February 18, 2013
All in all, it was a good meeting. Our new client was happy, and we were looking forward to beginning a new project. As we were about to leave, one of the managers asked, off-handedly, “So how do you think you’ll want to design the site?”
I paused. “Well, that depends. What do you want your site to do?”
This was a question they’d never asked themselves before.
Our clients knew they had to have a website — all their competitors have websites, after all — but, beyond that, they hadn’t considered the idea that a website could be more useful than a virtual brochure.
In the coming days, our talks focused on what else we could do for them. While they didn’t necessarily want to focus on social media or branding, they did want an area where their employees could fill out paperwork online. This and a few other addendums to the original project plan gave them a site they actually could use, rather than a static piece of expensive marketing material.
Figuring Out Your “Why”
Why are you building your website? What do you want it to do?
For most people, the answer is — directly or indirectly — “I want my website to make me money.” But how? Do you want sales leads, or are you focused more on reassuring leads you already have that your firm is best for the job?
Once you have your answer, write it down. You might have several reasons for creating a website; for example, a site selling environmentally-friendly supplies might primarily exist to sell products, but also to advocate for sustainable lifestyles. Keep writing until you run out of reasons.
Consider Your Audience
Why will people come to your website?
In design, we make “user stories” — a list of all the kinds of people who might come to a website, and why — to figure out how we should lay out a website. For example, think of who might visit a college website:
- A high school student looking for application information
- A current student, looking for academic information
- A prospective applicant to a staff position at the college
- A parent of a current student, looking for information on tuition payments
All these people have differing levels of technical capability, and all of them need to be able to find information relevant to them easily.
While chances are your website is a lot less complicated than an average college’s, knowing what your audience wants will still help you decide what elements to feature prominently.
Acting with Purpose
Knowing what you want your website to do — and what your audience wants your website to do — makes you more effective at every stage of the process. It allows design firms to estimate your costs with more certainty, it gives a reason for a redesign beyond “because our site looks old,” and it drives the design and the content.
Even if you currently have a website, knowing the “whys” can help you make small changes that have a big impact. Not everyone can afford to hire someone to do user experience design, but everyone can and should be mindful of their users.
This year, let’s all resolve to live our digital lives with purpose. Don’t post for the sake of posting, or build for the sake of building. Find your purpose and stick to it — you’ll be surprised at the results.
Rachel Ross specializes in content strategy at ForeFront Web, a web design firm based in Dublin, Ohio. Follow @forefront on Twitter.