Before the first line of code is even written, a website begins with a concept. This is more of a production and marketing than a programming task. Yet, it’s equally important for your web development. Whether you make a website for yourself or a client, there are six questions to ask before sitting down at the drawing table.
In the beginning, there are the things within your own sphere, things you know or can easily find out for yourself. Then you tend to the visitors of the site. Lastly, you look at what other people do.
1. What is the product or service?
Without a specific topic in mind, you wouldn’t make a website. A website costs time to create and money to host. Therefore, you really need to know what you want to show. This can be showcasing yourself as an expert and professional where you either provide high-quality information or your skills as a service. It can also be a product people can buy. What it is will determine the structure of your website.
For example, written content about your area of expertise will mean a lot of individual pages. They need to be arranged in a browsable collection. The simplest form is a blog which sorts by publishing date and a few main categories. For an expert site, rather take an alphabetical or top-down order. Since every page has a unique URL, you need to establish a system every page has to fit into, even the ones yet to be written. If you want to sell products, you need a page per product and then some for the standards such as retail locations, checkout and imprint.
2. What problem does it solve?
Talk less about yourself and more about your reader. What you do is similar to saying who you are. Yes, it can be interesting, but why a reader cares is what problem you solve. It’s about them. Most products or services are a means to an end. We buy a lightbulb to get light in the dark, a washing machine to wash dirty laundry. We get a car to move independently from A to B. We buy new clothes to feel pretty, and sports shoes to exercise. We buy a video game to play, a movie ticket to be entertained. All of this gives you information you can play with.
3. Who is the audience?
No, not who are you. Who is your audience? This is as much about demographic, to which we come in a second, as about the role they play in the decision making. Whether we have a corporate organization or a private single person, the sales process distinguishes five roles:
They are aptly named and you probably can guess their roles by their names. One person can cover several at once. Even then, they wear different hats in the specific moment. For the fun of it we are going to assume just that: we are dealing with only one person.
As the initiator you get up from your desk with the goal of buying lunch because it’s lunchtime and you haven’t eaten yet. Influencers – not the ill-reputed social media personalities, although they could play a part – make you aware that you are in fact hungry, your stomach for example. Your colleague told you about a new take-out place nearby and you read on the way to work the latest nutritional findings. As the decider you go to the recommended take-out place and browse the menu. You’ll likely end up with something gauged by your buyer and user roles: how much money you are willing to spend and your preferences for tastes.
Just how much the people involved in the sales process vary shows if we take a family to demonstrate. The parents pay, but the child uses the new toy. And the little ones sure know what they like and what they don’t.
4. Who is the person?
Each of these people with a role can be very unique, however often out of the large pool of people you want to appeal to it is possible to segment one or several target audiences.
Trying to appeal to everyone works for generic everyday items, but then again, you wouldn’t exactly make a website for it. The more specific the product or solution is, the more it will be the target audience. We try to combine a large enough group of similars but different to others. Cohorts which share characteristics and demographics making them an ideal customer. There is a bit of stereotype casting to it and nowadays we are less bound by societal constraints. We also might not cover every single person who would be interested in our product.
Creating an imaginary buyer persona is a way to get into your target audience’s shoes. Let’s start with the easy. What gender, age, education, marital status and income do you imagine your buyer to be? For instance if you sell a home improvement tool, most of the time you will think of a man with his own house. Therefore he is usually above 40 years old. He has time and some skills to try his hand at a DIY job, but is not too affluent to rather hire a professional. This is very contrary to the typical customer of designer jeans.
The buyer persona goes deeper than just a few socioeconomic factors. You can really make up a person with a name, back story, dreams and sorrows, specific likes and dislikes. Think about which type of TV show they would watch, which type of diet they follow, how they go about their day. When it’s time to design your site, you craft the look and feel of it with your buyer persona in mind.
In a similar league as the buyer persona is the buyer’s journey. This represents the stage in the decision making process the person is in. Generally, three stages are distinguished:
Depending on the stage, the website serves different purposes: attract a lead, inform a prospect, and sell or in marketing lingo convert to customer.
In the awareness stage, a person is just understanding there is a problem which they need a solution for. A typical advertising spot moves through these stages. “Does this problem sound familiar to you?”
In the consideration stage, they understand what a solution could be. “Here is what you can do,” the ad would say. Online this is the prospect researching and coming to know some providers with solutions in different forms and shapes.
Eventually, in the decision stage, they compare the best solution for them and ultimately decide which the ad would try to persuade with the words: “Our product is the best in the market to solve the problem.” Websites often have different pages with content for each stage.
5. How does it look?
You can be wild and free in the look of your site. First ideas are often good when they come freely without the restrictions of comparing to others, but at the same time you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. When you have a look at what other websites look like for inspiration you get an idea of what is already established so that a user has an easier time to orient themselves. What are your competitors’ sites like in terms of design, colors or wording? You can make it a point to be similar or be vastly different.
6. How do you monetize?
Ultimately, how will you monetize the website? Unless you are only in it for the heck of it. Like previously said, products or services are a means to an end, so is the website for you.
For the effort, you want to gain something. Do you want to sell something? Do you want to show yourself to find customers or a job? Do you want to attract lots of readers to make money from advertising? Even people with a sense of a mission, what we in German refer to as Sendungsbewusstsein, strive for their intangible return, perhaps not directly monetized. Whatever it is you want to accomplish, your website has to highlight it.
Roll up the sleeve
After a lot of rather theoretical food for thought, let’s get practical. With the groundwork we just laid, you can plan out your website’s main message and structure. You still need no coding experience. Following these five steps gives you further clarity in defining your website’s structure:
Set a timer to 15 minutes and brainstorm: what is your main message to your website visitor? Write down as many as you can think of.
From your list, select the best message. It’s usually the one you feel most excited about.
Given your message, what would be the Call to Action? What do you want your website visitor to do on your website? This can be “hire me”, “read more”, “contact me”, or similar things like that.
Define the content. Given your call to action, what do you need your visitor to see or read in order to be convinced to take action? Do you want them to read your blog? Do you want to list your skills? Do you want to show a portfolio? Do you want to show features of a product? Testimonials? List everything you feel your website needs.
This process will help you define a well structured website. We also highly recommend that you ask for the opinion of your friends or any other person. This is a good reality check. You can see if others understand your idea as well.
Once you know where you want to go with your website, you can set out to create. First the content, then the code. Content creation is less technically challenging. Everybody can write and take a picture, but it’s not to be underestimated. It is the meat of your website and it often takes longer than you think. Content generation, text and visuals (pictures, illustrations, colors), is the topic of our next article.