a plan. Before you get started on any web design project you should know what you need it to achieve and how you will measure if it is successful or not.
The secret to getting better results for your business is to have a plan, execute it and learn from it. When you spend the time upfront to create such a brief or scope that outlines everything you need you create a perfect road map for everyone that will be working on your website to help you achieve your goals.
Whether your organization is looking for more inquiries, increase sales or to help more people providing your services planning out everything you need up front is the best way to achieve that goal.
What's the difference between requirements, briefs, a scope and a website plan?
In many cases these can all be considered the same thing. Historically when people asked for requirements what was provided were more technical guides than a complete scope of works.
With the move away from IT departments running website development the term requirements is now more aligned with the organizations needs. Typically your marketing department, team or manager will use terms like brief or scope.
When talking to an agency or development team they will likely use the term brief or a website scope.
As a guide as long as you are planning for a website the name you use for the document doesn't matter.
What should be in your website plan?
should be in your website
Where does design fit in?
Where does design fit in?
One thing you'll notice about our philosophy to website planning is that we exclude design from the planning process. Why is that?
What many people refer to as web design, is what we consider visual design. In our website planning guide we lay out the premise that the entire process is designing. By working through this planning guide you are in fact creating a much more complete design for your website.
We leave the steps of visual design, providing mood boards and other design elements including the evaluation of other websites until we're ready to commence the build of the website.
We've found over the last 25 years that when people engage into evaluating another site or worrying about the 'look and feel' of the site it ends up dictating everything about their needs and requirements. Their brief ends up being either a direction to copy a competitors site or a patchwork of individual design elements instead of detailing the requirements they actually need.
Don't misunderstand what we mean by this. Visual design is very important to the success of your website. However there are plenty of websites that aren't the prettiest but out perform award winning designs. They do that by having a great product, focusing on the needs of their users and creating a highly functional website.
If you spend more time on how your website will "look" than anything else the planning process, you've done it wrong.
And the most important reason is because you employ designers to create an accurate and professional version of what you need using your existing branding.
At what stage in a project does the design process begin?
If you don't have a destination then any wind is a good wind.
The purpose of a set of goals for your website is the same as for any business, and for that matter personal, objective. Setting a goal helps to focus your intention and allows you to understand how well you are succeeding as you work towards it.
When you get off-track it helps bring you back heading in the right direction. Importantly when seeking a new website design you need a set of goals that help you communicate how it will be measured as a success or not.
Goals can include:
- Numbers of leads
- Search Engine Rank improvements, although we'd suggest that's a sub goal of another objective
- Support requests handled
- Or any number of other goals you might set relevant to your unique business
If you want to look at some example goals Fit Small Business has a handy guide to SMART Goals for Business. In our Workbook version of The Complete Website Planning Guide, we walk through step by step exercises to help you select the right goals for your new website.
Understanding your audience isn't just relevant for sites it's an important part of business marketing and product market fit. It's more than just a useful tool to start your website design we'd argue it is the single most important part of creating a plan for a website.
Understanding an audience is more than just writing down a persona and throughout our website planning guide you will see that the research section is intrinsically linked to being able to communicate who your audience is and how your products match up to their needs.
You will need to:
- Look at who you already serve
- Document who you want to serve including why and how
- Understand the gap between where you are now and where you want to be
- Create personas that reflect each of the members of these audiences, with detailed information about their needs
When your audience uses search engines, social media or other online channels you need to be able to communicate to them in a way that appeals to them and to their needs. If you develop the personas and outlines of needs required it will help direct the information architecture of your website, the sitemap, content requirements as well as how the site will need to look.
A common mistake you can make when planning the website is to either focus entirely on the user/customer (rarely done) or to only on your business needs.
What we refer to as 'inside out' marketing, it is when you only care about what you require and do not take into account what your customers or prospects need.
If you follow our website planning method you will also must make sure you include the must-have items your business needs. For example: Credit card payment gateway.
While that would seem obvious if you had an e-commerce shop forgetting to include it in your documentation means it could be left out from the development until too late. While this is an easy item to remedy, many critical components businesses departments require can easily be overlooked, particularly if some features have to be cut to achieve budget.
It is important that your organization outlines what each area will want from the website to help create a complete and well defined set of requirements.
In the rush to create the new website many teams will use their own gut instinct, intuition or anecdotes to define what is required for the business. Our experience is that this hurts more website projects than it helps. Not disputing that the people working in the business understand it better than anyone, however we all have our own biases and favorite examples of something that did or didn't work.
By asking questions to clarify every assumption you have about your business you take an important step to make significant improvements in the results you will achieve.
Types of research you could/should conduct:
- Review of the best and worst sales
- Review of the best performing products or services
- Reviewing your existing analytics (or similar metrics) to see where your existing audience is coming from, what they do on your site and where the holes are in its current performance
- Conducting research experiments including surveys, polls and user testing of your existing users
- Install site tracking tools and evaluate how users are using the site
Once you get started looking at this level of data you'll find that much of the narrative in your organization isn't always based on facts. As you get more comfortable with the numbers you will be able to make bolder statements countering previous assumptions.
What is information architecture?
It's most simply defined as 'the practice of organizing content in an effective way', or content management as it were.
However it is a lot more involved than simply managing content, and as a part of ensuring your users can easily access the content they are searching for in the simplest way, is critical to how your website will be designed.
In the section on Site mapping we outline the value of the visual sitemap in helping your team understand where things should live within the website. Understanding the role of content other than just words or images is important to making the right decisions for your website.
Planning for website structure when you get started on the project especially a larger project is not only suggested it is critical to the long term success of your website.
IA as it's known will influence your navigation, use of content, storage systems and ultimately the CMS you will choose.
Understand the importance of IA for your website.
The term sitemap is unfortunately one that has multiple meanings in the online space.
- An XML sitemap which is a technical page on a site that helps search engines crawl sites
- Sitemap page, is one many sites use to help users find deep pages
- Visual sitemap, which is what we will refer to here as a sitemap is a visual diagram representing the site structure
Your website scope should include a visual sitemap, which will ensure that the key content structures can be seen, including their relationships to each other, and will help to develop other important guides to the website, including:
- Navigation guides
- SUser journey maps or workflows
- Technical workflows
A visual sitemap also helps all team members working on the project to understand the size, or scope, of the project. An e-commerce website might not have a large number of page templates that require design but the sitemap can present the breadth of categories that will make up the site.
There are a number of tools that easily help create visual sitemaps available online, both free and paid.
Wireframing is an essential part of UI (User interface) design. Each page of your website is an interface that you will want to make sure is fulfilling its role in achieving your website goals.
Wireframes are two dimension diagrams usually detailing the structure of a website page. They are typically used to help make the the priority of content, space allocation, functionality available and intended behaviors for any given page easily undertood.
Wireframes (sometimes known as wires) would usually not include graphics, colors or styling.
While wireframing is often carreid out by UI designers or other UX professionals, the simplicity of the process means anyone can use it to communicate the requirements.
When wireframes are used by a website planner they raise issues which require answers well before any content is created, website design is started or other technical choices are made.
Done correctly the planner will draw up both mobile and desktop wireframes, as a minimum. When all stakeholders in a project review the differences in space and usability on the different devices prior to any discussion about design helps guide more useful decisions.
All websites require content to help users and to provide useful information. Content isn't simply words, it includes all forms of media including, images, illustrations, audio, video and the written word.
No website planning document, or brief, would be complete without a guide to the content required across each of the pages.
You will want to outline what types of content each page requires as it will inform both the production teams as well as the design and development teams.
Producing content typically takes the longest portion of any new website design project and is often left until too late in the process. This leads to delays and a loss of momentum on the project.
You will want to lay out step by step intructions on the types of content needs, where it fits in the site and when your production teams will want it delivered by. If you take the time to create a content plan as part of the overall scope it will solve a number of problems before they occur.
Functional Requirements or Website Specifications
Our website planning guide details that each page on the website should be scoped fully. This means each page should have its own set of requirements.
If you look at a typical website you will see most pages fit within one or two templates. This is usually because of the theme chosen or the lack of planning to provide either more detail about the requirements or the content.
You cannot expect a designer to determine what you required for your site, they cannot mind read. If you want to create lasting results and a website that can grow and evolve with you then you need to provide as many details as you can.
Each page should outline what the goal of the page is, all relevant details including titles, meta data and all functionality required. The simplest way to do this is using a template like we provide in The Complete Website Planning Guide and reference your wireframe for that page.
You'll be amazed at how much detail you provide. If you look back at what you've provided in the past it's easy to see why such a plan improves the results.
Wrapping it all up
Wrapping it all up
Once you've completed this level of work, you will end up with a sizeable amount of information. Laying it all out in one document, including all the relevant material will empower you in making the next decisions.
When you seek out teams to work on the project, you can ask them how will they be able to best present what you have provided. What flaws in your information have they found, what systems do they recommend for it.
THey should be then asking you to provide information about the design direction and examples that you like. At this point you will have created a clear roadmap to what you want to achieve and you will be helping them do their jobs.
You will allow their designers to consider fully your requirements and choose the right approach. Instead of them simply picking a theme based on your favourite competitor, they will be looking at how they can best create a visual design that matches your needs.
This guide is a surface level summary of what's required to complete such a guide. Make sure to read each of the related sections, and if you want to speed up the process you can buy our Complete Website Planning Guide and companion Workbook, which walk you through what you need to do and why, in a practical step-by-step process.
PS. Can you see why worrying about a domain name or hosting before you do this work doesn't really matter? I thought so!