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Think First, Then Design

There are many talented designers with the ability to create a fabulous, responsive, web design worthy of the term “screen candy.” But looks aren’t everything and website design is not just art. When a website fails to engage the visitor, it’s often due to the designer’s failure to plan strategically.

A vital step in any website design project is to find out how the website will be used and understand the business behind it. What good is a blog targeted to senior citizens if the small fonts and low contrast make it a challenge to read? How successful is the ecommerce site when the visitor doesn’t complete their purchase because of a poorly structured checkout process? How can an educational website inform the user if the content library is unorganized and the user can’t find what they’re searching for? Before getting started on creating that beautiful website, here are some valuable questions to ask:

What’s the Goal?

In design school, this is the first question we learned to ask. Knowing the goal of the design is the key to unlocking the information needed in order to provide the best solution for your client: a website that attracts, informs, and engages the new and returning visitor. You need a clearly defined ‘Goal’ statement. The statement should be ‘actionable’ and ‘measurable. This will  guide you through the design process as you ask the question: “does this design accomplish the goal?”

An example of a website goal that provides online learning for children might be: “To become an authoritative learning resource for children ages K–8th grade, while providing fresh, quality content on the website.” We want to accomplish this by, “regularly adding new information through new classes and blog posts from professionals, establishing trust by highlighting case studies and targeted free offerings, and marketing the site through other websites and social media.”

Talk to your client. They know their business better than anyone and should have a clear idea of the main goal of their website. If they don’t know, work with them until you establish this essential element needed to create an interface that serves a meaningful function. Whether it be to inform the visitor, entertain them, provide a service, or sell a product, the main focus of the website design should work to achieve this primary organizational goal.

Who is the Audience?

It is said with good reason to “Know Thy User.” A well-known design (and business) best practice is defining the target audience. The audience of the website will not only influence the design elements, but also the voice of the editorial content and the way it’s organized. Answering this question is not always easy, and there is not always just one answer. Often, this step is aided with various tools such as conducting surveys, developing user personas, researching analytics, exploring the competition, and obtaining various insights from social media and email service providers.

What’s the Brand Image?

A design should accomplish a meaningful function, while also support the overall brand message the client wants to convey. Defining the brand message for a website is not just about the always important logo and color palette, but also includes special considerations for the use of icons, imagery, typography, and the ‘voice’ of the editorial content. The way the website behaves – how the user interacts with the various elements  – is another important tool often used to help clients set themselves apart from their competition.

If the client doesn’t have a ‘brand’ image or has no established digital identity, probe further with another question and let their answers paint the picture: “What do you want your website design to ‘say’ about your company and/or service?” Answers could range from “We’re fun and hip” to “Zen, peaceful, and calm”. Whatever the response, it will most likely help guide the layout and overall graphic approach to convey the message behind the brand.

Are There Accessibility Concerns for Brand Elements?

Considerations for accessibility should always be made when determining the best implementation for brand elements in the digital space. Special care is sometimes needed to navigate the political waters of brand color negotiation, so addressing potential accessibility concerns before beginning the design process will save time down the road.

Are the colors accessible? Not all branding agencies provide style guides including color palettes with enough contrast to pass basic accessibility standards in the digital format. Be sure to test the contrast of the foreground and background values for each potential color combination, and pay special attention to the font colors before including them in the design. If the color combinations don’t pass, there are tools available that will help with making adjustments to improve the contrast.

What are the brand fonts? The font size for all device sizes and the font style are considerations that should also be made. Are they available in web format and are they easy to read at a small size? Web fonts load faster, enlarge clearer, and are easier to translate. Certain font styles are found to be easier to read by those with Dyslexia when the ascenders and descenders are extreme, the counter is defined, and ALL CAPS are used at a bare minimum.

Thoughtful consideration of the brand elements prior to beginning the design will help to ensure all audiences including the color blind, vision impaired, and those with reading disabilities will be able to engage and interact with the website as the design intends.

What and Where is the Content?

Understanding the content that will be included in the website will help guide the architecture, the layout structure, and the ways it’s designed. Good organization leads to a carefully crafted navigation and an enjoyable user experience, helping the website not only look good but also serve it’s purpose.

  • Will the content include an extensive amount of copy?
  • How will the text files be provided?  
  • Who is the primary contact for the content?
  • How large is the image library?
  • Are the image sizes and resolution suitable for retina devices?
  • If the image library is small: are there plans for a photo shoot in the near future, or is stock photography an option?
  • Will videos be added? If so, what is the source of the video files?

If the website is a redesign, review each main section with your client to discover what is no longer relevant and possible changes they would like to see moving forward. If it’s a new website design, at the very minimum you’ll need a Content Outline with the names and categories of each section in order to determine the page templates and main navigational structure best suited for the design and user experience.

Additional Resources
Easy Ways to Make Your Website More Accessible | Blog Post
Designing With Personas | Blog Post
Why Web Analytics Are Important for Your Business | Video

Cheryl Little

Meet team member, Cheryl Little

Cheryl leads the Mediacurrent Creative and Digital Strategy teams by working to develop a solid foundation of processes, services, and body of work. A champion of inclusive design, Cheryl builds...

Learn more about Cheryl >
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