Web designers often think about the web design process with a focus on technical matters such as wireframes, code, and content management. But great design isn’t about how you integrate the social media buttons or even slick visuals. Great design is actually about creating a website design that aligns with an overarching strategy.
Well-designed websites offer much more than just aesthetics. They attract visitors and help people understand the product, company, and branding through a variety of indicators, encompassing visuals, text, and interactions. That means every element of your site needs to work towards a defined goal.
But how do you achieve that harmonious synthesis of elements? Through a holistic web design process that takes both form and function into account.
For me, that website design process requires 7 steps:
- Goal identification: Where I work with the client to determine what goals the site needs to fulfill. I.e., what its purpose is.
- Scope definition: Once we know the site’s goals, we can define the scope of the project. I.e., what pages and features the site requires to fulfill the goal, and the timeline for building those out.
- Sitemap and wireframe creation: With the scope well-defined, we can start digging into the sitemap, defining how the content and features we defined in scope definition will interrelate.
- Content creation: Now that we have a bigger picture of the site in mind, we can start creating content for the individual pages, always keeping search engine optimization in mind to help keep pages focused on a single topic. It’s vital that you have real content to work with for our next stage:
- Visual elements: With the site architecture and some content in place, we can start working on the visual brand. Depending on the client, this may already be well-defined, but you might also be defining the visual style from the ground up. Tools like style tiles, moodboards, and element collages can help with this process.
- Testing: By now, you’ve got all your pages and defined how they display to the site visitor, so it’s time to make sure it all works. Combine manual browsing of the site on a variety of devices with automated site crawlers to identify everything from user experience issues to simple broken links.
- Launch! Once everything’s working beautifully, it’s time to plan and execute your site launch! This should include planning both launch timing and communication strategies — i.e., when will you launch and how will you let the world know? After that, it’s time to break out the bubbly.
Now that we’ve outlined the process, let’s dig a bit deeper into each step.
1. Goal identification
In this initial stage, the designer needs to identify the end goal of the website design, usually in close collaboration with the client or other stakeholders. Questions to explore and answer in this stage of the process include:
- Who is the site for?
- What do they expect to find or do there?
- Is this website’s primary aim to inform, to sell, or to amuse?
- Does the website need to clearly convey a brand’s core message, or is it part of a wider branding strategy with its own unique focus?
- What competitor sites, if any, exist, and how should this site be inspired by/different than, those competitors?
This is the most important part of any web design process. If these questions aren’t all clearly answered in the brief, the whole project can set off in the wrong direction.
It may be useful to write out one or more clearly identified goals, or a one-paragraph summary of the expected aims. This will help to put the design on the right path. Make sure you understand the website’s target audience, and develop a working knowledge of the competition.
Tools for website design goal identification stage
- Audience personas
- Creative brief
- Competitor analyses
- Brand attributes
2. Scope definition
One of the most common and difficult problems plaguing web design projects is scope creep. The client sets out with one goal in mind, but this gradually expands, evolves, or changes altogether during the design process — and the next thing you know, you’re not only designing and building a website, but also a web app, emails, and push notifications.
This isn’t necessarily a problem for designers, as it can often lead to more work. But if the increased expectations aren’t matched by an increase in budget or timeline, the project can rapidly become utterly unrealistic.