Building a website is generally considered a technical process that a coder or website designer should manage. Many people think it's a simple process... It's about impressing people with graphics and cool effects that will leave visitors dazzled and gasping at a website's technical capability. The thinking is that this will reflect positively on a company. And so it does. But unfortunately, this perspective doesn't consider the true purpose of a website, that being to deliver content with a message.
It is curious how many times website content is forced into a website design that just isn't right for it. So many sites appear to have considered content as an afterthought. The bottom line is this - if your company has a message to convey and a purpose to fulfill, then it's the content that is the message, not the medium.
A relatively new area, Information Architecture (IA) has come to the forefront over the last couple of decades to address issues related to web design. It is now a recognized discipline that dictates exactly how a website should be designed to organize its content in a fashion where it is not only accessible to users, but accessible in a logical and intuitive fashion that ensures users know exactly where they need to go in a site to access what they want. Of course, not everyone can afford an Information Architect. Most of us are out on our own.
So, what can we do?
Well, with some foresight and vision it can become very quickly apparent that planning a website's content is as fundamental as planning its programming. Once you have planned your content, you will have a much better insight into what the programming team needs to do to get the website right first time, with no amendments or additional costs. Turning a website project on its head like this, making words, images and information flow more important than the technical elements, means engaging new procedures and a new approach.
Consider your audience
Possibly the most important part of your new approach is to consider who your website is designed for. Who is your website targeting? Of course, considering this will suggest aspects of design like color and mood of the site, but knowing your audience will help you define your content. A site targeting teens might simply be a blog - but a site targeting professionals would certainly be different.
Breakdown your content as much as you can
Considering your target audience's needs and interests will indicate the scope of a new website. The more time you spend actually naming sections and putting them in the right place in a design, the more the website design is being competed. You will know how many sections there are going to be, how big the sections need to be, whether the sections need graphics, and how many sections need comments for user feedback, etc.
Build a SiteMap BEFORE the site is completed
Mention ‘SiteMaps’ to people and they generally think you are talking about Search Engine Optimization (SEO). SiteMaps are small files that are added to a website after it is completed. Generally, they are created by software that crawls a website and records every page and each page's position. This is added it to an "organization chart" type of design. When Google crawls a site, this is the first file it looks for. However, rather than SiteMaps being an afterthought, they should be the foundation of a good site design. Spending time on a SiteMap and considering every aspect of a site's content means less coding from the outset.
Words on paper might not be enough - this is a visual medium after all, so perhaps you will need something visual. A number of tools, including Microsoft Word, enable you to create an Organization Chart, and this can be a perfect way to get your content right. For instance, here is the information architecture for the website of Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA:
But an Organization chart might not be enough. Perhaps you need something more tangible - something you can use. There are numerous prototyping tools available for website designs, but most are expensive and out of the reach of anything other than IA professionals. So think outside the box. PowerPoint allows HTML links which take you from one page to another page. It's incredibly flexible and you can create a very good representation of both where your content should go and what a website could look like using PowerPoint to create a website prototype. You might even go so far as to do some Rudimentary GUI Testing on people who might use your website and determine where THEY think content should go. You really can go as far with this as you want (or can afford).
Another alternative might be using Google Sites to create a working website before it is handed over to coders. This would be a real website - obviously not as sophisticated as the one you are going to build, but good enough for the programming team to get a real idea what needs to be done to create the finished website. Imagine how easy it will be with all this information at hand.
Out with the old, In with the new
With a SiteMap, or visual representation underpinning your content and site design, you can reevaluate your website's existing content. If it is still relevant, correct, complete and useful to a visitor, you can now rearrange it and add it to your new sections – but ensure any old content reflects the current reality of your company (especially as far as pricing and sensitive issues are concerned). Likewise, you can recycle any existing materials you have in other formats (sales letters, brochures, etc.) and add that to the site confident in the knowledge it will be accessible to a visitor because it is in the right place.
Pulling it all together
With the content plan in place, the website design can be finalized, and then it is then going to be a matter of finishing the site. The programmers will have their coding tasks and the content editors their writing tasks. Both parties can work in parallel and changes in content can be discussed with the design team, while any changes in design can be discussed with the content team. This will save time and be more efficient - you won't have, for instance, a content team sitting around waiting for the programmers to finish their tasks before they can begin.