As an Implementation Engineer, I am very much a part of the planning phase for every project I am involved with. And as such am accustomed to planning every step as well as establishing success & failure factors. In my Website Designing business, I carry over those same principles with me because they are no less important there.
Proper planning means to consider every aspect of a given project, including the client's needs, workflow, and customer base. In general you'll need to consider what the end result should look like, feel like, and what the success factors will be. Another words, what are you trying to accomplish and how do you calculate success or failure.
When it comes to designing websites you may be inclined to just jump right in and start designing something based on your first client meeting or call, or worse, on your intuition. But I can tell you from experience that that's the worse way to approach a project.
Consider this... you go out on a limb and spend days or even weeks designing something that you think is appropriate and then show it to the client. The client ends up hating most or all of it, forcing you to go back to the drawing board and start fresh, or worse, they decide to go elsewhere.
Not only have you lost a bunch of time, but you might have lost a customer as well, and if the latter, that probably also means the beginnings of a bad reputation which can absolutely kill your business.
Ask and You Shall Receive
During your first meeting or call with your client you should be asking things like: Who is your competition, what message do you want to relay to your online visitors, what do you expect from your website in terms of Search Engine ranking, number of hits per day, and effect on the bottom line.
Don't be afraid to explain these terms to your clients. They're likely unfamiliar with them and would appreciate an explanation so they can understand what it is you're asking as well as what their website can do for their business. Just be careful not to talk down to them. You don't want to come off sounding like a egotistical know-it-all, but merely an experienced professional.
Most of my customers have no idea what they want out of a website other than to generate more income. And we know that's pretty much a given for any website, right? However, there's nothing wrong with asking how much of an increase they might expect, keeping in mind that typically, websites alone don't generate income. Primarily they provide an online experience which will drive a visitor into the brick and mortar store front, or possibly to making an online purchase if available.
The Experience is Everything
As the saying goes, first impressions are everything, which simply means you need to design the site so-as to engage the visitor, prompting them to stay and dig deeper. A site's bounce-rate will ultimately be your primary measuring tool for this. If the bounce-rate is high, visitors are not staying long. Additionally you'll want to keep an eye on the Avg. Visit Duration. Obviously higher numbers here mean a higher success rate in terms of keeping visitors on the site.
Another analytic metric tool is the Pages/Visit, which shows how many different pages visitors are going to on average. However, this number can be skewed and not very helpful if you have a single page website which scrolls to each section. If you have a site with multiple pages though, then it's certainly something to look at, but don't get overly concerned if the numbers stay relatively low for this metric. Ultimately you'll need to make your impression on the first page users hit, which is not to say the rest of the pages should be thrown together with no regard for lasting impressions, SEO, or anything else, but simply that the first page should be your primary focus when first designing the site.
SEO & Search Engine Placement
Everyone wants to be listed at the top of a search engine, and while there are many things we as designers can do to help make that happen, the bottom line is that a site's placement is left to the algorithm for any given search engine (i.e. Google, Yahoo, MSN).
Personally I do not promise my clients that I can get them to top. Why? because I know that whatever I do SEO-wise may not be enough. There are tons of factors when considering where a site will be placed in a search engine's list, including Site Description, Keywords, Img Alt tags, use and placement of H1, H2, H3, H4, H5, strong, em, and even p tags, word combinations among paragraphs, and a little lesser known factor, how often people search for that site or words that the site uses.
So what I'm saying is that while you definitely want to consider all of the details surrounding SEO; planning appropriately, designing correctly, modifying if necessary, the end result may not be what you or your client desired. To that end, don't promise the world when it comes to search engine placement. Be honest and inform your clients that you'll take all of the necessary steps to get them ranked as high as possible, but that you don't control the algorithm behind creating the list.
Colors / Themes
I know that I have talked about this basic principal time and time again in other posts, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention it again here. Using the right color palette, layout & theme for your client's site will go a long way in making that first impression I spoke about earlier.
If you think that colors or themes don't matter or that anything will do, you would be vastly wrong. When considering what color shades to use (dark or light, flat or brilliant) you have to consider the audience. If we're creating a site for a Tattoo shop or an industrial business of some sort, then using darker shades for the theme would be okay, but you wouldn't want to use those same colors for say a beauty salon or photography shop.
If you're completely at a loss as to which colors to go with for any particular project, start with the client's logo. Use colors and shades that compliment the logo.
Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
We've all heard this before, but it is no less relevant to website designing. The right picture placed in the right location will speak to the visitor in ways words may not be able to. But like everything else, moderation should always be applied, as well as good sense. If the image doesn't help to relay the message, don't use it.
Plan It All Out
So to put all of this together, here's the basic steps/notes to take when planning your website design project:
1) Ask your client questions, even if takes several meetings or calls to accomplish. Find out everything you can about their business so you can get a feel for who their clientele will be.
2) Think about what message the site needs to relay, which will help you to use the correct keywords and tags as well as word-combinations when dealing with the content and SEO.
3) Plan out the layout, possibly even wire-framing it before beginning to code the site. Draw it out on paper if you must, but somehow or another you need to get a mental picture as to where content will be placed, making sure to consider the overall message.
4) Carefully choose your color palette, ensuring the colors and theme blend well with the client's logo and/or business type.
5) Decide how you can make the site interactive without overdoing it. What features can you implement that will help keep a visitor on the site and going from page to page to learn more.
6) Code it and test it. Make sure you test from multiple devices as well as browsers. All browsers don't behave the same, so just because it works in one doesn't mean it will work in all.
7) Keep an eye on the site's statistics at least for the first 30 days after implementation and tweak anything that needs to be tweaked such as keywords and what not.
Tom M. Wiseman