Websites: just a bunch of pages, right? No.

I’ve been creating websites for a while.  Big deal, right?  Everyone and their mother can say that in 2013.    It’s easy, right?   Just draw a set of pages on a white board and connect them and then fire up whatever tool you use and throw these things together to make a web site.    It’s such an easy bikeshed to set up, and everyone wants to be involved with drawing diagrams of pages on a white board and connecting them together using terms like, “Dynamic” and “Javascript” without having to sit down and bang out the code themselves.

Everyone fashions themselves a Jakob Nielsen these days, and everyone’s always ready to tell you that you “got the structure of the site wrong.”  This is the way people do it these days, and I’ve been in these meetings.     These interminable meetings with executives spouting off about what colors they like and whether buttons should be rounded.

“It’s just a bunch of pages, right?”

@#$@ no.   Cut it out.    That’s the way you might create a web site for the local chocolate shop or maybe the 100 sq ft. Irish sweater store on Main St.   But, a company’s web site.  No.

No no no.

Pages are what you should think about last, and high level executives… Dude, how about you figure out what the company does first before you dive into HTML structure?   No one does this, it’s crazy making, almost every web site I’ve been involved in is run like a cargo cult.   (Look at how they do it, let’s do it like that because it’ll bring the customers over.)

Don’t start with “pages”, start by figuring out a good reason to have a web site…

This is the missing piece.  Right, the starting gate for creating a website is in the wrong place.  Don’t start with nav menus and discussing color schemes.   I don’t care where you work, you could work at Google, but the default answer to the question: “Do we need a website?” Should be no.

Start with the assumption that you don’t need a website, and convince yourself objectively that you do.  Make a game out of it.   For most of you this will be an easy argument to make.   But, you should be forced to make the argument, and in doing so it should focus the effort on the real motivations for having a web site.

You could be making a website for a company like Forbes.  Of course you need a damn website at Forbes, but go through motions and write up a set of justifications.  You also should be open to the idea that you might not need a website, I can think of several local mom and pop restaurants around here that don’t need a web site; in fact, they have websites that probably detract from business – they could just use Facebook or GrubHub.

Nope, don’t start designing yet, you have more thinking to do…

Start with any of the following:

  1. Figure out who your audience is.
  2. Then ask yourself, why the @#%# do we want a web site?   Answer that question, don’t just do it because everyone has a website.
  3. Figure out what you want your audience to do?  Do you want them to buy something?  Do you want them to learn something?
  4. Now, here’s the important part, put yourself in the mind of audience member and figure out what would make you do #3.

Only after you’ve figured out the items in that list should you take the cap off of a dry erase marker and start drawing anything on a whiteboard.  And, really at that point, don’t start talking about pages and navigation and all the bull5#$! that people normally associate with web sites.

You’ve got the Why and the Who figure out?  Now think about what you do.

Instead, start thinking about this:

  1. What is it that you do? Or sell? Or teach?  Whatever.  What do you do?
  2. Model that.   I know this is tough to do for most people, but model the things you produce or write or whatever.
  3. Think about the user’s decision making process in relation to whatever it is you just figured out in Step #2.

Maybe.  Maybe then you should talk to someone about a website, but don’t rush it.  

And, don’t skip all the stuff I just told you to do, this is how “Design Firms” and “Marketing Specialists” screw companies out of a ridiculous amount of money.   They sell them this idea that it’s easy to just make a website, they skip all the important conceptual work that needs to be done, and just dive into selling time and services for all of this.  Then they circle back and realize that it takes far more time to retrofit a purpose for existing on a website that is done and you get stuck with a marketing firm that wants to help “position your business.”

What I’m Saying: Position Your Own Damn Business

Figure out the reasons and the audience before you start talking to that guy with the shiny shirt, thick dark rimmed glasses, and a $200/hour rate.  Figure this stuff out before someone fires up an IDE and spits out a Rails site, installs Drupal, or, worse yet, spends $5 million on an expensive (and unnecessary) enterprise content management system.