As tempting as it can be to dive right in and start registering domains and playing around with themes, a little groundwork in planning early on can make all the difference in the expectations and ongoing success of your website project.
Planning is a fun, creative exercise that will help you to hone your vision and manage the expectations of all parties. Plans often start out very messy and become refined over time, so don’t be afraid to start your plan as a rough mind-map on a blank piece of paper or as points of a conversation sketched out on a napkin over a coffee.
In the planning phase of a website, I usually cover four things: tools, website value, resource allocation and project phases, which I go over in this post. As you’ll see, these elements are worked on as a whole rather than in any specific order. Think of planning your websites with a birds-eye view, with all of the elements interconnecting and overlapping. Think of your plan, like your site, as a work-in-progress.
Before you start, you need to have your tools ready. I typically consider tools for two main function: project management, and communication. Quite often they overlap.
The tools you choose will depend on the specifics of the project and the people involved, and if those are relative unknowns at this stage, you might choose something for now only to change it later. This is perfectly acceptable; your project plan is likely to change and as such the tools can change too. Don’t hold any technology too close – be open to flexibility. Still, with that in mind, make use of the best resources available to you because a good plan and good planning tools will make your project that much smoother.
Your project management tool will help you manage deadlines, milestones, tasks and to-do lists, and maybe to allocate tasks to team members. I often find myself usng a combination of different tools, and each project I work on will use a slightly different combo. For example, I might lay out the skeleton of the project on a Google Sheet, then input events and invite people via Google Calendar, create a Trello board to manage requests and use ToDoist for my own day-to-day tasks. There’s likely not going to be one magic bullet tool that does everything you need. It sounds like a lot going on but it makes sense with the birds-eye perspective. I usually use some combination of the below.
Project Management Tools
- Google Sheets
- Google Docs
- Google Calendar
There are a huge number of communication tools available, and I typically consider the project team in deciding what to use. If it’s a small project and a small team, a Facebook message might suffice, but if it’s a big team and an ongoing project, you might need something more complex like Slack. Trello is great for agile development projects and can encompass both your project management and communication. There will likely be some element of phone and email but I try to limit that to key milestones and find alternative methods of providing ongoing feedback.
Keep in mind that a good communication tool will only extend good communication, not fix bad communication.
- Facebook Messenger
- Facebook Groups
Before you decide what technology to use, what elements to include, and how to allocate resources, it’s a good idea to dentify the value of the website to your business. What is the website trying to drive – direct revenue, leads, sign-ups? What percentage of your business revenue should be coming from the website? How does that compare to other business functions?
In the early stages it will be guesswork, but if you’ve got some data you can make some assumptions. If you’re reworking an established site you will ideally have some Google analytics data which you can compare to your business activity data and be able to make approximate calculations on.
The biggest question is: how much money can you attribute directly to the site? If you’re selling a product online, this can be an easy calculation. If you’re a service provider and the site is part of your marketing ecosystem, this can be harder to measure. Think about the following questions:
- what is the dollar value of a single customer coming through your website?
- On average, how many users through your site would convert into customers?
- How much user traffic can you drive through the site, via advertising/PR/SEO etc?
- How much will you need to spend on advertising to make a single sale?
- How much do you want to make through your site and how much are you willing to spend to reach this target?
These calculations are some of the most important planning exercises you can do to determine the potential value of the site, and therefore the potential investment of resources.
If your site is not generating revenue in any way, then think about this in terms of what value it is providing. This is less concrete than working with a dollar value but important to consider when you come to allocate resources.
Once you know the potential value of your site, you will better know how much you can invest in it. Typically I consider the following resources for putting a site together:
If you have money to invest, great. You can do a return on investment (ROI) calculation based on your projected value, and then you’ll have an idea of whether you should invest $2,000, or $10,000, or upwards of $40,000. The next step is to identify where to allocate this money – to graphics and animations, or a great video, or with a developer to design a custom theme or function – whatever it is you feel will bring you that return on investment.
This leads to the people on your team, whether those are people who work directly for the business in question, or outsourced suppliers, or friends who have offered to help out.
Next step is to identify skills of those on the team so you can identify skills gaps once the plan is more fleshed out. Those skills gaps will either need to be filled by investing in upskilling your team or outsourcing – or you will need to compromise and put it on the ‘wishlist’.
Then, think about our most precious resource – time. Does this site need to be online for a fixed deadline, like a launch or client meeting? Be realistic about this and avoid ASAP at all costs. Know how much time is reasonable and then fill it out in your spreadsheet or other project planning tool. Include time upskilling and fundraising to be able to implement the features you want. Think about long-term planning as well – not just for your initial MVP launch in 6 weeks, but where the site is in 12 months and beyond.
Milestones and Phases
Every project is different, but I typically work through the following phases. Work with these phases up front and in your project management tool, marking out what you might see as the important tasks in very brief dot points. Look broadly at what resources you are allocating to the phases. This is an exercise in creating a skeleton which will be fleshed out further in the ‘concept and marketing’ part of the project.
- Project Planning – tools, value, resource allocation, phases
- Concept & Marketing – research, domain names, business psychology, content building blocks, broader marketing strategies, keyword research
- Blueprinting – user experience research, user journeys, content templates, tech & system decisions
- Content – writing copy, getting photos taken, designing graphics etc
- Building – developing the site for the browser, whether you’re using Squarespace, Wix, writing in HTML, WordPress, React etc
- UI Design – adding custom content, adding visual language and flair, writing CSS, tweaking for responsiveness etc
- Optimisation and Testing – ensuring your site is fast and secure, auditing and proofing, cross-browser testing, device testing, SEO
- Launch & beyond – promoting, driving traffic, maintaining software, future planning
It’s important to plan your phases with your value and resources in mind. You might have a vision for a stunning website full of bespoke animations, but you need to have a resource to put behind it (e.g. money to hire an animator, an animator on your team, a person willing to learn animation, and the time it takes someone to learn, etc). This is where you will practice the art of compromise and remember that your goal for launch should be ‘minimum viable product’.
Plans iterate and grow and while they’re super important, I look at them more as guidelines rather than a specific set of instructions. Don’t hold too close the idea of everything being perfect, and the site having all of your dream design and functionality before you launch – because if you do, it will be too late. Don’t be afraid to put it out there with a few errors and bugs – you will catch bugs quicker in the wild.
The next step from here is to move into the first phase of concept and marketing. Spend a little bit of time researching others in your industry and building on the project plan with marketing activities with your website at the centre. If you move through the phases quickly and practice the art of compromise, there’s no reason you can’t launch your site in a matter of weeks. It will be a forever work in progress; it will never be ‘finished’. Your first goal is ‘launch’. You can set your own goals beyond that in your website plan. A website is a constantly iterating thing, a living thing, and you will always be shaping it. Remember to always come back to your plan and to keep planning.