Effective Website Planning 101By Jon-Mikel Bailey

With things such as big data and video conferencing, large groups of people can collaborate over great distances—using this data to make website planning decisions.

And once they’ve implemented these decisions, a new group of folks—typically a board of directors or someone from the C-Level—comes in to question everything, virtually starting the website planning over. 

Rinse. Repeat. And thus the never-ending website planning phase continues. Taking up a lot of time and effort without producing an actual website for quite some time.

Sound familiar?

Audience Must Come First in Website Planning

I’m not against big data. And I am not naïve enough to think that one person can make all the website planning decisions. But, the scenario depicted above often ends in failure.

I’ve been managing website planning projects for more than 15 years and have seen group-think obliterate a perfectly good website time and time again.

It’s so easy to over-design a website if you’re not focused on what matters: Your audience.

Your website has an audience, and it isn’t you! Personal opinions on design and structure can certainly be valid, but everything should be run through the audience filter.

Ask is it what they want? What they need?

To avoid group-think while still allowing all stakeholders to have a voice in your website planning process, you need an agreed upon process right from the start.

At the bare minimum, I recommend the following three things: Get all information upfront, develop scope of work, and determine the decision makers.

Gather All Needed Information Upfront

This is the first opportunity for stakeholders to be “heard” during your website planning process.

Use surveys, interviews, or simply a list of questions in a Word document to gather all stakeholder input.

It’s important you don’t simply ask them to “tell us what you think the new website needs,” because, they will. And trust me…you don’t want that! 

Instead, walk them through the survey with questions that reinforce that this website is for your audience, not your stakeholders.

Questions might include:

  • What are the top things our audience needs from our website?
  • What, if anything, on our current website is working well for our audience?
  • What is not?
  • Is there data to support either?
  • What is missing that our audience needs (based on what they’ve told us)?
  • How do we measure success based on our audience needs?
  • How do we deal with failure? (In other words, if something isn’t working for your audience, how would you address and correct this?)
  • Who will manage content, both for the build and ongoing?

These are just some sample questions, your list will likely be more specific to your organization. But, it needs to always be focused on the target audience.

Once you have all of the survey results, place them in a spreadsheet or some other way that allows you to compare each answer against another.

The goal of this is twofold:

  1. Consolidate all similar answers into one clear, concise statement; and
  2. Eliminate any responses that do not support your website planning goal of developing a website focused on your target audience.

By gathering everything in one place, you get a sense of where everyone’s expectations are. And this would also be an effective time to discuss those expectations in an effort to reach common ground.

You’ll use this information as a guide for designing and developing this website so you want to make sure you have buy-in.

Develop a Scope of Work

This is a step many organizations skip in their website planning. They’re excited to get started and jump right into design.

Wait! Calm down! You’re not ready!

Think of your website as a large dinner party. You need to plan the menu, clean the house, and maybe pick out some good music (I like a mix of jazz and hip hop.)

Your scope of work document is your party plan. Without the party plan, you’re just winging it. That may have worked in college, but you’re better than that now!

Taking into account the information provided in the previous step, you’ll want to assemble the following:

  • Details about your target audience (buyer personas if you have them).
  • Details about the information, products, functionality (the goods) that your audience wants.
  • A sitemap: Simply an outline that lists the parent and children pages.
  • A color palette (based on your branding guide if you have one).
  • Sample images (for original photography, you can use stock photos here to suggest photos you plan to shoot).
  • A wireframe: A simple outline of the homepage and possibly the subpages depending on the complexity of your website.
  • Definitions of success and the paths to get there.
  • Analytics data, if available, to support your plan (past performance data regarding content and functionality strategies). 

Decide Who to Include in the Website Planning Process

Once this part of the website planning process is complete and your initial scope of work is assembled, you have a choice to make—does this go out to all stakeholders for feedback or only a select few?

Depending on your organization, you’ll need to decide who is involved.

The main criterion for this decision is, “how will leaving someone out affect the outcome of this project?”

This is where things can get sticky. If you choose to leave people out of this step, be certain they are not expecting to come back in at some point and make decisions about design or development plans.

To put it another way, are you hiding this from them in the hopes that you can sneak things by them?

Hey, it happens. And, based on my experience, it’s always a bad idea…

“Hi, web designer… um, well, Janet just saw the website and even though it’s approved and ready for launch, we have a long list of changes we need made.”

And please don’t misunderstand me. I’m not hating on Janet. Janet has a role to play. But there is a time and place for that, and it isn’t at the very end of the project when she stumbles upon the website you’ve been working so hard to finish.

It all comes down to planning, communication, and setting clear expectations. And all of this is done while asking the question “is this what our audience wants?”

And remember, no spin because Spin Sucks (See what I did there? Read the book, it’s awesome).

Just focus on what Jay Baer calls Youtility (read the book, it’s awesome, too).

{Editor’s note: JMB is obviously trying to get out of the barter he made to dance for us if we let him guest post with flattery. While we appreciate his efforts we will still be requiring dancing.}

Image created by Jon-Mikel Bailey and captioned by Laura Petrolino

Jon Mikel Bailey

Jon-Mikel Bailey is the Chief Development and Marketing Officer for Wellspring Digital. He has worked in the digital marketing industry for 25 years, speaking at conferences nationwide on the topics of UX, SEO, content marketing, and design. Jon has a wife, a 12-year-old daughter, two dogs, three cats, and apparently, a bunch of field mice. He's a drummer in his spare time, but still thinks he's a rock star. We won't hold it against him.

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