How to plan a website development project

Words and pictures, wrapped in code. Essentially that’s what a website is (at least on the customer-facing side). Yet this isn’t always reflected in the way businesses think when they are tackling how to plan a website development project.

What we will cover

We often find that in all the excitement websites are initially thought about from a purely design perspective. The marketing team are really interested in how the new site will look, the MD wants to be the best in the marketplace and it’s all about what imagery will be used, what colour schemes and fonts would look best together and how the pages will be laid out.

At Vu, we define much of this as part of a branding project, so these elements should all have been taken care of, if they don’t represent the company and need revisiting then that’s fine, but that needs to be the starting point, not letting the new website style dictate the brand.

Assuming we have clarity on the look and feel, let’s get back to how to plan a website development project

What does the website need to do?

The next step is working out the functional requirements, often the ambitions to reinvent user interfaces with whizzy bells and whistles disappear when they get costed at 3 times the production of the rest of the project, so we like to workshop with our clients to work out must-haves, should haves and could haves – and build a plan to staged releases if necessary.

Research and compare at the beginning

At the end of the project you will judge it by some metric, any investment of thousands of pounds will be judged by something. If you put those targets and goals first you will not only have an easier approach to managing stakeholders’ opinions through the project with the customer’s needs or targets at the heart of decision making. But you will also have something to come back to a month or a year after launch and say, was this a success?

We always do a discovery phase and it nearly always revolves around keyword research, because this tells us digital competitors (which are nearly always different from our clients expectations of the physical ones they encounter in business) it also highlights the opportunities to capture new business and the new content that will need to created to do so.

Approaching Content from the start

When it comes to the written content on the site, in our experience there is often much less interest on the client side in wading through hundreds of word documents and trying to imagine a structure than eagerness to review and comment on design.

We help by laying out visual wireframes and getting you setup with a content gathering piece of software that takes a lot of the pain of interpretation and document management away.

Businesses often have a ‘lift and shift’ mentality. This would be fine if the existing content had been fully audited and the business is 100% confident about their wording but, more often than not, the organisation has shifted and the content won’t represent the new feel of the website and it gets rewritten – it not tackled early, often last-minute which can lead to significant delays or turn the project on its head.

The tendency for written content to be ignored in favor of the conversation shifting towards imagery and video is reinforced when a designer-led marketing team is in charge of the discussions, again like the brand definition, it sounds obvious, but if the content doesn’t exist then this is a separate project that needs scheduling in and the website will have to wait its turn accordingly.

All of this highlights that when we think we need a website for our business, often what we actually need is new content, and in fact if there was an ongoing review and development process to this then the brand could be moved along in interactions rather than large stressful projects that encompass multiple disciplines.

Understanding the hierarchy of information

The above isn’t really surprising when you look at the relative purposes of visuals and writing.

The visuals are there to attract attention and to make an initial impression. These goals require non-verbal communication because the parts of the brain that respond to visual cues are way faster than the parts that process written language.

However, once your visitor’s attention has been captured and they are engaging with a website, it is the structure of the website that guides them through their questioning to conversion. So building a sitemap with a user-focussed agency is a great workshop exercise to figure out where all this information comes in the process.

However, if you want to have a go, a good test of this is to simply visit any website (including your own) and ask yourself, ‘now what do I do?’

It is then that you might notice all those imperatives shouting at you: ‘Shop. Get. Buy. Subscribe. Learn more. Visit, etc.’ These commands will often be accompanied by text explaining why you should obey. This text can be a few words or an essay but the important thing is that it’s there for a reason – and if it wasn’t, you would be a lot less likely to do anything apart from window shop.

Your brand story

So if you’re now thinking, ‘what should I be saying?’, ‘what tone should I be using?’ and even ‘what do I want my customers to do?’ then that’s good because we are really getting into what sets you apart, we’re hoping we have already worked this out through our branding project, but if not then this part of the process can become difficult.

Don’t be misled by bells and whistles, it is within your story that your success really lies! Here’s another reminder that being clear about your message and existence is the difference between a real success of your web development project.

When people think about branding they often associate this with a logo or a business letterhead. Writing only figures in their thoughts in terms of slogans: ‘Just Do It..,’ ‘Every Little Helps,’ etc. In reality, everything your business does is part of its brand.

Sprinting to the finish

With clear definition around the brand, the project, roles & responsibilities the thinking work is taken care of up front and the doing work gets scheduled in as production sprints.

Don’t let us put you off tackling how to plan a website development project by putting the hard stuff up front and saying work all this out first, but if you don’t tackle it, then experience tells us it will come back later.

At Vu we don’t just ask the questions and leave you, we discover the answers with you through workshops and research, then we work closely with you to iterate through to process to a successful end, it’s taken 10 years of learning all the mistakes in order to hone this process, so be careful if you buy elsewhere without doing the planning work.

As the old adage goes, fail to prepare, prepare to fail.

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