Planning a web site involves a four phase approach — setting your strategy, developing your design, technical production, and implementation. To be effective, work them in order. Otherwise you will end up with a disjointed hodgepodge of broken dreams and unfulfilled aspirations.
You must clearly define and refine the goals of your project. If your web site will be a personal travelogue, the required objects will be substantially different from a site that sells widgets online. Prepare documentation or blueprints on paper before you even approach your computer. Consider the audience you want to attract to your site. Gear your strategic planning specifically to them. Don't get lost in the temptation to be all things to all people. Maintain a focus on simplicity of delivery and an attitude of progress.
With millions of sites on the Web, your strategy needs to invoke a sense of creativity and originality. Many are the sites we've reviewed that rushed to production. It is easy to tell a site that has no purpose other than just to say, "I'm on the Web!" Do your research, know your subject matter, collect collaborating documentation, and prioritize your goals. Is making money your number one raison d'Ítre? Then build an established business model to follow. Are you instead interested in teaching or entertaining? Plan a strategy that allows that to happen.
Next, it's time to develop your design. This is where your tools begin to take shape. Do you want to construct your own logo and other graphics? You will need software and templates to work with. Do you want interaction and visitor participation? Be prepared to write or find programs. Address navigation, structural flow, content development, and technical utility. Plan the visual language of the presentation. Consider emerging technologies so you can keep your site evergreen and functional. The Web will always continue to evolve; you can't afford to stand pat.
Site navigation may take many forms. From simple back and forth arrows to text based linking, menu trees, or multimedia constructs; navigation is the most important way to disseminate your information. If your guest can't get around easily, they will never place an order or sign up for your newsletter. Does your site design have the coolest, hippest special effects but absolutely nothing to say? People will say "wow" once, "so what" the next time. Do you want forums, polling booths, guest books? Find an imaginative way to integrate them with your overall scheme.
If you have prepared properly you're now ready to bring your site to life. Remember to allow a capacity for expansion and modification. As time progresses, so will your site. New topics, sections, and features will occur to you. Create functionality that is just as understandable to the novice as it is to the expert. Build an architecture that allows for easy information exchange.
You will use file transfer programs, email accounts, and don't forget security and privacy considerations.
This is your computer time. Whether hand-coding raw HTML and drawing art in a graphics program, or building templates in WYSIWYG editors and combining them with stock photography — the production of a web site is a tedious, but enjoyable process. Do you need scripting or CGI programming? How about the latest vector animations? Put your training to good use by energizing your presentation and activating your style.
Prepare a flexible layout and maintenance plan to minimize repetitive work. Common elements and objects can be reused. Using includes of external code, data, and styles will make site management a snap. Categorize and catalogue the objects you use to make finding them and arranging them a simple procedure. Consider the use of sectional directories and graphical libraries. As your site increases in size, you'll be exceedingly glad you did.
You will need a web server to host your site. Whether you're a large company that can buy their own, or a work at home mom who has to use one of the free hosting services, the process is the same. You will use file transfer programs, email accounts, and don't forget security and privacy considerations. There are numerous inexpensive web hosting companies that will host your site for a small fee. Do you want to accept credit cards? You'll need a merchant account and receivables system. How will your customers and other visitors find you? Be prepared to promote, advertise, and affiliate from now to eternity.
In summary, why make it harder on yourself than it needs to be? If you follow these steps you will be a lot more pleased with the end result. In our other web site planning articles we will dive into each phase of development in more detail.