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Avoiding Website Design Disaster: Begin With the End in Mind

Author Stephen Covey is fond of pointing out how difficult it is to reach goals that you don’t have. “Begin with the end in mind” is my personal mantra for every website design project I start.

Publishing websites are like Swiss Army Knives. They can do many things well. This makes them the perfect tool for digital publishers. A well-crafted publishing website can build audience, generate leads, and sell products and services. Each of these three major goals requires a separate and discrete business process that is embodied in a well designed website. Further, a well designed website that does two or more of the above must do so with tactically discrete processes that are strategically aligned. My colleague Randy Coon, CMO of the Motley Fool, cautions his team to focus on audience generation and audience monetization as two discrete steps in a two-step marketing program. The two steps must be aligned. The audience being generated must be full of qualified buyers for the second step to be effective. Many publishers build websites that either reverse the priority or ineffectively blur the process.

Setting clear business goals

At the outset of each website design project, we work with the client to make sure we understand their discrete business goals. For publishers, this means clearly identifying the organization’s audience development content program separately from its premium content program. The premium program comes first, and then the affinity content program is laid to it. The audience development blog or portal is built with audience generation as its primary goal. The other sections of the website designed for lead generation and direct sales are optimized for that primary purpose.

A detailed content plan

In the old days, we would generate a 12-month editorial calendar for each magazine, newsletter or book series we were producing. Our goal was maximum sales through content targeting. Now a content calendar is even more critical for a website because websites are archival, and the blog or portal is the hub of the audience generation effort. It’s imperative that our content calendar dictate the website taxonomy and publishing frequency. These actions coupled with audience development metrics will guide the success of our audience development program.

A visual site map

Once we know the business goals and content plan, it’s a piece of cake to choose the user task flows and website templates required to support both user experience and business goals. It helps that we’ve established clear functionality for each major component of the website such as the blog or portal, online store, community, and online directory. We maintain a set of best practices for each template and update them constantly based on user testing. We also constantly audit competitive websites for ideas about new best practices that should be tested.

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A detailed functional design specification

Every template for every section of our website must have a written detailed design specifications that spells out the exact functionality of every pixel on the page. Content sourcing, linking, and conditional functionality are just a few of the many items that must be spelled out before coding can begin.

Homepage mockup

For many people, all of the above is little more than gobbledygook. While critical to the whole process of web design, it is all very conceptual. The home page mockup takes all the above and adds the art and science of usability, typography, color and contrast, and brand aesthetics to create a highly complex document that is both functionally relevant and, when done well, transcends the sum of its parts. It is the critical link between the website design planning process and the website design and implementation across what may be hundreds of templates.

Staying out of trouble

I wish I could tell you I’ve been following the above process for the last 15 years. I have not. I was introduced to it in 2001 by Aimee Graeber, who now runs our website design team. Before I hired Aimee, my project offerings suffered from scope creep, poor documentation, and changing business goals. We routinely created project plans and delivery dates that were incompatible. We were guilty of being overly optimistic about our abilities and resources, and routinely failed to meet delivery dates or were routinely forced to cut project scope.

Aimee and her design team have grown older and wiser over the last decade. I also imagine that I’ve given them more than a few gray hairs pushing project scope and functionality to keep up with the very competitive publishing marketplace. Several of my clients are now large enough to have someone like Aimee running their website design, development, and support team. There is always a careful balance between pushing the system design to do more, and prioritizing what can get done with the resources available. Acknowledging that balance and having a design team leader who knows when to push back and went to buckle down and deliver is perhaps the single most valuable asset a digital publisher could have.

So the next time you set out to build a new website, follow the steps above, and partner up with someone who is both a phenomenal website designer and pragmatic team leader.

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One thought on “Avoiding Website Design Disaster: Begin With the End in Mind

  1. Dave Ball says:

    Good post, Don. I’ll be sharing this with my partners as we develop our site. Thanks.

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