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TAMU Webmaster's Blog


Information and insight from the A&M Webmasters

Before You Begin

February 6th, 2009 by Erick Beck

Planning is Key

The success or failure of your website will largely be determined by how much thought you put into it beforehand – before you ever create a single graphical mockup or write a line of code.

Planning is actually the hardest part of the development process. Websites are ultimately developed to meet the needs of people – they are purpose-driven. However, many times these projects are approached as a “technology problem,” and are colored from the beginning by enthusiasms for particular Web techniques or browser plug-ins (Flash, digital media, XML, databases, etc.) – not by real human or business needs. A carefully planned project management solution that is implemented from the beginning will help to make sure the focus remains on the site’s purpose.

Goals

As you begin the planning process, identify the goals of your website. Do not dismiss this step. If you step right into building a website without thinking about what you want it to accomplish, you will wind up building a meandering, purposeless site.

A short statement identifying two or three goals should be the foundation of your website design. The statement should include:

  • specific strategies around which the site will be designed,
  • how long the site design, construction, and evaluation periods will be, and
  • specific quantitative and qualitative measures for the success of the site.

Some points to consider:

  • Decide what goals you want to achieve with this site.
  • Prioritize your goals and use this ranking to make design decisions.
  • Refer to your goals frequently during the design process to make sure you’re staying on track.

Having and sticking to a firm set of goals will also help you avoid the most insidious of all project dangers – feature creep. If you don’t decide the limits of what you need to get done – in advance – you will never finish. Setting goals and timelines will force you to add new features into the development process only in a reasoned and practical manner.

Audience

The next step is to identify the primary users of your website so that you can structure the design to meet their needs and expectations. Keep in mind that you will likely have several different audiences, each with different interests, needs, and levels of expertise. For example, realize that internal audiences (such as current faculty, staff or students) will have familiarity with campus culture, systems and expectations whereas those external to the university won’t.

For example, the primary audience of the main university website has been defined as prospective students (and their parents), with the on-campus population being a secondary audience. Note that this is a markedly different audience than that of Dining Services or the Association of Former Students. Each of our sites may have radically different audiences, and that’s fine. We should strive to identify and meet the needs of our core constituency, not adopt a one-size-fits all approach that in reality doesn’t cater to anyone effectively.

So you should ask, “Who is the audience?” Are they:

  • current students?
  • prospective students?
  • faculty and/or staff?
  • administrators?
  • the general public?
  • other?

Other questions to ask include:

  • How familiar is your intended audience with the information you want to present? (This will affect how you present your information.)
  • Do they have any technical limitations (e.g., limited computer skills, old equipment, slow modem connections)?
  • Do they have any physical limitations (e.g., vision impairments or learning disabilities)?

Content

It may be an old cliche, but content really is king. Your content is the most important part of your site; it is what your users come looking for. Your content should always drive decisions about site organization and navigation, not the other way around. You should develop your content before you finish developing your design.

What content should go into your website? The answer is: as much as you need to get the information that you have across to the user. Your first step will likely be to determine what type of information your primary audience expects to find on your site. After that, request input from key stakeholders so that you don’t leave out anything important. Once you have this information, you can create an outline of all the information that will appear on the site.

Don’t simply try to fit your content into an organizational chart or a set of pre-defined topics. Instead, take your outline,  examine it for natural topical breakdowns, and group each bit of content with similar content. Anticipate your visitors’ questions, needs, interests, and thought flow.

The Web as Media

Keep in mind that writing for the Web is different from writing for other media. Web users tend to scan quickly for information rather than read long paragraphs. Print media must always be rewritten for use on the web; you should never simply cut-and-paste from one publication into another.

Good Web copy is direct and concise. Use headings, bullet lists and other techniques to structure your content for easy scanning. Remember that a web design is always unpredictable. Unlike a print piece, it’s impossible for a designer to completely control the way a Web page will look – not even its size. There are too many variables. Your favorite accent color might look drab on someone else’s monitor. And unfortunately, your favorite font is probably not installed on your visitor’s system. So instead of seeking that “perfect look,” plan your page so that it looks and works great in all of the most common scenarios, but works reasonably well with any browser, even with a screen reader.

A Web page:

  • has links; print does not. You don’t need to say everything in one document or one page – in fact, you shouldn’t. When one page mentions a topic covered by another page, add a link to it, to make it easier for your visitors to get more information. This also helps to break up the text for the reader’s eyes.
  • scrolls. A computer monitor may look like a picture frame, but unlike a framed picture, the picture can be moved inside the frame. People read and scroll in different ways. Their eyes are drawn to whatever interests them. Because a Web page scrolls and links, the designer has less control over the user experience. Allow your visitor to easily find what’s most important to them.
  • is downloaded. When prospective students pick up a brochure, they have the entire payoff instantly. But the larger the image or video, it’s more likely that some of your visitors will have to wait until it downloads.
  • is interactive. Print pieces can’t be searched or zoomed or user-customized or clicked. A Web page can be much more than an electronic brochure.  A print customer reads with his or her eyes, while a Web visitor reads with his or her hands and fingers – a Web visitor wants to do something. The Web is more concerned with time, while print is more concerned with space.
  • is viewed on a screen. Your screen is probably flickering too fast for you to notice, but that explains why reading a Web page is more tiring on the eyes than a print piece – and why online text needs to be short and succinct. In spite of new technologies, anything on a screen still has a lower resolution than print.

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