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Part Three: Web Design

How to bring website vision to life Add to ...

It’s not uncommon for clients to approach Paul Bellows wanting to build their own Facebook-style website. But it doesn’t take him long to convince them otherwise.

After all, website design and development isn't an assembly-line process —you can’t point at a pre-existing platform or design and say, “I want one of those.”

Mr. Bellows, the founder and director of Yellow Pencil, a Web design and development firm with offices in Edmonton and Vancouver, says that clients often approach his firm with “the idea that a website is a thing that we deliver to a customer. And that’s a huge misconception.”

It’s not a just a product you go out and buy.

On the contrary, Mr. Bellows will sit down with new clients over periods of weeks and months to develop a comprehensive online strategy for designing and developing a new site that makes sense for a specific business’s audience and needs.

If that means building the next Facebook, he says, “you better have a reason for why anyone is going to use yours.”

What’s the purpose?

Every company has a niche, a specialty, or something it excels at.

“To understand the culture and the personality behind your business and to be able to translate that back into your site, that’s really important,” says Verne Ho, a partner and creative director at Jet Cooper, a Toronto-based user experience agency.

Understanding his company’s clients is key to a successful Web project, which is why it’s important for him to identify the purpose of a site’s existence, often characterized as the problem a client is hoping to solve.

“You have to define that problem,” he explains, “and you have to define the objectives and the goals before you even start thinking about any of the solutions.”

“We’ll work with people who have nothing but a sketch on a napkin.”

Sometimes, says Mr. Ho, those needs are conveyed in terms of what the business needs. In other cases, it’s what the audience needs. The trick is understanding both and finding a balance between the two.

“If you haven’t defined your problem successfully, it doesn’t matter how pretty your interface looks,” Mr. Ho says. “It’s not doing what you need it to do.”

One strategy encouraged at Jet Cooper is an “MVP” philosophy, which stands for minimal viable product. The idea is that Mr. Verne and his team satisfy a client’s most basic, core needs, and then add features later on.

“It’s so easy to get caught up in the bells and whistles of the product,” says Mr. Ho, “and those are all equally important, but at different stages of the product build cycle.”

The discovery process

When Mr. Bellows meets with a new client, he follows a similar approach – what he calls the discovery process, which can be broken down into six steps.

First, Mr. Bellows will request a project brief, which is essentially a short document outlining what clients hope to achieve, and how they hope to work with Yellow Pencil to make the plan a reality.

Second, a discussion of the clients’s brand (including preferred logos and fonts) will take place, followed by audience definition, and a study of the client’s competitive landscape.

As for the site itself, the fifth step is all about providing a description of required content, for example, bios or productive descriptions, followed by the final step, a list of functional requirements (this can be anything from an online shop to a commenter system).

Clients that have a good sense of these elements often find they have an easier and cheaper time bringing their vision to life.

For example, Yellow Pencil recently worked with a company called Backside Tours to develop a new website where customers could book ski tours online. “They had spent years working on their service model, and they knew it inside out,” Mr. Bellows says. “They just wanted to translate that out to the Web.”

Common misconceptions

For many clients, the expectation is that the actual design process begins with the very first meeting. But Mr. Ho is quick to point out that’s not how things work.

“We will go through weeks of work and conceptualization before we even open Photoshop for the first time.”

The problem is that clients underestimate the amount of planning, strategizing, and conceptualizing that goes into a redesign, "not just by Jet Cooper staff, but on the client side as well.

“We have constant communication with our clients on a daily basis, if not on the hourly basis,” Mr. Ho says. “So it’s not a hands-off process whatsoever. You have to be just as involved as we are.”

Mr. Bellows says it’s sometimes difficult to explain that a redesign isn’t just about creating a new look and feel. Content plays an important part, too, and it isn’t enough to simply give old bios or product descriptions a new skin.

“You say that about your furniture until you move. You bring all your existing furniture into the new house and realize how much you hate your furniture,” he explains. In this scenario, think of content as the furniture, and your website as the house. Both elements have to match, ”so we’re going to plan for that.”

When it comes to developing a good website, planning is key.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Other stories can be found on the Web Strategy section of the Report on Small Business website .

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