Top 10 Best Practices for Creating Web Sites

A few tips to keep web site development efforts on the right track.

Creating well-designed web sites that meet real-world business objectives and provide value to customers is not an easy task. A lot of companies have fallen by the wayside because they got hung up on some of the pitfalls to which web development efforts are prone. Here are some best practices that will help you make sure that your next web site development effort is a success.

  1. Define the business objectives of the web site.
    If you're creating a web site, you need to know why you're creating it. If you can't clearly define what the web site is supposed to accomplish, then it probably won't accomplish what you want. Without clear objectives, your web site is like a sailing ship without a rudder — the winds might send you to your desired destination, but I wouldn't count on it.

    A major benefit of well-defined objectives is that proposed features and content can be evaluated based on whether they contribute to the objectives. Knowing what the site needs to do is a great way to make sure that those needs are met. You'd be surprised how many web sites are launched without locking down the objectives.

  2. Know who your audience is. Make sure the site is designed for them
    Your web site is a communication channel. You're only one half of the channel — the other half is your audience. Who are you trying to reach? What do they like? What benefit do members of your intended audience get by coming to your web site?

    Your intended audience brings with it characteristics that you'll have to accomodate in order to reach them effectively. If you're selling music to teenagers, your web site design and features will be wildly different than if you're focused on selling Frank Sinatra songs to senior citizens. If your audience consists of techies, then your web site may be able to take advantage of some of the newest web technologies. But if your audience is likely to consist of less technically savvy individuals, a simpler web site design and a focus on tried-and-true technolgies might be advisable.

    Designing web sites for the wrong audience is one of the most common web site problems. Web sites are often designed by people who design the type of web site that they would like rather than the one their intended audience would like. Understand who your audience is so that you don't fall into this trap.

  3. Your web site should be a showcase for your business, not a particular technology.
    This would seem obvious, but oftentimes it's not. Does your web site really need Flash? Does it really need animated graphics? Does it need sound effects when users click on buttons? Does your web site, which might never have more than a hundred simultaneous users, really need the complexity of a high-performance technology like Enterprise JavaBeans?

    Maybe your web site does need these things. Maybe it doesn't. The determining factor should be whether such technologies either help meet business objectives or appeal to your intended audience in some useful fashion.

  4. Involve the client in every step of the web development process.
    In the world of web development, developers and those who commission them to create web sites are often on opposite sides of a great divide.

    Basically, developers typically understand how to use a variety of technologies to create web sites...but they often lack knowledge of a particular audience to be targeted.

    Likewise, those who pay for web sites to be created often know quite a bit about their audience...but may be quite limited when it comes to web technologies, design standards, graphic design or user interface design.

    The only effective solution for this issue is a methodology that emphasizes communication between web developers and clients. This typically involves activities such as mutual education sessions, design discussions, sending early page layouts to the customer for approval, etc.

  5. Validate the site design with the end-users at intervals during the development effort.

    Your web wite is intended to reach an audience in some way. Let them help you test it. If properly approached, people will be flattered that you're actually interested in their opinion. At appropriate points in the development process, ask a limited number of audience members to help you evaluate how well your site is working. Feedback from user testing can be both surprising...and extremely useful.

    Users will tell you if your site design is too complex. They'll tell you if they don't like the look-and-feel of the site. Watch them perform some typical site-related tasks, such as searching or purchasing a product, and you will soon find out if your site is working as intended. Even better, you'll find out before the site launches, while you still have time to fix key features.

  6. Good sites are designed. Don't rush into development.
    In the web development world, there's an unfortunate tendency to start coding immediately, without thought for the overall design or architecture of a site. You hear clients saying things like: "It's just a bunch of web pages, so how hard can it be to design a site?" Or, another favorite, "My <pick your favorite relative> knows some HTML, maybe he can give you some tips on how to create an ecommerce site for me."

    OK. Time for a reality check. The kind of web sites that make significant amounts of money and/or serve a reasonably large audience require real work to create. A typical ecommerce site is like an iceberg, where most of functionality of the web site is hidden from casual view. After all, regular users don't see the administrative areas of the site, which often contain functionality for managing data, maintaining user accounts, producing reports, etc.

    Even the simplest ecommerce site typically also represents the integration of a number of diverse technologies. For example, KeenerTech.com uses HTML, CSS style sheets, ASP.net, JavaScript and Microsoft SQL Server, and this is a relatively simple web site.

    So, spend the time up front. Design the web site carefully, taking into account the business objectives and the intended audience.

  7. Web development efforts require careful management, just like "real" projects.
    This best practice tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. Just as there is a tendency to rush into development for web sites, there's also a perception that web pages are "simple" and that web sites can basically just be done on-the-fly.

    Creating any web site of significant size is a software development task like any other software development task. Web development projects need careful management, just like other types of projects.

  8. Incorporate graphics into your site, not your site into your graphics.
    Graphics can be a useful and aesthetically pleasing part of a web site. They should serve a useful purpose without being intrusive and without drastically increasing page load times for customers with dial-up connections (yes, they're still out there). Use graphics well...but don't overuse them. This applies to graphics, Flash animations and similar features.

  9. Never underestimate the power of content - It's what brings people back to your site.
    You can do all kinds of things to get people to come to your site — once. But the visitors you really want are the ones that keep coming back because your site has value for them. It could be because your site has authoritative information on some subject, or a good selection of products to buy or excellent prices. That's content, and that's what will keep visitors coming back to your web site.

  10. Plan for change. You should be scoping out the next enhancement to your web site now.
    Really good web sites are generally not created "perfect" and "functionally complete" right out of the starting gate. The best web sites are usually the ones that evolve quickly, adding new features and content to meet the needs of their audience. If you just launched your web site, then it's time to get busy...because you're already behind schedule on the next release of the web site.



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