Trying to save a little money on marketing your new business? Ready to try this web design thing for yourself? I understand that it can be a daunting task, especially if this is your first foray into the field. There are so many variables to consider, from interactivity to design principles to visitor behavior, that just thinking about the process can be overwhelming. If you’re the do-it-yourself type, you’re probably determined to see this project through to the end, but you’re still trying to get some of the concepts straight in your mind before you start. In my years in the field, I’ve figured out a few steps that seem to streamline the process and make it less stressful — here’s a brief overview of how I structure a project, and some tips for managing your own. (Of course, if the process becomes too overwhelming and you realize you just want a professional to take care of it, I’m available!)
Step 1: Decide on the goal of the site, and the target audience.
This might seem like a given, but I’ve found that it’s very important to articulate up front what you expect to get out of your website, and who you expect to be visiting your website. It may not seem like it at first, but the answers to these two questions will govern the way you design the framework for your website and the way you write and display your content. Everything you place on your site needs to be there to accomplish your goal, and needs to be appropriate for your target audience.
Sometimes your target audience will be defined by what you sell — if you’ve got a fishing lodge, then clearly, your target is fishermen (and fisherwomen). But sometimes it’s not as easy to define, like if you run a small town B&B and anyone who’s willing to make a reservation seems to be your target audience. But chances are there is a type of guest you really like to host, and those are the guests you should think about when you create your website.
Defining the goal for your website is equally as important as defining your target market, and just as hard, if not harder, to come up with. When I ask clients this question, sometimes their response is, “More sales. Duh.” And, while that is a perfectly valid, and obvious, goal, it’s not the only possible goal for a website, nor is it always the one you should shoot for. Websites can be used to enhance and promote a company’s image, they can be used for brand recognition, they can be used for online sales and reservations, or they can simply be online brochures. Those might seem like subtle differences, but each goal requires you to organize and present your site in a different way, so knowing what you want your website to achieve is important.
Step 2: Come up with a design.
Once you know who you will be designing for, and why, it’s time to start your design. Before you’ve got any ideas of what you want your site to look like, it helps to review other websites, both of your competitors and of others in your industry, and decide what you like, what you don’t like, and why. Is it the overall feel of the site — the mood set by the layout and placement of elements — or is it one or two elements in particular that strike your fancy? What about the background, the text and the placement of images within the text? And how about the color scheme — is it appropriate for the target audience, or does it miss the mark?
To build your website (see step 4), I recommend using WordPress, a free blogging and website software that is easy to use and install. WordPress uses themes (or templates) for the design and some of the functionality, so at this point, you’ll need to find a theme that matches the design you have in mind. I recommend the premium theme Thesis (it’s what this site is built with – affiliate link), which is a little pricey but totally worth it in that you have control over all of the design elements, and a great support community when you get stuck. If you know what you want in your website layout, you need only set the parameters for your theme — background and link colors, sidebar widths, header images, etc. — and don’t need to bother with mock ups or design programs, though I do recommend drawing it out on a piece of paper to start with.
Step 3: Gather the website content (including writing copy and taking photographs).
This can sometimes be the second-hardest task on the list. The content is the information on your website, so you need to make it appropriate and useful for your site visitors. Gather everything you want to put up: Write the copy for each page, shoot or gather and edit all of the photographs you want to use, and create any custom graphics you think you’ll want, including “Make a Reservation” or “Buy now” buttons. You can start without all of these things in place, but your work will come to a grinding halt every time you realize you’re missing something and you either have to go look for it, or create it, and then it’s that much harder to get back to the place you were. Take it from the expert — it’s best to have all of this, or as much as you can gather, together at the beginning.
Step 4: Build the website framework.
All of the creative work is done, and now it’s just a matter of setting up the website framework and populating it with content. It’s not necessary to have any knowledge of HTML or CSS or any other design language to set up a website, although it helps if you do. It’s easiest to use a Content Management System, or CMS, to build your site, as this will allow you to set it up visually instead of with code, and will often allow you to work on your site whenever you are able to access the web, whether you’re at your home computer or not.
I recommend using WordPress as the CMS to build your site. It’s a free and easy-to-use blogging software, and doesn’t require you to have any technical knowledge or skill in writing code. Install the software (often web hosts have a 1-click installation option that makes it easy), find and apply (and customize) a theme that matches your layout requirements, and then add the necessary global elements: the photo or graphic in the header, the buttons on the navigation bar, the links in the sidebar, etc.
Step 5: Populate with content, and launch!
This is the easy part, but also sometimes the most time-consuming part. Since you’ve already got your materials together, it’s a matter of organizing the information so that it’s the easiest to understand and follow, and making sure that that’s the best way to accomplish your goal and appeal to your target market. Sometimes you have to see what it looks like before you know whether it’s organized in the best way or not, and sometimes it’s easy to see right away what should go where. Experimenting at this stage is just as important as experimenting at the creative stages — you want it to be the best site it can be, so make sure you’ve got everything right. A word of caution: It’s possible to want things to be too perfect. The web is a dynamic medium and, though you want to keep post-launch changes to a minimum, you can always change it if you don’t like it or it’s not working. Don’t let perfectionism delay your launch, because likely as not, there’s more than one way for it to be perfect.
When everything’s ready, it’s time to launch! Monitor the site closely for the first couple of days to try and catch any unforeseen problems or errors, which will definitely show themselves right away, when everything else is also going wrong. After that, you’ll be able to settle into a routine where you’ll check stats, write regular blog posts, converse with commenters or those who use your contact form, or start to see reservations roll in. Your particular site will determine your routine.
Because the web is a dynamic medium, change is a given, but daily change (unless it’s a daily blog post) is not expected. When it’s time to change and update, you’ll know it (or your visitors will let you know it), and then, the process begins again.
For more information on how I organize and put together a project from the client side of things, take a look at The Process page. Try the Thesis (affiliate link) premium theme for your WordPress blog — you’ll love it. And for more information on my services, take a look at the Services page or request a free Information Kit.