Planning Your Website – Web Rants, Part II

As I discussed in the previous article, the planning stage of your website lifecycle is vitally important to the overall success of your web development project. The more successful you are at this stage, the more successful you’ll be in achieving whatever goals you define, and the less traumatic the entire process will be in the final analysis.

I said last time that identifying your target audience effectively is not only important to helping you define design elements ranging from colors, graphics, and font faces, but identifying your target audience will also help you decide what kinds of technologies to use in implementing your site. These days, it’s pretty much a given that you will want to incorporate some kind of data base technology in order to deliver dynamic content to your website. This specific variety of database engine you choose to use is another key decision that must be made at this stage.

Database-driven dynamic content is an important aspect of high-end web site development. A properly designed database engine can greatly reduce the overall effort involved in maintaining a website. This will allow you to conserve their most valuable possession of all, namely time. We’ll discuss this aspect in greater detail when we get to the care and feeding stage, but part of your planning needs to include serious consideration about how much time and effort will be required to maintain this beast you are creating. Anything and everything you can do to reduce the amount of effort involved to maintain the website is time well spent.

Creating a database that can automatically deploy news articles entered in advance is a fairly sophisticated way of doing that. Other, more simple solutions can be as easy and effortless as tacking it an auto-responder onto a specific e-mail account. Auto responders are excellent tools that help create the illusion of the immediacy in your interactions with your end user. I say illusion because the auto-responder gives visitors to your site and instant response even though the e-mail or form-to-mail message may not be read by a human being for hours or days.

Much of what we do in web design and web development has little to do with reality. It has to do with creating illusion just as surely as a Hollywood production company. One of my personal pet peeves about web designers and web developers is that in my business we lie about the fact that illusion is a big part of what we do. Many times I’ve heard people say “oh it’s the latest technology.” Baloney! It’s not technology, it’s trickery. At least in Hollywood, they admit that it’s all smoke and mirrors. But I digress…

Other technologies that you may or may not want to include in your web site include:

  • Streaming audio
  • Flash movies
  • Java applets
  • Dynamic HTML
  • Fancy JavaScripts

A simple rule of thumb is that the broader the audience you’re trying to reach, the less fancy you want your web site to be. When I say less fancy, I don’t mean less sophisticated in terms of design or graphics, or less comprehensive in terms of content. The problem is tradeoffs.

Every time I include a flash movie or a java applet in my website, I am require in that visitors to my site have the computer system resources to take advantage of those technologies. Those system resources made mean installed plug-ins, additional RAM, or more powerful video cards. If my target audience is affluent and technologically savvy, these more sophisticated technologies are not a problem. But if my turn your audience is dependent, say, on web access via a public library, the system resources available to them are likely to be at a much lower level.

Other issues you need to address and in the planning stage are:

  • Your website’s purpose. Is it a “vanity site”?
    Are you selling something? Is it informational? Is it an online brochure?
  • What are the goals for your web site?
    Sales? Attendance at an event? Donations to our favorite nonprofit organization?
  • How will you track how well or poorly you are achieving your goals?
    By the number of visitors to your web site? By the amount of product sold through your web site? By the volume of hate mail you get in your mailbox?
  • How much time can you devote to maintaining your website?
    Remember, orders need to be fulfilled, emails need to be answered, and articles need to be written. All of these activities take time, so think carefully about how much time you really have available before you decide that having a weekly column is a really cool idea. Trust me!

Once you have a clear idea about what your web site is about, what your goals are in creating this website, and who your target audience is, you’ll be in a much better position to properly plan how you are going to achieve your objectives. Always, always look for ways to simplify, whether it’s the overall site structure, navigation, or some underlying database� issue. Recycle wherever possible, whether its graphics, style sheets, or snippets of JavaScript code.

Another very effective tool in designing the overall structure of your website is a flow chart. You need to plan the end users’ experience from the moment they enter your website until they leave it to go somewhere else. I also recommend the use of a hierarchical file structure to organize your content of your website. That means using folders and sub folders
to keep related files together.

For example: A typical web site designed to sell a product will include separate sections for sales, support, and background about the organization. Effective use of a hierarchical file structure would mean that all of the files related to product support would be in a sub folder named “support”.

Doing this has several advantages. One, it simplifies the URLs for the dominant sections of your website. Two, the words contained in your directory and file names act as keywords for search engine optimization. (I will deal with search engine optimization in a separate article, but be aware that meta tags are nowhere near as important to search engines as they once were.) Three, and probably most importantly, using folders and sub-folders helps you keep track of where things are in your web site. Anyone who is not using a default images folder and sub folders to organize the graphics used in their website is several shades of crazy, in my not-so-humble opinion.

So, now you’ve made all the major decisions required, defining what your web site is about, who you’re trying to reach, and what types of content you plan to give them, the next stage is development.

See you next time.

B.

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