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Jun 23, 2017

Website development strategy - Content First Approach

Article brought to you by Nilead, a website builder platform with fully-managed design, development, and management services.

Website development strategy


Table of contents

The people you often find in web design agencies are sales agents, designers, and developers. What are their interests?
  1. A good sales person wants to close the deal with you, so they will promise the Earth.
  2. A designer wants to make something beautiful, something artistic with tons of effects.
  3. A developer cares about the code underneath, she wants to work with latest technologies and fancy stuffs.
None of them cares about the success of your business. Ask any agency you find how they define a successful website? The most common answers you may find them quote are:
  1. Responsive website that can be used on multiple devices.
  2. User-friendly, modern and elegant design.
  3. Website development with latest technologies and clean code.
However, your goal in making a website is not the website itself, your goal is to get a tool that is going to make you more conversions (more leads, more sales). You need a new online tool that is custom made, tailor-fitted to integrate well within your current sales cycle. This is the end-goal that you should never forget about, because during the endless technology and design pitches from the agencies you may start losing focus of your goal.

I. Start with a full business analysis

Forget the design, forget the technologies you may want to use for your website, forget hosting and domain etc,... The very first thing you need to do before building your website has almost nothing to do with the website design and development process itself. If you need a website just because you want a website, then you can skip the rest of the article, I would recommend you looking into using pre-designed templates or website builders to quickly generate a website at the lowest cost (and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that).

If you need a website that is effective for your business and helpful to your prospects, you need to first analyze your own business. You, more than anyone, should know all about your business, your customers, and your competitors to answer these following questions:

Business analysis before a website project

Understand your business

We start first with a deep understanding of your business to see why we have to make this website:

1. What is your business, how is it different from others? What is your Unique Sales Proposition (USP)?
Why this is important: understanding your USP will allow the designer(s) to know what to highlight on your new website.

2. What is the purpose of the website for your business?
Please, please do not try to make a jack-of-all-trade website. I have seen so many cases people trying to stuff everything they can ever think of on the website.
Why this is important: knowing the purpose of the website allows the team to plan the necessary features for design and development.

3. How does the website fit into your current sales process?
Why this is important: understanding your sales process allow the team to customize the user experience when they visit the website (do we need to focus on the company introduction or emphasize the shopping experience?).
If the website works as a single link in the sales chain then how does it integrate with the other links? The developers may need to create ways to request and exchange data with the other links within your sales cycle.

4. How do you plan to manage your website? Do you have enough time and resources to manage the website in-house or do you need website management services?
Why this is important: If you do not have time to manage your blog articles or image gallery then it's rather pointless to include those features on your website. If your team has little technical knowledge then the design and development should take this into account to ensure future website management can be as easy as possible for your team.

Understand your customers

Now that we know the reason we need to create the website for your business, we need to understand whom we make it for:

1. Who are your customers?
Why this is important: the job of the designers is to ignore personal opinions and gut feelings and to put themselves in the shoes of the website visitors. Knowing your customers and why they come to the website allow the designers to have a clearer understanding of the website audience.

2. Can you put them into socio-economic groups? (Describe them in terms of age, occupation, income, lifestyle, educational attainment, etc.)
Why this is important: this can give us the information we need to create a seamless experience on the website for you. If the majority of your visitors are elders, for example, we may need to consider use bigger and easier to read text font. On the other hand, younger audience may prefer a more colorful color palette with more information stuffed neatly together.

3. What are their pain points?
Why this is important: your visitors come to your website with unresolved problems and they hope to find solutions on your website. By understanding the exact issues they have and why they have come to you (why didn't they just stop at one of your competitors websites), you can give them what they want in the way that is most convenient for them.

4. Can you describe their interaction flows with your website?
Why this is important: websites are often designed without a clear goal and well-defined user flows in mind which often lead to confused visitors and low conversion. A normal flow (sometimes called sales funnels) usually include 3 major steps: show/introduction -> convince/persuade -> call to action (contact, quote, purchase). Each single element and page on your website should be designed and arranged to serve a clearly-defined purpose. Having the interaction flows also allow you to track every single interaction of the visitors on the website and measure the success rate of your website in the sales conversion process.

Understand your competitors

Once you launch your website, you will have to compete with others to grab the attention of the users so you need to know as much about them as possible:

1. Who are your competitors?
Why this is important: this is pretty obvious, without knowing who we are competing against how do you know what you need to do to win more business (from them)

2. What are they doing that you like and think you can learn from?
Why this is important: there is no need to re-invent the wheels, we can always learn from what they are doing right and apply to our project.

3. What are they doing that you do not like and want to avoid?
Why this is important: if you can identify the things your competitors doing that have negative effect you can save much time and effort in creating a better experience for your users.

4. What are their strong points and weak points compared to what you have to offer?
Why this is important: emphasize your strong points, hide your weak points, show the potential customers the things that make you different from others. Perhaps your product lacks certain features that the competitors have but your price is much more appealing to small businesses then that's something you want to highlight.

II. Take the Content First approach

Many website designers are forced to do the design before knowing the exact content that will be put on the website. I blame the website owners for this particular issue. When it comes to a new website for their businesses, most people want it NOW, in the heat of the moment. Imagine you want to build the house without knowing exactly who will stay and the furniture pieces you will put in each room? Ideally, we as the service provider must say NO to such ridiculous requests; but it's not that easy since you are the ones who pay our bills.

The result? Well, you already know what to expect. Instead of doing the design around the content, you now have to try to ensure the content fits into the design. From my experience, this will never work out well for you, in the end, you will end up with hacky, half-baked result.

Please, please take the time to prepare ALL THE CONTENTS before you start the design.

III. Take the next step with the flows

Once you have done all the above steps, you basically have the most basic information you need to start:
  1. The core goals of the website
  2. The essential information to show on the website
  3. The general styles to use on the website
  4. The preferred interactions with the website visitors.
In the next step, we need to figure out how we need to arrange all these information and link them all together to create seamless flows for your visitors. If you don’t plan your page flow, you could run into problems when you start to design:
  1. Forget to design certain pages of a site process
  2. Forget to design call-to-actions that link certain pages together
  3. Do not know where certain pages belong in the site hierarchy
  4. Do not know which pages should link to each other
  5. Do not know which pages users should navigate to complete a task

A Site Flow and User Flow are Not the Same

Do not confuse a site flow with a user flow and vice versa. Site flow gives you a bird-eye view of your website contents and gives you a general direction of where you can go and how to get there. The sitemap is often used to describe the site flow. This high-level view allows you to feel the size and complexity of a website, it's also often used to estimate the time and cost of a website.

Website design sample sitemap
A user flow is the set of steps a user needs to take to complete a certain goal on your website. You may have different user flow on your website depending on the number of goals and entry points (landing pages) you have on your website. This low-level view allows you to create call-to-actions that lead users from one point to another to complete the desired goal

User flow is a low level map that describes expected user navigation toward a goal

Other members of your team can also benefit from site flows. Developers often need to know which pages link to each other when they add code. Having a site flow to guide them prevents wrong or missing links.

IV. Map out the essential features

Feature can mean different things. In this context, I want to define feature as the specific functions that your website may have/offer to the visitors such as:

  1. The ability to add a product to wishlist
  2. The "locate nearest store" function
  3. The product review and rating feature
  4. The online chat support feature

There are hundreds and hundreds of features that one website may have, which ones do you need? Having more features on your website may confuse your visitors, slow down the website, and increase the development and maintenance cost. At the same time, missing an essential feature may reduce your conversion rate and lead to loss of opportunity. The easiest way to decide which features you need is to look at your customers' pain points and ask yourself: "which features I need to solve my customers' pain points?".

Let me give you an example: Zoopla.co.uk

For many people who look for new houses and apartments, they want to find the ones that are nearest to their workplaces in term of travel time, not just distance. The majority of real estate listing websites out there offer the ability to search by a number of criteria but Zoopla is one of the few that offer Travel Time Search. That feature solves the immediate pain point for the buyers and is the instant win for people like me.

Another killer feature on the same site: SmartMap. Most websites offer to filter locations by city, district, zipcode, etc.... This super USELESS, A zipcode, for example, can cover such a huge area that double the travel time from one place to another, how do you think filtering by zipcode can help people to locate the property they want within the travel distance they desire?

Smartmap is a great feature for users

V. Design with measurable goals

Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. In most cases, you should not measure the success of your website with ambiguous adjectives such as beautiful, elegant, sophisticated (yes we had clients who asked us to design sophisticated yet elegant websites, our response was ...."what?"). Measure your website design with:
  1. Ease of use: can the visitors find what they need on your website? Can they find that within 3 clicks away from the first page they visit on your website?
  2. Logical user flow: does the design reflect the defined user-flows you created earlier? Are the call-to-actions obvious and easy to catch attention? Is the abandonment rate within the accepted ratio?
  3. Trackable interactions: if you need to track interaction with the site such as submitting a contact request or attempting to contact via a phone number you may need to ensure the design and development team put their heads together to think of a good way to track all these interactions.

VI. Commit time and resources to your project

You have reached this far, I assume you want to get something back from your website. If you simply want to throw money out of the window, it's none of my business to advise you against it.

There are 2 mistakes that 90% of us make when it comes to website project:
  1. Not spending enough time: most people do not commit the time and resources required to create a successful website project. The fact is that you get what you pay for (and in this case, it's the time you are willing to invest into the research and analysis). By spending less on the project, you are actually earning less from it.
  2. Relying on personal opinions: most people tend to forget that they are not designing the website for themselves but for their visitors. It's usually all about the colors they like, the navigation they want, never about the visitors who use the website.

For the second issue which is just so common in all our website projects, please let me quote Dale Carnegie:

“Personally I am very fond of strawberries and cream, but I have found that for some strange reason, fish prefer worms. So when I went fishing, I didn't think about what I wanted. I thought about what they wanted. I didn't bait the hook with strawberries and cream. Rather, I dangled a worm or grasshopper in front of the fish and said: "Wouldn't you like to have that?" Why not use the same common sense when fishing for people?”

Website project solution
“ Don't tell the designers what to do, tell them your the problems you see. It's their jobs to come up with solutions for you ”

Design & technologies are means, not goals

Always keep that in mind. The design you choose, the technologies you use are to serve the end-goal of the website, they are not the goals themselves. For example:
  1. You should want to use blue color because it generates trust feeling, not because it looks cool.
  2. You may want to use Wordpress because your management team is familiar with it, not because it runs on PHP.
  3. You need a gallery to showcase your products, not because other websites also have it.
  4. If your management team cannot handle multiple language contents then do not try to stuff all the languages you can think of onto your website.
"A beautiful website that cannot sell is worthless"

You can do it yourself

Yes, that's true. You can actually do it yourself. There are many website builder tools out there such as Wix, Squarespace etc that offer beautiful pre-made website templates or design elements that can be dragged and dropped to create an online website, brochure or whatever you need. If you have the time and the will to learn and use these tools (or if you have a very limited budget), I strongly recommend you to look into the builder tools. We have an article comparing the pros and cons of website builders that may help you in your decision process.

We have an article that covers all the most essential elements you need to take care of to create a high conversion website, do NOT start your website project before you check our tips & checklist for increasing website conversion rate.

Careful with website template

Website templates are pre-designed, pre-coded websites that can be purchased at very low cost and quickly deployed to create a new website. The bad thing about website template is that it is designed for a general purpose and thus the whole business analysis is skipped. We covered this particular topic in our article on website template design vs tailor-fit design. If you must use a website template, you should first do the analysis to know the type of design and the set of features you need before choosing the most appropriate template. In most cases, you will still have to customize the website template before it's really usable for your business but it's one of the cheapest options out there and sometimes you have to go with it.

Custom website design is not always expensive

A custom website design service, if done right, delivers a bespoke, tailor-fit solution for your business. Consider all the time and resources you have to put in the website builder and website template options, sometimes it just makes more sense to have someone else do it for you. You can order a custom-made website design at a reasonable cost if you do your homework and complete all the research and planning tasks on your own before coming to a website agency. Most agencies add a "risk fee" for projects with vague goals and unclear directions, so by telling them that you know exactly what you want and expect you can help them to remove this hidden fee in their quotation.

At Nilead, we believe that website builders and website templates are not the answers for most business owners who have little time and experience with design and development. We take a hybrid approach to introduce the most reasonable custom website design approach for business:
  1. We collect and create a huge library of tried-and-true web elements for various businesses and industries.
  2. We craft custom websites using these elements based on the business analysis we do for each client.
We deliver unique websites customized for your business at a fraction of the cost of the normal custom website design project. Do you need FREE ADVICE for your next website project? Do not hesitate to contact us, you do not have to order anything from us to get our free consulting session, we will be glad to answer all the questions you have.

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About the author


Vu Nguyen

Vu Nguyen is an entrepreneur, developer, and founder of Nilead. He loves backend website development and has experience in eCommerce (owning an online store as well as being a developer), Search Engine Optimization, UX Design, and Content Strategy.

Since 2005, Vu has headed and overseen UX design teams for projects in corporations, start-ups, individuals, etc., regardless of their size. He has been involved in both the creative and technical aspects of each project - from ideation to concept and vision, prototype building to detailed design, and build-up to deployment.

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