Web Design - First Things First
Posted Thursday, September 30, 2004
You say you've got a great idea for a website? If you are like most people, you just grab your favorite HTML editor and start coding away. In fact, most everyone that I know just jumps on in even before they get space on their favorite web host, and oftentimes even before they really know what they are trying to do with their new site...
For many years I was a programmer and I found the same exact sentiment in that field. Just start coding was the watchword. In fact, I had more than one boss in my long career who actually stopped design and analysis so that we could start coding the programs. One very memorable boss, by the name of Gary, forced me to skip any kind of specification for a project on which we were working because he believed (mistakenly as it turned out) that the customer needed to see finished programs as soon as possible.
A fact that must be understood is it is imperative that a project be well thought out in advance or there is an excellent chance that it will fail. I have been managing software projects for over 22 years, and one common thread among hundreds of projects is quite simply those that had good design and analysis done up front succeeded, and those that didn't failed (or required superhuman effort to get finished).
This fact works with websites as well as software projects. The more time you put in up front thinking about what you want to accomplish the better the project will turn out. Of course, this can be taken to a ridiculous extreme and a project can never even be started because the analysis never gets done, but it works in general.
The first thing to do before you code any HTML, build any databases, create any graphics or write any content is find out or figure out what purpose you are trying to achieve. I usually start with a single paragraph which states exactly what I am trying to accomplish. For example, for an intranet which I built a couple of years ago the purpose was stated thusly:
A compendium of all of the technical documentation needed by my staff to support our warehouse systems, applications, operating systems, server hardware and operating system software. The site is to include many flowcharts which demonstrate how data flows from system to system. This data is intended to be used in day-to-day operations and should be specifically tailored to fit each of my staff's individual jobs.
You see - simple. Yet what flows from this paragraph are many implications. The target audience is my own staff, which defines how the articles will be written. The content is defined as is the intention.
For my Internet Tips And Secrets website, the purpose was defined as follows:
Our web site will contain original articles intended to help people learn about the internet. The articles will stress ethics on the internet. All aspects of the internet are to be covered, including newsgroups, email, graphics, web site design, ftp and so forth.
My wife's Surviving Asthma site had the following definition:
This site will contain information about how I am combating my asthma condition, and how I have survived with this disease. My intention is to help other people gain hope and assurance that the disease can be successfully combated.
You see how each of these paragraphs defines the intention behind the web site. What overall purpose is trying to be achieved? Who is the intended audience? What kind of content (very generally) will be required? Is the purpose commercial, informational or something else?
It is important to keep this paragraph short and to the point. You are just trying to get down in simple terms the reason why you are doing this project. You are not performing the analysis and design as of yet - you are defining what you are trying to analyze.
The purpose of this first critical part of web site design is to put a boundary around what you are trying to accomplish. By putting into words, however briefly, your purpose, you can begin the next phase, which is fleshing out your concept and getting a handle on more precisely what you are trying to accomplish.
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