A little bit of planning and forethought about your website will save you time and money down the road. Don't get me wrong, you don't have to work out every little detail. In fact it's good to not be too attached to the little details so that you can be flexible as building takes place. There are always adjustments and fine tuning that happen along the way.

Some of the information in this article is from my book Using Joomla, Second Edition. From a technical perspective, the book is terribly out of date now. But the planning principles are just as relevant now as they were five years ago (a lifetime in tech years). Thus, the images in this post refer to "Joomla Pet Center" which is the example site used in the book. Just ignore that bit. It matters not the platform as these planning principles don't care about what platform you are using.

This post will talk about:

  • Goals of the website
  • Writing Your Goals
  • Planning the Menu/Navigation
  • Planning the Home Layout
  • Layouts of Internal Pages
  • Planning Users

Goals of the Website

Knowing your business goals is helpful when planning a website. We need to have a good handle on what we want people to do when they get to the site. If you have a marketing plan, or mission statement, this is a good time to pull those out and review them so that the website works with them.

No need to worry if you don't have a business plan or anything. What you can do is simply ask yourself, "What do I want my website visitors to do when they get to my site?"

You might want them to:

  • Buy something
  • Sign up for a newsletter
  • Contact you
  • Schedule a free consultation
  • Download a whitepaper or other freebie
  • Become a member
  • Donate
  • Read your blog or other valuable resources
  • Join a community

Writing Your Goals

Now it's your turn. There is no right or wrong way to determine your goals. Just take a few minutes and answer the question "What do I want my website visitors to do when they get to my site." It is helpful to write the answers down and revisit them frequently as change happens! Not only that but it's easy to get distracted with functionality and design and sometimes forget what the main goals are. We don't want to lose them in the shuffle.

Here are some other questions to ask yourself as you write down your goals:

  • What is my top business goal?
  • What are my other business goals?
  • What do I want people to do when they get to my website?
  • What are the benefits (not to be mistaken with features) of my product or service that visitors want?
  • What problem(s) is my product or service solving for the visitor?
  • Will one or more person be administering the website? If so, what will they need to access?
  • Will visitors be able to contribute to the site in any way, whether that be commenting, submitting forms, or creating a profile? How will they and their information be moderated?
  • Do I have visitors that are EU citizens? (This is a whole other thing and outside the scope of this article, but if you do we need to think about that in the prep process.)

You don't have to know exact answers to each of these questions. Having a basic concept of what you ultimately want to achieve for your business and your site will assist you throughout the planning process. Next we'll plan your site menu.

Planning the Menu/Navigation

It's easiest to begin the planning of your website structure by figuring out what menu items (or pages) you would like to appear on your website. The menu is also referred to as Navigation or Tabs or Buttons. The menu typically exists at the top of a website and provide navigation throughout the site content. Menus can also be displayed down the side of a page or at the footer (bottom) of a website. If necessary, there can be more than one menu on a website.

If you're planning your first website, it's recommended to draw out your menu (or menus) in some way. Ways to draw out your menu items:

On paper

Pull out a piece of paper and leave a little space at the top. Then draw a line across the paper either portrait or landscape—doesn't matter which way. Write the menu items that will appear on your site across the paper above the line. Below the line, write the menu items that will appear in the drop-down of that menu item. Using sticky notes is another way of doing it where you can try different arrangements of topics to find the most effective sequence and flow of content.

In a spreadsheet

Start with the top row of the spreadsheet and in each cell type the name of the menu item across the top. Make that row bold. On the next row down under each of the bold cells, type the men items that will be drop-down items.

Wireframing software

There are many wireframing tools that will allow you to create menus and page layouts with varying effort, complexity, and cost. You are welcome to take the planning of your site to any level you wish. In some cases, using wireframing software is a very good idea. In other cases, it is overkill and could take more time than paper or a spreadsheet.

Index cards

If you have a lot of ideas for your website, it might be useful to try this simple exercise: Write down all the pages and ideas you have on small index cards. Lay out all the cards (or stick them on a wall if you're using stickies) and put related items together in the same area, moving them into logical groups so they all create the least number of groups possible. This will help make your site structure and menu system more clear.

This image shows an example menu structure using Google Sheets

Planning Menu Structure in Spreadsheet

Next, we take it a step further and determine the type of each menu item so that we determine the layout and display for each page. The type of page display/layout/content that will be used is in parentheses next to the menu item.

jcp menu types altered

Using whichever method works for you, go ahead and draw out or make a list of all the menu items you will have on your site. If this turns into more than one menu, then make more than one list or drawing. If you plan to have a lot of content in your menu in columns, you may want to use multiple pieces of paper or tabs of a spreadsheet so it can be clearer.

Once you're done making your list of menu items, you will go back and decide what type of content it is (single page, multiple pages/posts displayed on a page, store, events, etc.)

This will really help you get clear on what to talk to a designer/developer/builder about and you'll be clearer on what content needs to be developed. You've got this. And of course if you'd like to do it with someone, I'm available for hire!

Planning the Home Layout

Going back to paper, a spreadsheet, a presentation slide, or wireframing software, we will now sketch out our home page layout. This is a guide so that we can create the elements required and have something to look at. Chances are good that the finished home page will look different than our sketch, and that is just fine.

Using a spreadsheet we will use outlined cells to lay out a home page. It's fine to use a piece of paper too (perhaps even easier). None of the spacing is exact, it's just to get us going on what we believe we want on the home page.

Here are a couple of examples of home layouts or menu structures, remember, keep it simple.

jcp home page layout

menu sketch paper sm

NOTE: Sometimes it's easier to figure out what to display on the home page after the rest of the site is built out. As the site takes shape, it becomes clearer what has its proper place on the home page. For your purposes, it's to give you something to think about and be able to talk to your designer about what you'd like.

Layouts of Internal Pages

Using a similar approach as the home page layout, you'll have to figure out how our internal pages will be laid out. The difference between the home page and the internal pages is that typically, the home page gallery/banner, etc. won't display on internal pages. it could be that different banners or modules will appear at the top of internal pages depending on what page is being viewed.

Sometimes there are different sidebar modules on internal pages which might highlight content or give additional calls to action depending on the content being displayed. Again, planning the internal pages is just a guide. We may not know what we want to display on the internal pages until after the content is entered.

You may have several different internal page layouts. Third-party extensions or plugins may dictate the layout as well as specific modules or widgets or content blocks to be published on those pages. The key is to plan things out so you have a basis from which to work.

Go ahead and work on some internal page layouts for yourself. Remember, they don't have to be perfect, they're just a guide.

Planning Users

Unless you're a solopreneur, you probably will have other people who you want to help you with your website content. For some it might be as simple as someone that adds blog posts for you. For others, you may have entire departments who can only add/edit content for a specific section of the website. Or, it could be that you want certain visitors to sign in to your website and see additional content only for that user group (say for a University student in the Art Department that can see additional content only for the Art Department students).

In general you'll have two types of people to think about:

  1. People who will work on the content
  2. Visitors who will look at the content

Your goal in planning is to determine each. A huge percentage of websites have a few people that work on the content and visitors look at all the content on the site. But if you will have people login and view additional content, now is the time to plan this out. Just do your best. Your designer will help with the rest.

Contact me for your website project. I'd love to work with you.

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