Crafting a website is not an isolated practice that merely revolves around visual design and web development—it also encapsulates other fields such as SEO, digital strategy, user experience, and content creation. It is the overlap of these various fields of expertise combining for a truly engaging, useful, and effective website that keeps users coming back for more.
Your website should move your company forward—not hinder it. Whether you’re considering a website overhaul or just need a refresh, let’s dive into the different elements that make some websites more successful than others.
1. Start with Strategy
It may seem like a no-brainer that you should begin the web development process with strategy, but unfortunately, this area often gets glossed over. So before we dive into the technical elements of developing a website, we need to first address the overarching strategy—things like goals, audiences, brand, and measurement.
Establishing Website Goals
There’s likely a reason you’re developing a new website. Do you need to update your site to feel more like your new brand? Accommodate a huge shift in your business? Increase conversion rates?
It’s not uncommon for websites to be built without a clear goal, and it often results in a poor user experience, bloated web design, and a lack of conversion rate optimization. Establishing goals early on informs your digital strategy, and provides a roadmap for important decisions regarding site content, user flows, and design. Is your website impacting your bottom line? If not, it is possible that it, in part, stems from a lack of clear objectives.
While identifying your objective may start as a macro exercise, it is also applicable on a smaller scale such as individual pages. A good exercise is to ask “What is the purpose of this page?” and “Can a user take action?” If you can’t identify the purpose of your content, your user is likely having the same challenge.
Defining Your Audience
Like your goals, target audiences should be identified and communicated to the team. Identifying this information as early as possible is important because it informs the overarching strategy that guides the site’s information architecture, how to best achieve the site’s goals, the site’s content, and of course the UX/UI design.
In some cases, companies will have multiple audiences they need to plan for. For example, a university website may need to talk to prospective students, current students, various departments, and alumni.
What if your audience represents a large varied segment and you don’t currently have more specific demographic information at your disposal? This is where research can greatly help your business uncover data about your customers. This can take the form of surveys, market research, and competitive analysis, to name a few options.
This is an obvious one, but you need to make sure your brand is clearly defined. Things like brand guidelines help keep everyone “on-brand” and allow those with less experience with your brand (think freelancers or agency partners) to jump in and out as needed.
Last but not least, you’ll need to ensure that you’ve thought through how you’ll measure success. This is closely tied to your goals, but goes one step further to ensure you’re capturing data in the right way. Do you have the right tags firing? How is this conversion being tracked? Is the information in Google Analytics correct?
Assuming you have all of these foundational elements set, you can move on to the fun part.
2. Digital Strategy
There are many things that contribute to a great website—many of which bleed into each other. For example, SEO is largely affected by UX and content strategy, and UX deals with everything from information architecture to web design. There’s a lot to unpack, but we’ll touch upon the biggest players here.
Information architecture is the structural design of your site’s information hierarchy—everything from your website’s sitemap, homepage, labeling, and categorization conventions, down to various content types you have throughout your site.
Well-structured information architecture does not just support strategy, it can greatly affect user experience and your SEO (like I said, it’s all connected). Better bucketing of important pages and topics leads to a more intuitive user experience, which leads to search engines prioritizing your site.
The most prominent example of information architecture is your website’s navigation. Are there opportunities to simplify and better align top-level menu items with the business’s primary objectives? Does the navigation hierarchy make sense, or does it require some reorganization? These questions are important ones to ask in the beginning of the process as it can be costly to approach them at a later phase in the project.
User Experience (UX)
Good UX design revolves around the core user’s needs and problems. It also depends on research, user testing, strategy, audience, objective, information architecture, visual design, and facilitating engagement.
If you don’t have all the aforementioned elements working in concert, a good user experience is not likely. At the heart of user experience design is, of course, the user. It is critical your business learns as much as possible about your customers.
Creating user personas for your ideal customer is one way to anticipate user needs and challenges. You can also evaluate analytics data to derive insight into how UX improvements have impacted your site metrics.
From page load speed to UX and content, SEO is the result of a ton of different elements working in tandem. When it comes to web development, make sure that your team has a working understanding of how search engines crawl and index pages, how clean code and other elements can affect page load speed, what types of content you’re creating, and which keywords you’re trying to rank for.
On top of all that, you should also be aware of SEO trends. Google is infamously always tweaking their algorithm, and the rise of voice search is at the forefront in many SEO experts’ minds. All of these things will need to be considered throughout the development process so the end result is something both search engines and your users will love.
The ubiquitous “C” word that marketers love to talk about. We have all heard countless times that “content is king.” And honestly, it’s true.
It’s one thing to build a strategic, user-centered, beautiful website, but a question that must be answered is how do people find out about it? How do you drive traffic to your site in a way that is sustainable? Certainly, there are opportunities between your site’s SEO, digital advertising, and social media platforms, but you still need to be creating content on a regular basis that is useful and relevant to your audience to help drive those initiatives.
Start thinking about content early in a web design project, rather than later as an afterthought. One mistake many businesses make is to build out a blog on their site with no action plan to keep it updated and current. Content marketing is a grind. It’s something that takes years to build. Years to refine. But if you want results from your site, you’ll almost certainly have to invest in it.
3. Web Design
The visual layer of a website, when informed by strategy and user-centered thinking, can elevate the entire brand experience. Design decisions can greatly influence the effectiveness of digital strategy, connecting with your audience, and helping solve complex problems within the website. Great web design can also aid in telling a story, and when paired with useful, relevant information, it can educate, entertain, and delight while achieving business goals.
Here’s what you need to know.
Great user experiences are informed by so many other data points—user data, business goals, digital strategy, user flows, and more. And while there’s certainly something to be said for making a site beautiful, great UX designers make it intuitive, useful, and easy to navigate as well. In a perfect world, you’d have both, but users will bounce from even the prettiest websites if they can’t find what they’re looking for.
In recent years, Google has made a push for making websites more accessible to those with disabilities. This relates to everything from text (for example, no gray text on similarly gray backgrounds) to images. So even if something looks great to a designer, it’s important to comply to accessibility standards so that everyone can read and navigate your site.
These days, nearly everyone has a smartphone. That means your site needs to be optimized and designed for mobile. Does this mean that you have to adopt a mobile-first mentality? Well, that depends. If your users mostly browse your site on desktop, it might not make sense to think mobile-first. Either way, there will be users hitting your site from mobile devices, so make sure to keep them in mind.
4. Web Development
Last but not least, we have web development. We won’t delve too far into the weeds for this, but rather touch upon some of the most important things for creating a great site.
Page Load Speed
How fast your site loads won’t necessarily make your site, but it can break it—Google, your users, and pretty much everyone in the world likes fast websites. Things like huge image files, videos, and inefficient code can cause longer page load times. To get this within a healthy range, test your own site and work with your DevOps engineer or developers to come up with a solution.
There are tons of hosting types out there, but when it comes to your website, web hosting is the most important for things like security and resource capacity. The level of website sophistication, amount of traffic, and how you manage your site will all affect which hosting solution is right for you.
In short, hosting is a whole other world in and of itself. And with a ton of $5-per-month solutions out there, it can be tempting to go a cheaper route. But make sure to educate yourself first and make a decision that ensures your website stays secure and can handle influxes of traffic.
Everything, or Nothing
Designing for the web requires more than building something that looks great. That’s a big part of it, but the end product has to work well for users on multiple platforms, and it has to deliver business results. If a new website only meets one of those goals, or if it leaves even one out, it simply isn’t good enough. But when web design, digital strategy, and web development work together, the finished product won’t just be beautiful. It’ll be effective, too.