Planning your site

Planning is crucial to the success of a site. You must consider elements such as your target audience's interests and needs, information you want to share through the web, organisation and presentation of content on your site, of the contents, funding, and your marketing requirements.

It is important that you consider how you want your site to work for your group and what benefits a site will bring to your visitors. Your site can be used to distribute publications, news announcements/media releases, reports, for support, or even for bulletin boards as an information rich central tool, to distribute information, for customer support or even for Online Forums/Bulletin Boards.

The planning process should also include a detailed plan for managing your site once it goes online. Do you intend to refresh the information on a weekly basis, adhoc, monthly? You may consider how you intend to update and improve your site, what demands this will place of staff and funding, who will take primary responsibility for maintenance, how you will evaluate the site's effectiveness, and how this assessment will be used to upgrade the site.

Unfortunately, this seems to be the single most important thing that a lot of web sites fail on:

  • good quality content that has been optimised for the web
  • menu and navigation that makes it simple to find content and move around your site

Appoint a Web Team Manager

Most groups find that designating one individual as the foremost decision maker for website development keeps the process streamlined and efficient. This individual can seek input and guidance from staff and/or a "web team" at regular intervals throughout the process, and relay reports back to the staff in a meaningful way. She/he will work with a web designer and/or developer on technical tasks which cannot be performed in house. To do this, they must: 1) be given authority to make decisions about the site's development, and 2) have sufficient time to devote to the tasks involved. Depending on the complexity of the tasks involved, one workday out of each week during the development process may be required.

As part of the planning process, the organisation must also consider who will be responsible for managing the site once it's completed. The staff member who guided the development may be the best candidate, particularly for a complex site or one that will receive frequent updates.

Content: Analyse your requirements

You probably already have documents and information you want to put up on your site, but you must first organise this information in a way that will be clear and accessible to visitors. Edit any documents to be appropriate for your target audiences, and decide on the organisational structure that will help your visitors find the information they need.

Effective websites are tools: they fulfil an integral role in an organisation's communications and outreach activities. In an organisation with a comprehensive communications plan, the website may already form a part of that overall strategy. Smaller organisations, groups that provide direct services, and non profits that engage in limited public outreach may need to devote additional time to developing communication goals for their site.

It is important to consider what role the site will play in your overall activities, and how it will support your mission. Ask these key questions in the initial stages of site planning:

  • How will the website support your mission and goals?
  • What end users will likely be the top visitors to the site?
  • What do you anticipate the end users will be looking for on the site?
  • What other end users would you like to attract?
  • What kinds of information, products, services, or tools will be of interest to these visitors?

Use your responses to these questions to suggest your site's content and design:

  • How does the website support your mission and goals?
  • What do you want the web site to do for your business?

This will largely be shaped by your overall mission, particularly as it relates to public outreach efforts. For example, you might hope to use your site to inform people about health issues and encourage them to seek out services.

You might want to keep local advocates updated on new policy changes and quickly provide petitions for them to circulate. You may want your site to become a trusted and influential resource on data for policy makers. Regardless of the audience, a powerful site encourages more than passive viewing; it can facilitate action and make a significant contribution to your organisational mission. Consider what you would like visitors to do as a result of viewing your site.

Keep it simple

When working out what you want on your web site, consider presenting the information in layers. You need to allow your audience to navigate your site quickly while making the information easy to access.

Lay out the content on your web site so users can explore it. Users interested in specific aspects of your group or its services should be able to easily find out more about the topic that they are interested in.

It is absolutely critical to make sure you structure information intuitively so that visitors to your web site can find what they are looking for quickly and easily.

When your customers are browsing your web site, let them decide how far into your web site they are going to dig.

Structure and navigation

The system of links that allows a visitor to move throughout your site. The structure is the way you organise the site's contents and the connections between pages. Navigation is the visual process by which a visitor looks at the site and attempts to identify a desired path through it.

A well-designed navigation system can make a complex site into a fluid experience; a poorly thought-out system can turn even a small site into a confusing maze. The challenge in site design is to make navigation so intuitive that the visitor perceives clarity and simplicity, regardless of how complex the underlying structure may be. The importance of an intuitive design can't be overstated.

Presenting a visitor with a list of links to every single page on the site would be confusing. Instead, sites tend to group pages by topic, and the titles of the groups becomes the titles of the main navigational links. A lot of information is condensed into those few categories, so their titles must be clear enough that the visitor can extract the intended meaning from them. In designing the main navigation of a site, you want the visitor to intuitively perceive the range of options available.

The user should retain an awareness of the overall site structure and where they are within it. This means that every page on a site should include a set of links to the major sections of your site, presented in a consistent graphic format. Within each major subsection, it's also appropriate to include navigation links that are specific to that area, but a visitor should always have a visual marker of the site's structure, and have the freedom to move smoothly between major sections.

Design content for your audience

The key to organising a site's content is to do it from the perspective of the end users - not from an internal group's perspective. You must be able to anticipate their responses and place information in the locations where the audience will intuitively seek what interests them.

Each category heading should do two things: suggest what kind of information it may hold and differentiate it from other categories.