Creating a Site Design Plan

Creating a Site Design Plan

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In: Articles

By Karen Morrill-McClure

Published on April 13, 2005

Some background

I design sites small enough that I can handle all the details myself—sites for small and micro businesses. Many sites I design don’t sell anything, so I used to have trouble applying planning advice I read in Web design books (see Further Reading below).

I’ve been playing around on the Web for a long time. I weathered the CSS revolution and was happy to leave tables, spacer GIFs and pixel-perfect layouts behind. I have a good handle on how to code a site—though I’m always learning something new—but I haven’t always known how to create the best site for my client.

Through a lot of trial-and-error and tons of reading, I came up with a method of planning that guides me logically toward the site’s goals. This helps me make design decisions, plus I wind up with a site that works better for my client.

I do all this planning in my first few meetings with the client, often before I have the job. It gives me good planning practice and shows the client that I’m serious about the job and that I know my stuff.

So, what’s the magic formula? Well, it’s not really magic. I figure out the needs of the business, the needs of the users and the overall goals of the site. These needs and goals act as my guides and destination.

Guides and a destination

All the books tell me to set goals for my site. OK. They say that those goals need to be measurable and definite. Fine. But asking my client, “What are the site’s goals?” never seemed to get me what I wanted. It occurred to me that a better approach might be to get some background info from the client and then set the goals and present them to the client for approval.

So, what kind of info did I need? Well, why does the client need a Web site? Good place to start. But the client isn’t the only one who needs this Web site. Why do other people—the site’s eventual users—need this Web site?

Everybody needs something

As soon as I started asking about needs, I started getting valuable answers.

I focus on two sets of needs: business needs and user needs. The first set helps define the goals of the Web site. And really, if the business doesn’t need a Web site for something, what’s the point? The second set sometimes gets lost. I think the designer should act as the voice of the user here, because if the users don’t need the Web site for something, it will fail.

I ask my clients, “Why do you need this Web site?” then prepare to take lots and lots of notes. I try to get as much detail as possible. For me, this where the fun starts. I like learning about new things and to do the job right, you really need to learn about the client’s business. Here’s where I also explore what the client really does—what the strengths of the business are, what needs to improve. I want the site to highlight the strengths and to help improve the weak areas.

Next, I ask: “Why do visitors need this site?” If you don’t deal with budgets that accommodate user testing, investigating the topic with the client is the best place to start.

There is an interesting side effect to asking what visitors need. Often you’ll hear something like, “They need to do something.” One part of Web analytics is studying the processes that visitors go through on your Web site and finding out where they abandon those processes. From this, you can deduce ways to retain more people. Asking what users need gives you a starter list of those processes.

Now I have a list of needs—one for the business, one for the users. I prioritize these lists, and that gives us a guide to getting to our goals. But what are our goals?

Goals: Are we there yet?

It takes a little more work to figure out the goals of the site. Instead of just asking the client, I tease out the goals from how the client answered my questions about needs.

Interestingly enough, most of the sites I work on don’t have the goal of “making lots of money.” Most of my sites are communication sites, so the goals become a little more complicated. I try to take what the client wants to do and put it in a few sentences of goals, like “cut down on phone calls about the posted schedules,” “let users know how to get a personal trainer,” and “present a sophisticated portfolio.”

Another way to think of goals is prioritizing what the Web site needs to accomplish. I’m moving back into the realm of business needs, but here I’m stating what the most important need is and what the result will be of meeting that need. A need could be: “A place for users to get info about their workout schedules.” A goal that comes from that need might be: “Cut down on the number of calls about finding schedules.”

Where there are a lot of business and user needs, I winnow the goals down to three to five to concentrate on. If we decide to do another iteration of design (not a redesign, but a tuning) then we can update the goals and concentrate on problem areas.

When there’s a fork in the road, design-wise, I look to my goals. Does one direction get me closer to those goals? Have I met the most important goals? I make my decision based on the answers to those questions.

Of course, this is just the start of my design process. The more work I put in at the beginning, the easier I find the road to my destination.

I’ll finish with a couple of examples, sort of a Cliffs Notes version of the process for two sites.


Small privately owned fitness gym — informational

The site is basically a brochure site, to present information to members and potential members. At first, the subject matter seems rather bland. The fun comes from figuring out what this particular business really needs from its site.

Business Needs

  • Cut down on calls asking for information
  • Get new members from the Internet
  • Showcase the personal trainers working at the gym

User Needs

  • Check out the gym online
  • Get basic information like operating hours and policies


Get new members from the Internet.

How? Make the site easy to find. When users reach the site, make sure they have clear information on how this gym works, how they can come in for a free fitness test and sign up with a personal trainer.

Cut down on calls for information.

How? Make sure that the most requested information (hours of operation, directions, etc.) is easy to find (on the home page).

Photography magazine — informational and e-commerce

A chain of photography supply stores owns this magazine, which acts as advertisement for the stores. The magazine had a Web site, but the implementation was haphazard. The issues weren’t put up when the magazine went out and the look of the Web site was nothing like the magazine.

Business Needs

  • Sell more photography supplies
  • Reach new potential subscribers
  • Sell advertising on the Web site
  • Have a site that reflects the magazine

User Needs

  • Get information about photography
  • Get back issues of the magazine
  • Contact magazine staff
  • Get links to equipment listed in the magazine


Put up the Web version on-time each month, create a layout and graphic design that reflects the print magazine and the needs of a Web site and stick to it.

Make the site easy to find for people looking for photography supplies.

How? Optimize the site for search engines

Guide more people over to the photography supply store.

How? Print URLs of equipment described in articles.

Put back issues up.

How? Make sure that the back issues are searchable and consider how to organize them so that both readers of the magazine and people just coming in from a search engine can find things.

Further Reading

If you want to read more about setting goals and planning sites (or Web design in general), check out these books:

Web Design on a Shoestring by Carrie Bickner

Information Architecture by Christina Wodtke

The Elements of User Experience by Jesse James Garrett

Related Topics: Web Design, Planning, Business

Karen Morrill-McClure is a freelance Web designer in Southern California who reads manuals for fun (and maybe someday profit). Her personal blog is Musings.