Monday, June 21, 2010

Web development step 2: Let’s take a step back.

So, you’ve read up on basic web development, maybe tried a little bit of HTML/CSS. You’re all set to start making your website. But wait, what are you going to put on it?

All too often I get contacted by small businesses that want to attract business over the web. They are convinced, and rightly so, that a good website will boost the amount of new customers they bring in. Unfortunately, no one ever seems to put any thought into what they will actually put online. Content is king, and no web developer is going to fill the place of lacking content. With that in mind, here are a few guidelines in figuring out what to put on your site.

Make a list:

Start by listing out the different areas/pages of your site. About & contact are a standard place to start. Maybe you want a separate page talking about the history of your business, or a page to sign up for a company newsletter. This list is by no means permanent, but it is still the most important part of the process. Make sure you keep referring back to it throughout your work, both to fill in details and add ideas for other pages you come up with.

Use what you already have:

Most businesses have an information pamphlet, existing ad in magazines or local newspapers, or other printed material. Assemble as much of this as you can, as it will help you flesh out some of the ancillary pages of your site. It may also be a good idea to keep in mind the design & color scheme of existing logos and pamphlets when working on your site design. Even if you choose not to reuse the material, it will a good idea of what you already have & what you may need to reprint to keep your company brand consistent.

Research your competition:

This seems like a no brainer, but it’s an important step people often miss. Look at what competing/related businesses have on their web sites. Make sure there’s no important element that you are leaving out of your design, such as adding menu information for a restaurant. Don’t just focus on your competitors, but look at any business that markets itself in a similar way. Be on the lookout for interesting designs as well, and make sure to write down the URL of any particular site that stands out. If you are having trouble programming in a design element, you can always go back to the site that inspired it and take a look at how they accomplished it.

Put it all together:

Sit down with a pen & paper and sketch out the general layout of your site. You want to make sure that you have a general idea of what elements are gong where on the page, before you begin writing your code. If you are doing the design as well, put in the major color themes at this point, and put wire-frame or other block stand-ins where you plan to add images.

Don’t be afraid to get help:

Professional designers, copy editors, marketers, and usability experts can all bring a major improvement to your site, and often will be what sets you apart from your competition. Don’t be afraid to bring in an expert in an area you don’t feel confident in. I have yet to find someone who regretted spending an extra few hundred dollars to make sure their website was perfect.

With those steps done, you should have a pretty good idea of what your site will look like. Depending on the complexity of your site, you may already have enough knowledge to start building it. More complicated sites may require either a framework/content-management-system, server side programming, or both. Hopefully I will get to explaining those in a future article.

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