1 Simple First Step You Can Take For a Great Web Site

(That Has Nothing To Do With Visual Design)

If you’re like most people, once you start thinking about your new website you get visions of colors and fonts and layouts swirling. Your mind races with the possibilities. Perhaps your first step will be signing up for hosting, or looking at websites similar to the one you want. Maybe you’re working with a designer or perhaps you “know a guy that knows a guy”. Or you’re planning on doing it yourself with the help of a framework like WordPress.

Believe it or not, you’re already set up to fail.

You have to start without considering design at all. Even the technology of the site isn’t important until you’ve been able to define the foundations of the project. Knowing the why and the what will make sure that as you or your designers go through the building process you will be able to judge the effectiveness of what you’re crafting.

So how do we get these answers? I have a simple First Step exercise for people thinking of building their sites that I like to lead people through, but it’s one that you can do on your own. It will take no more than about 30 minutes and will give you the foundations for everything to come.

– The First Step Exercise –

1 – WHY

Take a blank piece of paper. At the very top write:


Below that a write one line (no more) answer to the question, “Why do I want a website?” You may have several possible answers in mind, but pick only one as the most important. It’s important to get this crystal clear.

Now look at this sentence. Is it expressed positively? In other words does it express something that you want rather than something you don’t want? An example of a negative answer would be “I want a website because I can’t sell my widgets in Walmart” we can express that positively be defining what we DO want, “I want a website so that I can sell my widgets to customers.”
Negative: “I am missing possible memberships and donations.” Positive: “I need an engaging site that will improve membership and giving.”

Verify that your WHY statement is expressed positively.

2 – Who

Draw a line below your WHY. Down the left side of the paper, write a list of the people who will visit your website. Not names, but categories of people. Leave a bit of space between each one. New or prospective customers? Existing customers? Paying members? Try to order them in the list from most important on top downward and to start with, try to keep it under 5 (we can add more later, but this will give you your main targets.)

Take a look at your list. Did you remember yourself (or whoever is going to manage your site and add content)? Most people don’t, even though they will spend more time using the site than most visitors, so add your website admin to the list.

Now think about the first category of people on the list. Imagine you are a person in that group and write down at least 3 and no more than 5 things you want to be able to accomplish on the site. It might help to start by saying, “As a __________, I want to ____________.”
Examples: “As a prospective customer, I want to find information about the Wonder Widget 2000.” “As a current member, I want to pay my membership dues online.” “As a website administrator, I want to post announcements that all site visitors will see on the front page.” Don’t get too specific, dealing with HOW they will accomplish the goals, just state the goals.

Again, make sure these statements are expressed positively.

Congratulations! You’ve just created “requirements”. Each statement is called a “user story” and is very useful in planning. You have just solidified not only the “why” of your project but also what it needs to do. Use this list as you consider design choices and match it up. As you move through the project, look at your user stories and ask yourself, have we met this need or want? If I am a prospective customer, can I find the information about the Wonder Widget?

If you really want to do a good test, take your list and give it to someone who wasn’t involved in the creation and see if they can complete all the stories.

Armed with this First Step strategic thinking about your project, NOW you’re ready to get carried away with colors and fonts! Happy building!


Brian Wood

Brian Wood is a User Experience professional with more than 20 years of experience planning, designing, building, and deploying websites for small and large clients. He runs Mint Condition Studios, a creative technology company that specializes in web, video, and print design for small businesses, non-profit organizations, and churches.

For more information about these exercises, or to work with experienced User Experience professionals to plan and execute your project, contact Brian.