Essential guide to designing your website

Design plans for a website

An attractive and easy-to-use website is crucial for any successful business. If you need a new website, you have a few options. You can design it yourself using custom templates or an online website builder, or you can hire an individual or an agency to do it for you.

Whatever approach you take, your website must be simple to navigate, content must be clear, and customers must be able to contact you.

Your website objectives

Website design options

Site content

Design for simplicity

Organising your content

Visual design

Attracting visitors

Test your site

1. Your website objectives

First, work out what objectives you aim to achieve with your site. Ideally, they should be SMART - specific, measurable, agreed, realistic and time-limited. Try to track all your objectives.

Who are you trying to reach?

  • Provide details on your website audience, including identifying all potential customers. For example, a roofing supplies company may target builders and architects rather than the general public.
  • Think about what these visitors want from your site, what information they will be searching for and what is the most logical way of structuring this.

When these people visit your site, what action do you want them to take?

  • Do you want your customers to email you, call you or register for more information? Do you want them to buy a product from you or through a reseller? Starting with a clear objective for your site will be beneficial when you begin the design.

What are your website targets?

  • If you hope to increase sales, by how much? Are you trying to influence existing customers or reach new ones? Which market segments are you targeting?
  • You may want to use your website to reduce costs or improve service, for example with online customer support. What measurable results do you hope to achieve?

What are the constraints?

  • For example, you may not be able to publish commercially-sensitive information.

2. Website design options

You can build your website from scratch

  • If you have in-house expertise, or the time to learn yourself, you can create your own website. There are numerous books, online courses and even YouTube videos that can provide essential website design tips.
  • One of the easiest ways to create a website is to purchase a template and use a platform such as Wordpress to host it.
  • You can find templates for all types of businesses. They can be customised and personalised for your business.
  • Building your own site can be challenge and you are likely to run into issues with design, functionality, security and performance that you may require external help to tackle.

You can buy a fixed-price starter package

  • This is the fastest way to set up a website. Most web-hosting companies offer starter packages.
  • Popular platforms include Wix and Squarespace.
  • Starter packages can be limited in terms of design and functionality. They are usually based on picking a layout from pre-designed templates, but they can be customised.
  • As well as the website, you can also purchase a domain name and register an email address.
  • Online website providers will also manage your hosting too.
  • You will pay a single monthly fee for all services.
  • Results can be very impressive and many professional businesses use website platforms.

You can appoint a web design agency to design an original site for you

  • This is the most expensive option, but at the end of the process you should receive a professional, custom-built site that’s designed for you and your business.
  • You must to work closely with the agency to achieve the website you want. You’ll need to be clear about what you want from the site and be confident at communicating this to the developer.
  • A good agency will combine your ideas with their knowledge of what works online.

3. Site content

People expect quick answers online. They become impatient if they cannot get what they need quickly.

Start with the essentials

  • What is your product or service?
  • Who do you sell to?
  • Why should visitors buy from you?
  • What are your prices? Only omit price information if there is a good business reason to do so.

Change and update your content often

  • The web is a dynamic medium. Changes to your home page signal to repeat visitors that there is something new to see on your site.
  • Search engines give content a higher ranking if it appears to be up to date.
  • If real-time data is important in your business, link your site to a database for automatic updates.
  • Consider linking your website to any social media accounts you have.

Try to stand out

  • What is the unique selling point that makes your business better than the competition? Offering a useful service which is unavailable elsewhere will always attract customers.
  • Use the site to offer improved after-sales support. For example, you can provide tips, FAQs and local contact details.

Give customers a number of ways to contact you

  • Include your email address and telephone number.
  • Provide multiple contact points on each page and encourage potential customers to connect with you.
  • Include your full postal address. This reassures customers you have a 'real world' presence.
  • Use Google Maps on your site to help customers find you.

4. Design for simplicity

For clarity, keep pages uncluttered

  • People tend to skim webpages, so break up your content and make it simple to navigate and easy to digest. Use lots of subtitles and bulleted lists.
  • Online, less is often more. Don’t overload readers with too much information. Instead, focus on your core messages and encourage them to contact you instead.

Only use techniques that are appropriate

  • Animation, video and audio content can be a great way to engage visitors and keep them on your website for longer. But only embed this kind of content if it adds something to the experience. For instance, you could offer a video demonstration of your product in action.
  • Most people now access the internet through their smartphone or tablet. Makes sure your website uses 'responsive' web design, so that it automatically adjusts to suit the visitor's screen size. If you’re using an online website provider, this should be part of the package. If you’re using an agency, they should take care of this. Always test your website on multiple devices to ensure it works.

Track your visitors

The web is the most measurable marketing channel there is. You can see exactly how people use your website.

To start, you need to install an analytics package onto your website

  • Many web hosts include an analytics package as standard, but the industry standard is Google Analytics.
  • Once your analytics package is installed, you can view your web statistics by logging into a website. Information is provided in a simple to understand dashboard.
  • You can get information on how many people have accessed your website, where they are from and what are the most and least popular pages.
  • Use the information to make changes and improvements to your site.

Use the information you get to make your website better

  • See how many people visit your site and how long they stay.
  • Analyse the paths your customers take. Identify where people drop out of the purchasing process.
  • Discover how people find your site and which keywords are working.
  • See average order values and data about repeat visitors. Do they purchase again or just come back for help?
  • Try changing one thing at a time on your site, then waiting to see whether it improves your statistics.

5. Organising your content

Clear and confident messaging and content will make people feel welcome the moment they arrive at your home page

  • People usually know what they are looking for when they go to a website. Reassure them that they are in the right place.
  • Give visitors immediate payoffs - news, offers or key information they want.
  • Your proposition should be clear. Customers should immediately understand what your business does, and your website offers.

Make regular customers feel special

  • Consider using password-protected pages to allow business customers to access prices and discounts.
  • Provide an opportunity for regular buyers to register their details, rather than having to enter them on every visit.
  • Offer discounts to returning customers or members.

If you are selling online, design your site to make buying easy

  • Anticipate customer queries and give clear answers.
  • Illustrate your products clearly. Provide photos, images and information.
  • Make order forms easy to find and fill in.
  • Reassure nervous buyers with convincing customer testimonials.
  • Offer as many payment methods as you can and let buyers choose which to use. Provide secure facilities for credit card purchases.
  • Spell out the terms of any guarantees you offer.
  • Give clear statements of your data privacy policy and your policy on goods returned and exchanged.
  • Give details of delivery costs, and any extra costs if you sell overseas.

Site navigation

Visitors want to be able to see what is on a site and get around it quickly. If navigating through your site is tricky, potential customers will feel they are wasting time and quickly lose patience. Online, your competitors are only a click away.

Give visitors a way to get straight to what interests them

  • Include an index, menu bar or set of navigation buttons on your home page. A site map can also be useful.
  • Try to design your site so you can get from any page to any other page within three clicks.
  • Try to limit the number of pages on your website. The most successful sites are simple and streamlined.

Your site could benefit from having an internal search function

  • This allows visitors to search by keywords.
  • Off-the-shelf packages let you include a search form without any technical knowledge.

Keep navigation consistent throughout the site to avoid confusion

  • Most visitors to your site will not enter through the homepage.
  • Ensure whatever page the land on, they can access all the information they require about your business.
  • Conduct user-experience testing to see how people use your site. You can ask friends and family for their feedback and advice.

6. Visual design

Your site must reflect its objectives

  • A site that is selling must look and feel dynamic, to encourage visitors to act.
  • If you aim to capture names and details of potential customers, offer an incentive to register. For example, a regular newsletter, customer offers or a members' discount.

Make sure your website is integrated with your traditional marketing activities

  • As part of your branding, your website should have the same look and feel as your other marketing materials.
  • Include references to your website in your brochures and traditional advertising and refer to your brochure on your site.

Include any visual material you need

  • For example, you might use images from your brochure or take shots with a digital camera. Check you have permission from the copyright holder to use any third-party graphics and photos.
  • Generally, keep pictures small. When illustrating products, make sure pictures are large enough to see the detail. Let people click them to see a larger image if necessary.
  • There are many sources of free photos online. Always check usage restrictions carefully.
  • Large images can slow your site down, so optimise image where possible.

Ensure your website complies with disability discrimination legislation

  • Be prepared to make reasonable adjustments to enable, or make it easier for people with a disability to use your site.

7. Attracting visitors

Make sure your site can be found easily

  • Make search engine optimisation (SEO) an integral part of your website design process.
  • Carefully select your domain name. If you had to guess your company's web address, what would your first guess be? That, or your product's generic name, is the domain name you should register if possible.
  • Keep the name short. If you have two words, people must guess if they are separated by a hyphen - it's best to simply run them together.
  • Ensure the right keywords to help search engines find you are embedded in your site's page titles and 'meta tags'.
  • Structure the content on your pages correctly, and use heading tags.
  • Use free Google tools such as Keyword Planner to identify the terms your users are searching for and use these on your site.
  • Include links to your social networking profiles such as Facebook or Twitter, where web visitors can follow updates about your firm.

Links bring you visitors, but can also lead people away from your site

  • Include links to related sites, in return for links to yours.
  • Set up links so that they open in a new window and do not take the visitor away from your page.
  • Avoid distracting customers with links once they are into the purchasing process.

Make it easy for customers to engage with you

  • Every email you receive is a warm lead. Make sure it is obvious how customers can get in touch with you and respond to enquiries quickly.
  • Consider setting up a discussion forum. Encourage customers to exchange tips and advice. There are several free packages available that can help with this, but they may take time to set up and manage.
  • Include a survey. Customers like being asked for their opinions and you can gain some genuinely useful feedback.

8. Test your site

Do not put anything on your website without checking it first

  • Check facts, claims and content.
  • Double check all links and references.
  • Never copy content from another website.
  • Include a disclaimer if you have doubts about how information on your site is used.
  • Check all content for libel. What is on your website can be seen worldwide.
  • Check that you have the right to use all the design elements, programming and pictures that form part of your site.

Do not launch your site until you know everything works

  • Check that the website right on screens of all sizes and at different screen resolutions.
  • View and test your pages on all the major browsers, including Microsoft Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, Opera and Safari.
  • Check all internal and external links work.
  • Check how your pages print in black and white.
  • Ask colleagues to take a look and conduct informal user-testing.


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