What your designer and developer want you to know about building a website

by Meg Fowler Tripp for iMedia Connection

Creating and launching a new website—or revitalizing the one you already have—can be a tremendously rewarding and transformative experience for an organization. Few other communications projects offer such a rich opportunity to dig into the needs and wants of both your internal and external constituents, to evolve how you tell your story verbally and visually, and to create a user experience that reflects the personality of your organization.

On the other hand, developing a website can be expensive, stressful, confusing, and unsatisfying—especially if the end result is a far cry from what you envisioned. Fortunately, with the right process, plan, and perspective in place, disappointment doesn’t have to be the order of the day.

I spoke with some user experience, design, and digital development pros to get some insights on how to make sure your project becomes a functional home for your brand and content—and not a digital “money pit”.

Make your Users your First Priority

It’s tempting to start your web project by compiling a massive wish list of bells, whistles, and widgets you’ve always wanted, but in a twist on the famous John F. Kennedy quote, “Ask not what your website can do for you, but what you can do for your users.” Every web development team has been handed the former list—but they really want to work with you on creating a great user experience. “Users” could include any external audiences who visit your website, right through to the internal teams who use your website as a part of their job.

“Ask not what your website can do for you, but what you can do for your users.”

Why do people come to your website? What functions do your users need your website to perform? What types of information do they want to put / find there? How can you make it easy for them to find what they need efficiently? With the answers to these questions in hand, you’ll be putting the focus where it belongs: on the people who put your site to work!

Bring Everyone to the Table from the Beginning

Every designer and developer has experienced the “parachute” approach in the midst of working on a website: a plan or design lands on your desk with little explanation as to the “what”, “how”, or “why” behind it. This can lead to a wave of revisions in short order, when it turns out that—because of capability, budget or timeline—some aspect of what parachuted in simply isn’t feasible.

Many of these hiccups can be avoided by taking a collaborative approach: include your team, your user experience pro, your designer, and your developer in your conversations from the very beginning. Each one brings a slightly different perspective to your planning—and together, they’ll be able to get to the best possible design

Design for a Diverse set of Screens

In a world where people use smartphones, tablets, laptops, and desktops of wildly variable ages and origins to access websites, your gorgeous design could end up looking a little dysfunctional to your visitors, depending on their device. Your best hope is to practice responsive design: an approach to web design that prioritizes the user’s environment, behavior, and technology in terms of how it displays and functions.

This means that, whether it’s your Aunt Sally with her aging PC laptop or your brother Jeff with his brand-new smartphone, your visitor gets the best possible version of your website on their screen. Will responsive design make your website display identically anywhere and everywhere? Nope. Will you be able to execute on your (and your designer’s) wildest design fantasies on every screen? Nope.

What you will be able to do is provide your users with their best possible website experience—and that’s what will keep them coming back for more.

Treat your Website like a Living, Breathing Thing

While your designer and developer are working on bringing your plans to life, your focus should be on one big word: content. Unless you’re planning to plug all your old words, images, and multimedia files “as is” into your new website—something we’ve never seen here before—you’ve got some cataloging, editing, re-writing, creating, and migrating in your future.

Use this as an opportunity to figure out what’s not working for you anymore, what needs updating, and where any content holes might exist—because that’s a huge part of providing a great user experience, too. And once your website is live, your commitment to providing great content should continue with regular updates and tweaks to key areas of copy.

Enjoy the Experience—and Keep it Going

While it’s important to prioritize your user experience throughout your website project, your experience throughout the journey matters, too. Take the opportunity to learn and ask questions about all the design and technology involved—your team will have the answers, and they genuinely like to talk about this stuff. Dream big about ways to insert more of your institutional personality into your presence through your content.

Finally, from the very beginning of your website project, keep this as your call to action: the more engaged and connected you stay with the process, the better you’ll be at maintaining the work (and encouraging others to do that maintenance) once you’ve launched your new presence.