The #1 mistake when building a website

I’ve been working on a database and scripting project for one of my clients over the last couple of days, and it got me to thinking about some of the lessons I’ve learned in my years as a website designer, and one of the most important ones in particular.

I’ve put several hours into this project so far, but I’ve yet to fire up my computer. Like any well-executed database project, this one is starting with pencil and paper. What is the purpose of the database? What kind of information do people want to be able to extract from it? How do the bits of information relate to each other, and what links need to be created among them? Scribbling, and highlighting, and scratching out, and most of all thinking. Planning.

Just as this planning process is vital to the success of this project, the same is true of a website. Before worrying about graphics and design, before picking colors and deciding on a theme, you need to sit down and hash out a plan for your site.

  • What is its goal?
  • Who will it serve?
  • What will it consist of?
  • How will the pages relate to each other?
  • Which content is primary and should be part of top-level navigation?
  • Which is secondary, and should flow from the primary content?
  • How will it be structured?
  • What tools will you need to achieve the site’s goal?
  • How will you measure achievement of your goal?

So if you’re starting a new website, or even if you’re just looking at revamping an existing one, do yourself a favor, and turn off your computer. Put away the color swatches, and get out a pencil and a piece of paper, and start thinking about your site. It’s not the most fun step in building a good website. But it is the most critical one.

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