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Steps to Take Before Designing a Website

Us web designers… we like to jump right into the creative ball pit sometimes, and get right to the fun stuff in Photoshop & CSS. I know I’m guilty of it sometimes, and I bet you have been too in the past. It’s not the end of the world, but it really isn’t best practice for design – and if you’re a professional, you should be paying attention and adhering to best practices. That’s why there are a few steps you should take before designing a website.

Steps to Take Before Designing a Website

Meet the Client

I’m a big proponent of meeting the client face-to-face at least once prior to beginning a project, when possible. There’s no better way to build trust with someone and figure out whether the two of you are a good match for a project than a face-to-face meeting. Here, you can make some small talk, learn about their business and goals, tell them about yours and more.

I understand that, in today’s day and age, not all of your clients are necessarily in your city or otherwise available to meet face-to-face. In this instance, a video chat application like Skype is a great answer.

Anyway, building trust with one another lays the groundwork for the best project possible. It’s established in this meeting how much you know about your field, and how much the client knows about theirs. If neither feels comfortable about the other, then one can decline the project early on and avoid potential headaches down the road.

This initial meeting is also a great way to complete the next step: needs assessment/site requirements.

Needs Assessment/Site Requirements

The needs assessment is a vital step in the beginning stages of a website design project. It identifies user groups, their needs, and the company’s goals and adapts this information to a requirement list for the site. It provides a logical backbone to design off of and will allow you, down the road, to design to meet those outlined goals and requirements.

Some design firms have clients fill out an online form or a questionnaire of some sort, on their own time, to gather this information. While this will save you time, we prefer to gather this information through an informal face-to-face meeting (usually the initial meeting, outlined above). The reason for this? Defining a list of users, the methods in which they’ll find the site, the options you want to present to them etc. are all very industry-specific skills. It’s entirely possible your client – say, a mom-and-pop restaurant for example – will have no idea how to accurately answer these questions.

I think it’s the responsibility of the web designer to help the client outline these needs and users – not just to fire a list of questions to them and leave the client to their own devices. Our knowledge in our field means we can ask a series of pointed questions and give related examples to help drill down to the real information we need to do our jobs.

Over time, you’ll develop your own list of questions to complete a needs assessment, but here are some to get you started:

  • Who are the potential users of this site? Be as specific as possible: general demographic, age range, income bracket, expected computer literacy, etc.
  • By which methods will the users arrive at the site? For example: organic keyword search; post-meeting with business owner; referral from friends; etc.
  • On what platforms will the users be using the site? For example: desktop, tablet, laptop, smartphone?
  • What does the site need to accomplish (for each/every user group)? For example, provide easily searchable information; drive more sales; drive more sign-ups; etc.
  • Are there specific functions required? For example, submission forms; e-commerce; blogging; etc. Provide a range of possibilities to your client based on the answer to the previous question.
  • Do you require the site to be built on a content management system? We haven’t NOT built a site on a CMS in a long, long time.
  • Do you require statistics tracking? We generally always have this in place for our clients.

This is just a short sampling, but you can see what sort of information you’re looking to get here. Leverage their business goals with your design knowledge in order to maximize the project’s potential.

Proposal

The needs assessment/site requirements list allows you to go off and write up a proposal for your client. This proposal is a document that outlines all the information required for the project. Our proposals include the following sections:

  • Client Name
  • Client Needs (outlining what was described in the needs assessment; can contain both high-level and specific requirements)
  • Recommended Solution (how you plan on meeting all the previously described needs, e.g. if the client needs a CMS-powered site, you’re going to build the site on WordPress)
  • Project Phases (this explains the project workflow to the client, so they know exactly what to expect. Suggested phases: Needs Assessment, Content/ Research/ Wireframing, Design, Development, Testing, Launch & Training)
  • Fee Summary (a breakdown of the costs for the project)
  • Next Steps (a clear action for the recipient of the proposal to take if they want to move forward)

Your proposals may be more succinct or more in-depth – it’s your business, and your clients, so you make the call. Just make sure it’s digestible, legible, logical, and that it looks sharp. You’ll find yourself reusing a lot of the information for various proposals, so create a template and configure it for each client to save you some time.

Sign The Contract

Once the client gives you the verbal acceptance of your proposal – which they will, because you’ve taken such good care of them and shown so much interest, right? – you need to draft up a contract. No need to re-invent the wheel – here’s a list of some web design contract templates to get you started.

Make sure to let your client know that signing a contract protects them just as much as it protects you. If they don’t want to sign a contract, and you don’t have any history working with the client, you might want to leave that project for someone else. That’s a red flag for me.

Take Payment

Part of your contract should state the fee payment schedule. We either take 50% up front, or do a 25/25/50 split depending on the contract – I highly recommend doing something similar, depending on the project size/your history with the client etc. A financial commitment to the project is a good commitment to make, and will help both parties feel at ease that the project is being handled professionally.

Specific to taking payments: we only take cheque or email money transfer payments. We tried PayPal for a bit, but a) we’re not a high-volume business, b) PayPal is a sketchy monopoly, and c) a 4% cut can hurt on a big payment. It’s your call though – offering the ability to take credit cards is a nice value-add for your clients.

Get Designing!

Once you’ve completed all the above steps, you’re ready to enter into the design stage. Now, I don’t mean you should immediately open up Photoshop and start going buck wild with the gradient tool or anything – we start with research & wireframing, personally. But that’s a topic for another post, I think.

What are you thoughts? Do you take a different path when first starting a web design project with your clients?

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