The Five Steps for Building a Web Site | WebReference

The Five Steps for Building a Web Site

By Arpan Dhandhania


As with every project, from baking a cake to writing a tutorial, there isn't a single best way to build a web site. A web developer often tries a few methods, and over time he or she either finds a formula that works or improvises and comes up with an altogether new one.

During the past four years, I have experimented with several practices and have finally settled on the one I will discuss in this article. It is a five-step process that starts with defining the purpose and audience for the site and concludes with a beautiful, fully functional web site.

If you don't follow all five steps and skip some of the intermediate ones, you can end up with either a beautiful, non-functional site or the opposite.

Step 1: Definitions

First, you need to answer two basic questions:

  1. What is the purpose of the web site?
  2. Who is the target audience?

If you are building the site for a client, involve them while answering these questions.

Your Site's Purpose

What is the purpose of building this web site is another way of asking what you hope to achieve through this web site. Here are some of the possible answers:

  • Selling a product: You could be selling anything from clothes to computers. You want to build a web site so online shoppers can buy your products from home.
  • Providing a service: The site provides a web-based service. (for example, 37 Signal's Basecamp or Google's Gmail)
  • Blogging: You have some information and opinions to share with the world. You want to publish an article and let visitors comment of it.
  • Simply a web presence: You hear everyone talking about the importance of "web presence," so you want to provide some information about your company on the Internet.

Having identified the purpose of the web site, you need to profile a typical visitor.

Your Site's Target Audience

You want to cater to everyone who surfs the Internet? Nice try, but you need to be more specific. Determining your target audience will give a direction to your copy writer and designer. If you fail to do so precisely, you might end up with pink flowers and teddy bears on a technical site.

Take 37 Signal's products. Their target audience is small businesses and individuals. Even though large corporations also use their products, they target small businesses and individuals.

Some of the characteristics that you would take into consideration while defining your audience are:

  • Age: If you are building a site for a retirement home, you are very clearly targeting an audience that is in the twilight of their lives.
  • Language: Does your entire audience speak the same language? If not, you might have to consider supporting multiple languages.
  • Profession: If you are building a site that is specific to a domain, you will use terminology that is understood only by people from that domain. Just remember that some of the visitors won't be from that domain so try to make your copy somewhat accessible to them too.

Step 2: Site Structure

Next, you will build the skeleton of the web site. Typically, a site will be divided into sections and subsections. This is very important because it gives you an overview. You could use an outliner tool to create the site structure. I use LooseStitch. It is a free online outliner that allows you to invite others to work out the outline too. It is extremely useful when you are working in a team.

As an example, let us look at Amazon's site. It has 11 top-level sections:

  • Books
  • Movies, Music and Games
  • Digital Downloads
  • Computers and Office
  • Electronics
  • Home and Garden
  • Grocery, Health and Beauty
  • Toys, Kids and Baby
  • Apparel, Shoes and Jewelry
  • Sports and Outdoors
  • Tools, Auto and Industrial

Each of these sections has some subsections. Here are a few of them:

  • Books
    • Books
    • Kindle
    • Textbooks
    • Magazines and Newspapers
  • Movies, Music and Games
    • Movies and TV
    • Blu-ray
    • Video On Demand
    • Music
    • MP3 Downloads
    • Musical Instruments
    • Video Games
  • Digital Downloads
    • Kindle
    • Video On Demand
    • MP3 Downloads
    • Amazon Shorts has only two levels of menus. A simpler site could have only a single level, while more complex sites could have as many as four.