Web Site Design: What do you want to communicate?

Okay, you're at the point where you know basically what your web site is about. You also understand your audience. Now it's time to figure out what you are trying to tell your audience. What message or messages are you attempting to deliver?

What I usually do at this stage of the game is get a blank pad of paper and a good pen, go to the park (assuming it's a nice day) or someplace quiet and think. Another good place is the local library, although the office conference room will do in a pinch.

The idea is to stay away from a computer. You don't want to have any temptations near you at all. No terminals, no keyboards, no internet access, no email. Nothing. Why not? Because this stage of the game has nothing to do with the internet or computers. I've also found it's much easier to think without distractions like a ringing phone or a demanding email program.

So think about what you are trying to communicate. This is probably one of the most important parts of the design process. Do it right at the beginning and your web site will just come together by itself. Mess it up now, and you may find yourself making endless changes and fighting it for a long period of time.

I've found it's best to start from general terms (this is referred to top-down design) and work my way to the specifics. For example, let's say I have decided to make a web site about domestic cats and my audience is cat owners. All right, what am I trying to tell these cat owners?

I might begin by saying, well, I want to teach them some of the tricks that I have learned to make cat ownership more fun and fulfilling. I might also want to sell them some products (that is a form of communication) as well. In addition, I may want to stress ethical treatment of animals.

Now I can start putting this together in an outline or list or whatever you like. This is a thinking process, so just write down whatever you feel is important in as organized a manner as is appropriate. What you are doing is trying to get your thoughts organized and written down - this is nothing formal and it definitely does not need to be seen by anyone else. Formal design comes later, this is more of a high level analysis.

I might wind up with a list of things to teach my visitors about cats. The idea here is to give people some information which makes the site valuable for them. This is important regardless of whether or not the site is commercial - you must give people something of value or they will not remain at your site, they will not come back and they will not recommend to anyone else.

You may also start to consider briefly how you are going to communicate your messages. Think a little bit about graphics, sounds and other multimedia at this point. Staying with the cat example, I might want to include a chart of cat breeds with a picture of each breed, along with a description and favorite food. I may also want to include video or sounds to communicate better. Remember, you are not creating the web site or it's contents at this time - you are defining the boundaries.

Define the limits to what you want to discuss on your site. Current information? Daily or weekly tips (perhaps an ezine)? Historical data? Photo albums? How detailed do you want to get? How general? If you are selling something, how are you going to tie your content to your site?

Remember to always tie back your decisions to your goals and to your audience. Are these things that your audience would want to know? Does all of this information fit in with the site goals and objectives? In other words, if you are creating a web site about cats, you probably do not want to include articles and pictures from your skiing trip - unless, of course, you have a cat that skis.

I've found it's usually good to do this several times over several days. Write down your thoughts and organize them as necessary. Then go home and come back the next day. Repeat the process. Do this as often as necessary until it just feels like it's done.

Don't spend an outrageous amount of time on any of this. The whole process for a good sized web site should only take a few afternoons. Remember, you are defining in general what you are communicating. The specifics come later.

When you are finished, you will find that the remainder of the web site analysis and design process will go much smoother. And it should - you know what you are trying to communicate. That sure makes it easier to do so.

Reference: Richard Lowe, Jr. and Claudia Arevalo-Lowe,

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