Design & Development

12 Website Design Decisions Your Business or Organization Will Need to Make

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published by Web Marketing Today. Practical Ecommerce acquired Web Marketing Today in 2012. In 2016, we merged the two sites, leaving Practical Ecommerce as the successor.

You may be on your first website. But more likely you’re faced with redesigning a website that isn’t functioning as well as it should. I see 12 vital decisions involved with developing a website, and I want to explain them with you in mind:

  • You’re the owner or marketing director of a small business and know that getting your website to pull its share of the load is vital for success. But your budget is severely limited!
  • You’ve just been assigned the task of redoing your company’s website. Congratulations, now you can be blamed if things don’t work well.
  • You’ve volunteered to take on your church or organization website and make some sense out of it — without offending the person who built it in the first place.
  • This time around you’ve decided to outsource the job, but you have no idea of how to supervise a design company to make sure it does what you need. Good luck!

I want to help. When I built my first website in 1995 at the very beginning of the commercial web, I didn’t have a clue how to proceed. In those days there was no one to guide me. I’ve made every mistake you can think of — some more than once, I hate to admit.

Since then I’ve built and assisted with dozens of online stores and hundreds of websites for all kinds of businesses and organizations, from mom and pops to major corporations and international organizations. I don’t design websites for others these days, but I actively develop and maintain my own site.

There are twelve critical places in building a website where you must make the right decision, or you’ll have to repeat this task again and again until you get it right. I won’t be talking about how to write HTML; I want to help you with the mindset, the basic approach. I want to take you by the hand and lead you through the critical decisions. The better you grasp these essential points, the better your website will work and the happier camper you’ll be.

Okay, let’s roll up our sleeves and get started. By the way, why don’t you print out this document and then mark it up with your thoughts and ideas as you read. It’s designed to serve as a worksheet to clarify your thinking and provide direction at various stages of the project. If you decide to outsource the project, you’ll want to share a copy of your marked-up copy of this document with your website designer. Print it out.

1. Determine Your Website’s Chief Purpose

When you begin a website, you must have your main purpose clearly in mind. I say this because it’s easy to have conflicting purposes.

  • If you’re a website design firm, you may want to show off your high tech goodies with your client’s site as the showpiece.
  • If you’re an employee stuck with this task, you may want to look good for your bosses and not do anything for which you can be blamed — you’ve got to protect your backside.
  • If you’re a volunteer, you may just want an excuse to tinker and be praised for it.
  • If you’re a business owner, you probably care about the bottom line. You’re wondering, How much this will cost? and Will it be worth it in the long run?

Dear friends, recognize your own needs — they’re legitimate. But to build an effective website, you’ve got to look at the business’s or organization’s needs and make those primary. From the organization’s perspective, what must this website do in order to be successful?

Let’s look at some common website purposes. Put an X next to all that apply.

  • Build your brand. Create an online brochure that will help potential clients, customers, and partners learn about your company and look at it in a favorable light. You’re trying to enhance your brand or organization image. I’ve heard people disparage this kind of website as “brochure-ware.” But this is very legitimate for some kinds of companies, especially local businesses or organizations that aren’t trying to conduct national or international commerce. You want people to know who you are, what you do, where to find you, and how to contact you.
  • Provide product information to drive local sales of your products and services at dealer locations. Auto sites are a good example. Many manufacturers don’t sell on their sites, but point people to retailers who carry their products.
  • Sell advertising. A few sites are designed to sell advertising — Yahoo!, Google, and other portal sites are examples. But these days, there’s far too much advertising space and not nearly enough money to fill it all. Internet advertising is improving, but is still underpriced. You may be able to sell a little advertising if you’re a portal site for an industry, or perhaps put some Google AdSense ads on your site. But these aren’t big moneymakers. Look at advertising sales as a hopeful bonus, not as a sure thing.
  • Sell products or services directly over the Internet. You want to conduct e-commerce and sell to a national or international market. You’ll have some kind of ordering system for one or more products, or perhaps an extensive online catalog. You may offer an online service that can be delivered over the Internet or that can be initiated online.
  • Earn affiliate commissions for sales and leads generated through links on your website. Savvy marketers are building microsites designed to generate search engine traffic for a particular hot product or service. When a visitor clicks on one of their links, he is referred to an e-commerce site, and, if a sale results, the affiliate gets a commission. Perhaps a form on your site generates leads or subscriptions for another company. Provide customer service and support. Websites are a great place for troubleshooting guides, FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions), technical information, etc. You can generate Return Merchandise Authorization (RMA) labels. You can provide multiple ways for your customers to contact you (see under Point #9 below).
  • Save money by means of online efficiencies. Companies have used the Internet to save billions of dollars. Taking orders online with real-time credit card authorization saves paying call center operators and cuts entry errors. Online catalogs save lots in paper, printing, and distribution costs. Online FAQs and knowledge bases cut the number of customer service personnel you need. And I’m just scratching the surface here.

What’s the design decision here? To be clear and focused about your site’s objectives and purposes.

2. Decide Whether to Outsource or Do It Yourself

After clarifying your purposes, you need to decide whether to outsource the design of your website or to do it yourself. Let me tell you my bias. For nearly all businesses and larger non-profits I recommend outsourcing initial website design, but be very sure that you bring site maintenance back in-house. (See Point #12 below.)

Website design done right is complex and requires a number of different skill sets that aren’t commonly found in any one person, especially someone that doesn’t do this for a living. Some of these skills include:

  • HTML savvy. Good web design software can help. But the kind of HTML code produced by many WYSIWYG (“what you see is what you get”) programs can be difficult and hard to maintain. Fine-tuning your design requires you to get into the raw HTML code.
  • Graphic design, color experience and good artistic taste. No software package bestows artistic taste on its user, but good taste is indispensable for an attractive site. Of course, graphic software expertise is required to produce attractive and clean photos and site graphics, optimized to the smallest possible file size for quick loading.
  • Website navigation design and implementation. Helping visitors get where they need to go quickly and efficiently is difficult, especially on sites over 20 webpages or so. Good navigation design comes from experience, not from good software.
  • CGI and database programming. Even smaller sites use a “contact us” form and often a site search program that require CGI program installation and configuration. Larger sites may need to be integrated with an online database, which is no job for the faint of heart.
  • JavaScript and Flash programming. Functional websites are dramatically helped by Flash and JavaScript features such as animation, drop-down navigation menus, and small windows that open to answer a hyperlinked question. Automatic pop-up windows that encourage e-zine subscriptions can be effective, but can be annoying if you don’t make them to turn off after one pop — and these days are increasingly blocked by pop-up blockers.
  • Marketing and business experience. An outside company doesn’t really understand your business like you do. Make sure you communicate exactly what you need to achieve. The best website design firms understand how to build Web marketing into the site design to make it search engine friendly, to make the sales pages really sell, etc.

What does outsourcing cost? For a simple five or six page website, expect to pay $750 to $1,500. For a more complex site you may pay $3,000 to $10,000 and up. For database-driven sites you’ll need custom programming. Of course, sites designed for high traffic or for Internet-focused companies can cost much more.

If you have no money, it is possible to teach yourself website design. I did. Arm yourself by reading some website design books first and expect to make some mistakes. A couple of great beginners’ books are Learning Web Design: A Beginner’s Guide to (X)HTML, Style Sheets, Web Graphics, by Jennifer Niederst (Third edition; O’Reilly, 2007, ISBN 0596527527, paperback, 480 pages) and Web Design All-in-One for Dummies by Sue Jenkins (For Dummies, 2009, ISBN 047041796X, paperback, 656 pages). I find myself constantly referring to Web Design in a Nutshell: A Desktop Quick Reference, by Jennifer Niederst (O’Reilly, 2006, ISBN 0596009879, paperback, 826 pages). It’s full of the nuts and bolts of website construction for more experienced developers who maintain and improve websites. You can also find lots of online help at,, and You’ll need some good web design software such as Microsoft FrontPage or Macromedia Dreamweaver. Don’t just forge ahead, though. Read and understand the design concepts first, then proceed step by step.

Another approach is to hire a website design firm to design the website templates, navigation system, CGI and JavaScript programming, and perhaps do usability testing. They would set up the basic structure, and you could build it out using their template and design. If you do outsource, be sure to conduct a “due diligence” investigation of the design firm by talking to previous clients, looking at their work, etc. Make sure they spell out in writing exactly what they agree to do for how much money, and provide a firm deadline by which their work will be completed. Partial payments should be made as specific milestones are reached and approved.

I strongly recommend that you build your website using a Content Management System (CMS), rather than from single webpages uploaded and linked together. You can find such systems available from many popular hosting services. One I’ve used successfully is CMS Builder from It’s not for the newbie, but if you’re having your site built for you, ask your designer to build your site on using this program. It’s very flexible! The big advantages of a CMS system are: (1) You can make changes yourself, without HTML expertise or contacting your web designer. (2) Your website is infinitely expandable as your business grows. Your designer sets up the basic templates; then you take it from there. What’s the design decision here? To decide whether to outsource none, part, or all of your website project.

3. Divide Your Website into Logical Sections

My first website had 100+ pages and I made the mistake of dumping all the webpages into a single directory. What a mess! I learned quickly that you need to organize your site both logically and with multiple directories, one for each section. Here’s a typical small-site structure:

This site layout isn’t meant to be prescriptive, but only suggestive. Get a blank piece of paper and begin to lay out what your site will look like, with similar functions grouped together.

Don’t be afraid to create multiple subdirectories to keep your site organized. When you’re setting up newsletter archives, for example, create a directory for each year of issues so a single directory doesn’t get too cluttered. Remember, you’re not designing for just the present moment, but for the growth your site may undergo over the next two or three years.

I set up my file structure with a /syspix subdirectory that contains the system graphics which appear on nearly every page of the site. I also use an /images subdirectory under each major section of the website to contain the graphics used in that particular section. You may know where everything goes right now, but what happens when you try to make sense of it a year or two from now? Organize!

Your home page should provide a statement of exactly what your company or organization does. Preparing a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) for your company is a great way to begin. I’m amazed at how many websites don’t really tell me what they do. I have to nose around trying to figure it out. That’s stupid! State precisely what you do, and then provide links to the rest of your site so your visitor can learn more.

My site structure diagram includes product pages, landing pages, and an ordering system. More on those in Point #10 below. The focused content and reciprocal linking pages are designed to boost your search engine ranking, and are described in Point #8 below.

In your “About the Company” section be sure to tell your organization’s story. Big companies spend millions to build confidence through brand name familiarity. Small businesses tell their story, often illustrated with photos, to help visitors understand and trust them. If you have a passion about what you do, tell your visitors about it in this section! Here’s where a local business or organization will include a map and driving directions to help people find it. I’ll talk about the importance of the “Contact Us” form in Point #9 below.

What’s the design decision here? To structure your site and break up your webpages into logical directories and subdirectories to avoid confusion later.

4. Develop a Site Navigation System

Now that you’ve laid out your website, you can see how important a good navigation system is. One of the chief complaints that visitors have is that they can’t find the content they’re looking for. The larger your site, the more important redundant navigation systems are — more systems than you think you might need. Here are some of the basic systems and a few you might not have thought of:

  • Left-side menu lists the various sections of your site, and perhaps some of the subsections, too.
  • Tabs near the top of the webpage help the visitor quickly see the most important sections of your site. This facilitates browsing.
  • Search the site or the product database. Larger sites need a search feature so visitors don’t get lost.
  • 10 most common gifts, etc.
  • View today’s specials or recent news releases.
  • Bottom links provide hypertext links to all the sectional pages.
  • Site map shows the structure and has links to every page (or sectional page).

Except for the very smallest five- or six-page sites, I encourage you to implement two or more of these systems. Over-kill, that’s the ticket. What may be obvious to you and your designer after looking at the site for weeks may not be obvious at all to your visitor. Each separate navigation system gives her another opportunity to find what she’s looking for.

If you’re a do-it-yourselfer, consider using a free search engine such as Google Custom Search.

Some websites are “button happy.” They have graphic buttons down the left side of the page and across the top. They may look nice, but there’s a big cost in download time. There’s a strong trend on high traffic sites toward text menus made with HTML characters, not GIF images. Look at a text menu you admire and study the HTML by viewing the source. Text is good; buttons are bad — especially when overdone. Got it?

Finally, I’d like to say a word about “frames,” a kind of HTML menu that lists page names in a window on the left side that scrolls up and down independently of the content window on the right. Website designers used to love them, until they discovered that they cripple a website’s marketing potential. Insist that your site developer not use frames! More on this in Point #7 below. Instead of using frames, set up your navigation system with Server Side Includes (SSIs), described in Point #6 below. If you have a complex site, I recommend that you employ a professional website designer to set up your navigation system — even if you do all the rest. Leverage professional experience to help your customers find what they’re looking for.

What’s the design decision here? To make clear, redundant navigation a priority — for your customers’ sake.

5. Give Your Website an Attractive ‘Look and Feel’

Why should a website look good? Why should it look professional? Because like the sign hanging over a store in the strip mall, your website reflects upon you and your business. If the sign’s lettering looks crude and homemade, people won’t say, “The thrifty shopkeeper is trying to save money by making his own sign.” They’ll say, “How tacky! If this is how the sign looks, then the products and services can’t be of very high quality either!”

You owe it to yourself to make your website look top-notch. To succeed, you’ll need some artistic flair, or perhaps you should hire a graphic designer’s talents for the basic design and site graphics.

I could take you to many websites, but you can do that yourself. Become a student of how to create a simple, clean business look. It takes a lot of skill to design a site this well and with this kind of restraint.

Let me tell you a secret. Some graphic designers like to build sites with lots of graphics. They have fast LAN or DSL connections and have no idea how long their sites take to download on a 56K modem. Try to keep your homepage to 60K maximum, counting the file sizes of all the graphics and the HTML. (It’s a hard, but an important exercise.) Resist a designer’s yen to show off his skills. Quick loading — that’s important.

There’s no way I can educate you on complementary colors, warm and cold colors, heavy and light colors, etc. But bear in mind that everything you do has some effect on your visitor’s perceptions of your company, her state of mind, and her emotional response.

One of your best website investments will be in a few excellent, royalty-free stock photos. Well-composed photos add a touch of class to your webpages. They provide a visual center of interest in an otherwise plain webpage. They add spice and color. You don’t want just dull pictures of business people in suits. To create a sense of energy and maximum effort, you might use a theme of photos from competitive sports, for example. Use your imagination. I subscribe to and have access to hundreds of thousands of photos (some great, many good). I can use anything I can download for $14.95 a week. Such a deal!

What’s the design decision here? To develop a quality, professional appearance for the website that represents your organization.

6. Build Basic Webpage Templates

Commercial websites are built from templates. You or your designer will create a template that constructs each part of a typical webpage, with a “hole” in the center for the unique page content. This takes many hours to build from scratch, but it’s worth it. Now you can create page after page from the template. For each webpage you’ll insert a page title, meta tag content (see Point #7 below), a headline, and the text content, each in its appropriate spot. Have fun!

But let me take this a step further. Take a look at the sample webpage from my site. I’ve simplified it here, but the article content is surrounded by four sections, each of which is shown when a web browser comes to the web page:

  • top.ssi — inserts the masthead graphic, a banner ad, and some of the “tabs” navigation system at the top of the page. This is a separate file, called “top.ssi” that is inserted at the top.
  • menu.ssi — inserts the complex left-side menu plus a database search feature.
  • bottom.ssi — inserts a subscription form for my newsletter, plus more navigation links, copyright and trademark information.
  • right.ssi — inserts cover shots of my books, plus links to purchase my e-books and affiliate links to products and services in the field of web marketing and e-commerce.

Each of these files is called a Server Side Include (SSI) file. On the webpage a single line of code calls one of these files and places it where it belongs on the page. Here’s what it the code looks like:

<!–#include virtual=”/ssi/top.ssi”–>

The beauty of this kind of modular system is that a site built with SSIs can be modified or completely altered by just changing one of the SSI files and uploading it to the server. Now all the webpages in the entire system reflect the change. When I discovered how to do this it cut my maintenance time dramatically. Yes, it takes a learning curve to make it work, but it’s well worth the time you spend!

It is possible, of course, to use a template for your pages that doesn’t employ SSIs. But if you anticipate a site that could grow to more that 8 to 10 pages, you’re much better off building your site with SSIs. If your designer doesn’t know how to use SSIs, find another designer.

Modern websites control the font sizes and colors using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). When you change the font size on a single master CSS file, it changes the fonts and colors in all your webpages. Cool! Make sure your website designer builds webpages using a single CSS file, since it saves maintenance costs in the long run.

The design decisions that you need to consider here are many, since they involve every detail of the look and feel of your basic template. Hopefully, you’ll decide to employ both Server Side Includes (SSIs) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) that make your entire site easy to modify and maintain. Also consider features available with XHTML.

7. Construct Your Site to Be Search Engine Friendly

With a little practice, anyone can build a webpage. But a webpage that search engines love to visit and index — vital if you expect your site to get traffic — that’s another story. So many, many business websites don’t have a clue how to do this. Let me mention two important aspects of building a search engine friendly site:

A. Make Each Webpage a Search Engine Siren

In Greek mythology, as you know, partly human female creatures called Sirens lured mariners with their singing. Your webpages ought to entice search engine spiders or robots to index your site. Each webpage you construct needs to contain the following elements. Note the careful placement of keywords, the search words people would use to find this particular webpage.

  • Title — provocative and descriptive, containing the most important keywords from that webpage, no more than 80 characters. This is what shows up hyperlinked in search engine results, so make people want to click on it.
  • Meta tags — The description meta tag should include one or two sentences (up to about 250 characters) describing the contents of this particular webpage. Work into the sentence the most important keywords and key phrases that occur on this page. Some search engines will display your description. I still include a meta keywords tag, since Yahoo currently uses it for indexing, though Google doesn’t.
  • Headlines — H1, H2, H3 in HTML parlance. Your headline and subheadings should include your important keyword at least once.
  • Body text — The first paragraph of the content of your webpage article or text should contain the main keywords for that page.
  • Hyperlink text and filenames — Search engines believe that the words contained in hyperlinks on your web page are important, and thus rank them higher. If the filenames contained in the hyperlink URLs contain important keywords (such as widget.html for the filename of your widget order page), so much the better.

Don’t emphasize the same keywords on every page. Let the actual content on that page dictate what keywords should stand out. Your goal is not to trick the search engines in some kind of bait-and-switch scam, but to help the search engines recognize and index appropriately the actual content of your webpages. Construct every webpage with search engines in mind, and it’ll help your rankings. Of course, search engine rankings are heavily influenced by incoming links to your site, but constructing your webpages with an eye to search engines is very important, too.

B. Search Engine Savvy Navigation Systems

Navigation systems are built to help actual humans find their way around your website. But these navigation systems had better be designed carefully or the search engines will throw up their hands in disgust, with the result that actual humans will never get to your website. Search engines need a chain of hypertext links — starting at your homepage — that will take them, page by page, to every webpage in your entire site. But let me explain two common navigation design problems that can disrupt search engine indexing of your site:

  • Frames (mentioned in Point #4 above) produce a navigation system where the menu on the left scrolls independently of the page content on the right. Unfortunately, frames can wreak havoc with search engines. (a) Unless you are careful to include <NOFRAMES> tags, search engines may not be able to find the content pages. (b) Even if search engines do find your content pages, these pages can show up in response to a search engine query all by themselves, without the navigation system and links necessary for a visitor to find the rest of your website. Don’t use frames. If your current site has frames, make plans to rebuild the site without them. A menu constructed from SSIs (mentioned in Point #6 above) is just as easy to maintain — even easier, once you learn how to do it.
  • JavaScript and Flash are programming languages that can make very classy, animated menu systems. For example, a menu item might have a drop-down sub-menu that will wow your visitors (you hope). The problem is that if JavaScript and Flash systems replace plain hyperlinks, the search engine may not be able to find the underlying pages. Most search engines have posters on their walls saying, “I don’t do Flash.” Stubborn creatures, these search engines. One solution: retain your fancy menus, but include hypertext links at the bottom of the page to your sectional pages, with links on your sectional pages to all the subpages in that section. You can also submit a site map webpage to the search engines that contains a link to every page on your site.

What are the design decisions regarding search engines? A commitment to design (a) each web page and (b) the site navigation system with search engines in mind. This is a marketing, not a techie priority, so you may have to insist that your website designers work with search engines on their minds.

8. Write and Fine-tune Focused Content Pages

If you’ve ever been in charge of building your company’s website from scratch, you’ve learned that one of the most time-consuming tasks is to write the copy or words that appear on the website. It’s plain old hard work. It’s easier to build the second or third version of your website, since the writing is already done.

Or is it?

One of the keys to generating search engine traffic is to get your site into the top 5 or 10 positions on the search engines for the keywords and key phrases that matter to your business. It’s often hard to get your home page to score high for specific keywords or key phrases, since it is the most general entrance to your entire website content. Your best strategy is to write a series of focused content pages, each of which features a particular topic and keyword or key phrase. These pages aren’t general, but very specific.

Once you’ve written your first draft, test the webpage against search engine optimization software tools that study keyword density and many other features. They’ll help you tweak your webpage wording, title, meta tags, headlines, alt tags, etc., so that the page has a better chance of ranking high on the search engines.

For competitive words, you can’t rank high on Google and other search engines without lots of incoming links, so work on linking strategies, too, such as reciprocal linking with complementary sites. Nevertheless, these focused content pages should be an integral part of your website strategy to boost rankings.

The design decisions? A functional website must generate traffic, so you must intentionally include focused-content webpages in your site to pull that traffic to you.

9. Incorporate Customer Communication Systems

Websites are two-way, interactive communication systems. You communicate your company’s marketing message to potential customers and make it easy for them to reciprocate by communicating with you. The better the communication, the more trust increases, and customers feel comfortable to do business with you.

Of course, on your contact page, include full contact information — name, address, phone number, etc. I’m amazed at the number of sites that don’t include any contact information, but still expect people to do business with them. Full contact information builds trust — even if your customers never need to use it.

One key communication tool is the “Contact Us” response form. Such a form includes fields that ask for your visitor’s name, contact information, and his question or comment. When the form is submitted, it sends an immediate e-mail to you as well as an e-mail assuring your customer that you’ll be reading the message and responding soon. And you need to keep your word. Respond to your customers’ e-mail promptly!

The poor man’s response method is a mailto link (such as that allows the customer to use his own e-mail program to send you an e-mail message. The problem with this approach is that you often don’t get vital contact information from the customer, such as his phone number. With e-mail that comes from a form, you can easily filter it via the subject line into the appropriate folder for immediate viewing. E-mail that comes through a general e-mail address, on the other hand, easily becomes confused with spam and could be overlooked.

However, there are other ways you can make it easy for customers to communicate with you. These include

  • Instant text chat systems such as LivePerson (
  • Instant Messaging (IM) systems are in widespread use by your customers. Why not list all your usernames and numbers on your site for quick response to customer questions?

One excellent way to save time for yourself and your customers is to develop a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page. It’ll cut down on your customers’ need to contact you.

Excellent customer service is the basis of any successful business — on or off the Internet.

The design decision here is to incorporate multiple ways for your customer to contact you.

10. Create and Test Effective Sales Pages

Every business site — and many organization sites — has a Most Wanted Response (MWR). Your Most Wanted Response is probably one of the chief purposes you listed under Point #1 (above). For many business sites, the purpose is (1) to sell a product, (2) to have the visitor go through an affiliate link to buy a product on another site, or (3) to generate contact information for a future lead or follow-up. For organizations, success may be measured in memberships or subscriptions. Whatever your MWR, you must work to optimize responses.

Good sales pages result in a high ratio of sales to visitors — called the “conversion rate.” A good site might have a conversion rate of 3% to 5%, some higher and many lower. Over the past few years, marketers have developed the art of increasing the conversion rate. This is especially important when you are purchasing Pay Per Click (PPC) ads to drive traffic to your site. Your profit is closely related to (a) the cost of the click and (b) the conversion rate of the “landing page,” that is, the sales page to which you direct interested shoppers.

To scientifically and systematically increase your conversion rate to the maximum, you must carefully track sales percentages for each product your sell. Then make incremental changes to the landing page or the order system and see if the conversion rate rises or falls. Over a period of careful study and change, you’ll maximize your sales. A useful free testing tool is Google Website Optimizer (

Here again are the steps you’ll go through:

  1. Set up an ordering system (ecommerce capability)
  2. Create a landing page
  3. Boost sales on your landing page by testing

What’s the design decision here? To commit yourself to seriously working to increase the response rate.

11. Conduct Usability Trials and Incorporate Changes

We’ve almost finished our survey of 12 Website Design Decisions. But before you quit, you need to test your site thoroughly. All newly constructed websites contain unseen glitches — especially those created by inexperienced developers.

Here’s how to conduct your first few usability trials. Ask to meet with a friend who is an Internet novice. Seat him in front of a computer, stand near him, and direct him to your site. Tell him that you’d like him to talk out loud to you about what he is thinking and the questions that occur to him as he pokes around your site. Explain to him that you won’t be able to answer any questions at this time, but you want to hear them just the same. Now watch and take copious notes. Observe what confuses him. See where he gets hung up. Listen to his questions.

After 10 or 15 minutes of this humbling exercise, you’ll detect plenty of small changes to make. You’ll also learn how effective your navigation system is. If you have built your site with SSIs, as recommend in Point #6 above, navigation system changes will require you to modify only one or two of the boilerplate SSI files. Upload the changes and the whole site will be easier to navigate.

To discover 85% of the usability problems on your site, repeat the usability exercise a total of five times, each time, of course, with a different person who can look at your site through completely new eyes. For more information on website usability, consult Dr. Jakob Nielsen’s site ( and subscribe to his free AlertBox e-zine.

What’s the design decision here? Submit your site to simple usability testing with five subjects. Your site will be much better as a result.

12. Plan to Maintain Your Site for the Long Haul

Building a site for the first time is exciting. Maintaining it for the next two or three years can be extremely frustrating unless you’ve set it up with maintenance in mind. By maintenance I mean:

  • Changing the content of existing information, such as upcoming events, new industry directions, new personnel, etc. Life isn’t static. Websites shouldn’t be either.
  • Adding new webpages, such as archiving copies of your newsletters, adding new products and services.
  • Changing the content of your home page so your site looks active and up-to-date.

I strongly recommend that someone in your own organization learns how to make the everyday website changes that an active organization requires. Community colleges and adult education curricula often offer training in webpage design and HTML. A person in your business can also learn a great deal by studying the books recommended in Point #2 above. Perhaps the most important thing you can do to make maintenance easy is to have your website designer build the site with a Content Management System (CMS) mentioned in Step #2 above.

Yes, you want to have a website designer available to back you up on occasions when the change needed is beyond your person’s abilities. But webpage maintenance is something you definitely want to keep in-house, like word-processing and desktop publishing. Learn how! Otherwise, changes aren’t likely to happen in a timely manner and you may put off requesting changes that should take place immediately.

What’s the design decision? Make sure that you plan for site maintenance rather than let it fall through the cracks.

That’s it — the 12 crucial design decisions. Of course, there’s much more to a website than what I’ve mentioned. But this will get you started in the right direction and get you asking the right questions.

The Next Step: Marketing Your Site

A website without marketing is like a candy shop on a dead-end street. You’ve got to let them know you’re there. Your website designer will probably submit your home page to the search engines, but that’s only scratching the surface.

Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
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