Web design for a purpose
If your design process usually starts with getting the clients logo, and then designing a layout that compliments (or sometimes ignores) the company colours, stop right there.
You are a problem solver
Web design is full of problems looking for solutions. Unfortunately too many designers (and clients) forget or ignore the problem they are trying to solve, and instead focus on just the aesthetics instead of looking at the bigger picture of what the site is trying to achieve. This should cause us to start asking ourselves what our role as “designer” is exactly.
The question “what is design?” is always a good way to spark debate amongst designers. I believe design is creating an artistic or skilful solution to solve a given problem. It’s not purely aesthetic or purely functional, but a combination of both to serve a specific purpose.
Websites are built to sell things, promote people or businesses, provide information, connect people, and store content. Each type of site has specific challenges and problems that must be overcome to make the site function in the best way possible. The challenges you need to solve are often big picture things, like the best way of connecting with the target audience of a site. They could be things to do with process, like the most efficient way of collecting credit card details from users. They could be information visualization, such as the best way to present a complex table of data, or they could be simple things like how big to make a button or a heading in relation to the rest of the page. Regardless of the size of the problem, your job is to solve these problems, not just to make the problems look prettier.
Redefining your process
If you’re quite happy making websites that are pretty, but don’t contribute anything to making the business more successful, then this probably isn’t the article for you. The more web designers there are in the world like that, the easier it is for the rest of us to stand out.
With a lot of processes, I find that the most efficient ones are personalised to the user. By that I mean you don’t need to follow the process guidelines below exactly, but try using them as a guide and see if they work for you, and build on them or change things if you find it makes you more effective. Blindly following what others preach without asking questions leads to lots of problems, especially with processes.
1. Gather Requirements
All web projects should start with a requirements gathering phase. Requirements gathering isn’t about completely defining the project, it’s about creating an alignment between your project expectations and those of your clients and setting a common project direction.
Clients that have never been part of a website development project will often have a limited idea of their own requirements and in most cases list these in terms of page names or functions. Think along the lines of statements like “I want a website with a homepage, about, products, and a contact us page” or “I want a website that allows me to sell my products online”. Now think about all the websites you have encountered that meet those requirements and the variation between them. Clearly these requirements are not enough so the classic one word questions need to be asked “Why? What? How? Who?”
Why do you want a homepage? What are you trying to achieve with a products page? How do you want your online sales to occur? Who is your target audience/market?
These questions are your first real opportunity to demonstrate your professional approach by digging deeper into the client’s needs and finding the underlying reasons driving them toward the website project. Requirements gathering almost always includes requirements guidance. If your client’s why, what, how, and who are not what they should be guide them toward reasons and approaches that you know work.
By the end of this stage in the process you should understand what the website project is trying to achieve and broadly speaking how it should achieve it.
2. Set Goals
In this phase you should set specific, measurable and achievable goals for the project. You will need to take the objectives established in the requirements gathering stage and pose them in formats that can be tracked, measured and reviewed. Working with your client you have already established what you want to achieve and the broad approach for achieving and setting goals correctly will allow you to know when you have done your job, what if anything went wrong, and where to go for future improvements.
This may be things like increasing traffic by 40%, or increasing the number of enquiries or sales by a certain number. You can (and should) use stats packages such as Google analytics or Mint to track these once the site goes live.
3. Information Architecture
This is when you compile the requirements you have gathered into a cohesive site structure. Think about the navigation, the hierarchy various items on a page have, and how users are actually going to interact with your site. This can be a fairly complex role for larger sites, and I would suggest hiring someone, or at least reading some articles on information architecture to get a better understanding of this step.
4. Visual Design
Hopefully this is the part you were good at to begin with. While how pretty a site is isn’t everything, it’s not nothing either. A professional design adds a sense of trustworthiness to a business, and good use of design principles like colour, relative size, contrast, all help a site’s usability as well as its attractiveness.
5. Site Build and Release
While it’s not necessary for the designer to also build the site, it definitely helps if the designer knows the medium. If you are a designer with a print background, the best thing you can do for your web design skills is learn CSS and HTML. You’ll learn quickly what you can and can’t do on the web, and this will help your final products immensely.
6. Review and Improve
Once your website project has been planned, designed, built and released it would be easy to think your job was finished. It’s not.
This stage is crucial for your own growth and improvement as a website designer but it is also essential for your clients. For both you and your clients this allows you to refine your approach and understand how well you are performing. Clients quite rightly want to know that the investment they have made in you and your service was worthwhile. When you are able to demonstrate this with real and valuable results they are also more likely to continue to invest.
Special thanks to Travis Houghton, Sales manager at Enlighten Designs.