The Site Design Process

Building a website is a collaborative effort. It's also a step-by-step process to get the job done right so it helps if you understand the way I will work with you to develop the site you want. You can read through this section in as much or as little detail as you want. I've divided it into blocks and if you are new to web sites, you should at least look at each one; Basic Decisions, Design, Publishing and Marketing.

Basic Decisions

Decide your purpose

Whether you're creating a business site to sell something or making a site to show off your salt and pepper shaker collection, the first question you need to answer is: What do you want your visitors to do? Whether you want them to contact you, buy something or just stay a while a leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling, we keep that goal in mind as we build your site so it has to be decided first.

The Look And Feel of Your Site

At this point we're not talking specifics because first we need to know the general impression you want it to give. Will it be sombre and heavy or light and breezy? Should it be solid and corporate-looking or fun and casual? Knowing this will help us with design decisions down the road. It's a good idea to look at other sites and decide what you like and what you don't like about them. There'll be a quiz later.

Structure

This is usually a technical consideration that you may not be concerned with but this is the point where we work out the menu structure. If this is a large site with many pages it's a big job to define structure but even if it is just a few pages we need to decide just what they are. It is especially important if you intend your site to grow - we need to plan for that.

Budget

Obviously the more time it takes to develop a site, the more it's going to cost. We can work on an hourly basis or I have several packages for both design and on-going maintenance so you will know your costs. If you have a set budget then we can just work within it. If money is no object, call me now.

Design

Logos

Every business needs a logo or something that identifies it visually. If you have one already then we can design the site around it. If not, we can work on one or there are several on-line services that help you design a fairly good logo at a reasonable price. Sometimes you just want to display your name in an attractive way. Designing a logo can take a lot of time, and money, but it doesn't have to. I won't claim to be a cracker-jack logo designer, but I've come up with a few that seem to work. Check my portfolio.

Navigation

If you have a great-looking site with lots of information and beautiful images but poor navigation, the site won't work. We need to decide which pages link to each other, what will be on the main navigation and what will be secondary, perhaps in the footer. There are several rules about navigation - it should be along the top or on the left side, but sometimes the rules must be broken. It's all about your visitors' experience, which means we may need to try out several examples before we find one that works best.

Technology

A lot of this is, well, technical and not something you would worry about but most people want the latest and greatest and there are some things you should understand about the technology of websites, especially if you are comparison shopping..

The following is a breakdown of how it works, you can skip this if you want.

Web pages are built using a language called HTML (it stands for Hyper Text Mark-up Language if you need to know) that tells browsers what to display. In the beginning, HTML did everything but in recent years it has been established that HTML should just be used for content, to tell the browser what is a paragraph, a heading, a link etc. A different code called CSS (Cascading Style Sheets) is used to tell the browser what the content should look like. Finally another language called JavaScript is used for behaviors, or actions.

You probably don't care about all that but you should know that this change has been gradual and a lot of smaller developers haven't utilized CSS and JavaScript properly because it's difficult to learn and it is still possible make a functioning site with just HTML. However a site built with proper mix of HTML, CSS and JavaScript is leaner, faster and can do more. It is also easier to make changes to how the site looks as the code that controls display has nothing to do with content. The site is also more accessible to users with disabilities. Some visitors may not be able to see your fancy images and videos, they use "readers" to tell them what's on the page, you don't want to exclude them from enjoying your site.

You may have heard of Flash technology, it provides animation and movement, as well as full-motion video and even sound. I use Flash for the typewriter-effect slogan at the top of this page. Flash is a wonderful technology if it's used properly - motion will draw your visitors' attention - but in most cases, less is better. Good design trumps splashy effects that can slow the site down and actually turn off your visitors. You also need to keep in mind that Flash can't be seen on most mobile devices, especially the iPhone and iPad, and that's an increasingly large audience. Excessive use of Flash can also have a negative effect on the site's ranking in search results, but more on that later.

Static vs. Dynamic

There are two types of sites you will find on the web; static and dynamic. Most small business and personal sites are static – the individual pages are built using specialized software, uploaded to a server, and that's it. All visitors see the same pages. Larger corporations and e-commerce sites are dynamic, the content is stored in a large database; the pages are composed on the fly, often by what the individual visitor decides. For example, every visitor to eBay sees a different page, depending on what they want to do and what happens to be available at that particular moment.

Until recently, these dynamic sites were only available to large enterprises because the technology to build them was very involved and expensive. Now, thanks to better hosting services and freely-available software called Content Management Systems, virtually anybody can have a dynamic website. This opens up a whole new world for small business, you can now offer items for sale, allow your visitors to search content, personalize their experience, post comments, blog – virtually anything the big boys can do.

The big advantage of dynamic sites is that they can be changed and updated using any browser, without any coding or specialized knowledge. You don't need to hire a web developer every time you want to make some minor changes or even some major ones; you take control of your own site.

At Web Cobbler we now build all sites dynamically, most using a Content Management System called Joomla! (the exclamation point is theirs). Other systems, like WordPress, are available but I find Joomla! the most versatile. This affects the design process as all these systems use pre-designed templates or "themes" to define the layout. There are literally thousands of templates to choose from and most can be customized to suit different needs. If you really want, we can build a template from scratch but that can be very time-consuming. For the majority of sites, one or more of the many available templates will do the job.

Colours

Colour has a big psychological effect and it can make an important statement about your site and your business. The main colour is important but we also want the other colours to compliment it (unless you actually want them to clash). We also want to choose background and text colours that have good contrast so the page is easy to read. Most quality templates now have several pre-defined colour schemes but if none of them work for you, we can change them.

Typeface

We are limited in choosing typeface (commonly known as  fonts, so I'll use that term from now on) in web design because in order to view any font, the visitor has to have it installed on his or her computer. With potentially millions of visitors, there are very few fonts we can be sure will work for all of them. With new technology, that is changing but it's still true for the vast majority of web users. Still, font selection is important to the look and feel as well as readability of your site and there are ways to put custom fonts in headings or titles so we will spend some time discussing choices.

Images

A picture is worth a thousand words ... OK it's a cliché but it is also true. Good images make your site more attractive which means visitors will spend more time there so more of them will do what you want them to do (see basic decision # 1).

Like everything else, images must be used appropriately. They must be optimized for web use and you don't want too many, as they will slow your site down. Generally, I don't recommend using images for navigation but like all rules, this one can be broken.

If you have pictures or graphics already, we can integrate them into the site where appropriate. If you need pictures (and you live nearby) we can take them for you with a good-quality digital camera. Full-motion video is also an option but, once again, it should be used sparingly to make it effective.

Layout

At this point we need to decide exactly where each element will be placed on the various pages. I usually work it out first with good old-fashioned pencil and paper. It's not that different than laying out furniture in a room. We draw the dimensions, and then shuffle around blocks representing furniture to see how it works before we actually put the stuff there. Once again there are technical as well as design considerations, a room has fixed dimensions, a web page does not.

How the page will look depends a lot on the visitor's computer and how it is set up. The most important consideration is the width of the page, which unfortunately is entirely dependent on the visitors' monitor. Research shows most people have their monitors set at a resolution of 1024 X 850 pixels so most designers work with that. In practical terms it means we have about 960 pixels in width to work with. However there are still many people who have their monitors set at 850 X 650 pixels which means a page that is 960 pixels wide won't fit on their screen, but increasingly, because of  the proliferation of wide screen monitors, many users have a much higher resolution.

Computer users also have the ability to change things like font size and colours on their browsers, some even turn off JavaScript or images. Also different brands of browsers interpret the code in slightly different ways so we can never be absolutely sure how a page will look to every visitor.

Geesh - right now we go with 960 pixels with a nice background for those who have higher resolutions. They're used to it anyway.

Publishing Your Site

Your URL

You've probably thought of a name for your website already. The URL (stands for Universal Resource Locator) is the name your website uses in public. Of course you want a name that is easy to remember but sometimes it seems like all the good names are taken. There are several top-level domains available to use (that's the part after the 'dot'), the most common is .com but if the name you want isn't available as a .com you could consider .ca which (in Canada at least) is becoming much more accepted. You want your URL to accurately reflect your site - otherwise you won't get the right traffic and search engines will dismiss it.

There are many places you can check for name availability and they usually offer suggestions if your name isn't available. After that, you need to register your URL to claim ownership. If you don't have an active site, you can usually "park" a URL for a low fee.

Keeping a URL active usually costs about $15 a year though that can vary depending on the service. Registration is limited to a certain term but the bottom line is; you need to keep paying - in advance - for as long as you want the URL to be active. It's a lot like a parking meter. If you pay in advance, you're OK but if you let it slip, it can cost you big bucks to get your property (URL or car) back. If that is a challenge to you, we at Web Cobbler can take control and make sure you don't lose your valuable name.

Some web developers will register your URL for you but they'll put it in their name, which is fine as long as you two are getting along, if not, you're in trouble. We will register your URL in your name so if somewhere down the line our relationship ends, you still have control, which we feel is just ethical practice.

Hosting

Once your site is created and the URL is registered, the files need to be placed on a server that makes your site available to the Internet. For this you need a hosting service, which is very large company with very big computers. Your Internet Service Provider may include hosting in your package that will be adequate for your needs, or you may have a service already. Just be aware that some "free" hosting services place advertising on your site. Unless you think that's a good idea, it's better to pay.

If you don't have a hosting service we can provide several competitive options depending on your needs. Hosting can cost anywhere from $50 a year to several hundred dollars a year if you have a large site that transfers a lot of data.

Marketing

Getting the Word Out

If you build it, they will come. No they won't, that's a cliché that isn't true. You have to let people know about it and, you need to give them a compelling reason to visit your site. Get your URL splashed all over everything you can, your business cards, any print advertising, brochures even swag. I've had success putting it tastefully on the back of my car.

Search Engines

Research shows most people find websites using search engines. Google is far and away the most popular but Yahoo is right in there and Microsoft Bing is coming on strong. There are thousands of others but those three are the biggies. These search engines send out what are called "bots" (short for robots) that crawl all over the Internet looking for sites which they then analyze and decide if they like them. If they do, the page is placed in an index so when someone puts a certain term on their search page - say "real estate" - it will show them web pages that best match the term based on their bots analysis. Certain terms may yield hundreds or even thousands of sites, what you want here is a higher ranking so your site is at or near on the top of the list.

This need to be ranked high gives rise to a whole industry called SEO - search engine optimization. There are companies and individuals who will "guarantee" you top ranking almost instantly, for a big fee, but be careful. Some of these people use tricks to fool the search engines and if they work at all, it will only be for a short time and they usually don't get the results you need.

Search engine optimization is basically finding the right keywords you think your ideal visitor will use in search engines, then using them judiciously in your site. If your site is about cultivating African Violets make sure the content focuses on those words. Use them in the URL preferably, certainly in headings, links and in the written content so when someone types those words into a Google search, yours will be the site Google thinks is most relevant.

SEO is an on-going process, there is no magic bullet. Google (and it's still mostly about Google) won't tell you how their service works but they do offer a lot of help because they want it to work better. The best tool is called Google Analytics where they will track all visitors to your site, where they came from, how long they stayed, what pages they looked at and more. It's totally free and a must-have for all web sites if you're serious about traffic.