Web Design Planning: Understanding Your Current Website’s Architecture

Web Design Planning is a Walk West series on the ins-and-outs of planning your next web design project for success. This article was co-written by Brian Onorio, Founder of Walk West, and Danielle Stephens, Strategist.

The age-old adage goes: fail to plan and you plan to fail. One of the most strategic mistakes we’ve witnessed is the tendency for professional web designers or web design agencies to sign a contract with their new client and jump straight into creative. This is more of a fault on the providers’ end – their client likely doesn’t know any better, which is precisely the reason why they’re hiring professionals to handle the job. We’re going to dive into some routine things we do at Walk West to ensure client outcomes.

Audits

The single most important thing you can do during a web design planning phase is to understand what has already happened. We use a few tools at Walk West to make the rote and routine tasks as simple as possible. Our initial audits will typically connect with tools like Google Analytics which ties back to individual pages on your existing website.

We compile a massive spreadsheet that outlines each page on your website and maps important data to each URL such as title tags, indexability, canonical URLs, meta tags and descriptions, Google Analytics sessions and goal completions, etc. While this spreadsheet contains a lot of useful data, it’s also just data, (and maybe a headache). To provide more understandable insights to our clients rather than unaccompanied, plain data, our next step is data analysis to spot trends, hotspots, and dead zones.

Audit Analysis

With the hard data in hand, you can start to build a case for why you’re undergoing a website redesign. Lacking the answer to this critical question, you’re simply applying a new coat of paint with no cognizance on what you expect to achieve with the investment you’re spending.

We’ll often immediately spot ways to improve navigation. Utilizing Google Analytics data, we’ll find important pages that need to be elevated to the top level navigation or utility navigation. Oftentimes, we’re able to provide proof on pages that simply aren’t as important as our client thinks, allowing us to recommend relegating the less valuable pages deeper into the navigational structure. Our goal with website navigation is to remove friction, not introduce it.

Take our work with Fayetteville Tech as an example. During our initial audit, we found that the website had 86 pages in their top-level navigation, which is not wholly unusual for an institution of higher learning. Indeed, each collegiate website serves many masters: current students, prospective students, parents, etc. Further, each department head understandably wants the easiest path of navigation to their particular field of study. Fayetteville Tech’s top-level navigation was fraught with friction: only 10 pages of the 86 ranked in the top 25 most visited pages. Even more shocking, a whopping 62 pages were ranked in the bottom quartile of traffic. Equipped with this knowledge,  we devised a smart navigation system that took 86 pages down to 5. Along with the simplified navigation, we built a robust search engine and utilized behavior to determine which user bucket the visitor fit best. Once we were able to determine which persona bucket they belonged, we automatically added key links back to the top level navigation to facilitate their experience and deliver the content that best answered their personal needs.

Don’t Judge Too Quickly

Quantitative data is important. But so is qualitative. Making sweeping conclusions based on historical data can sometimes lead to wrong conclusions. Just because the website has performed in a certain way in the past is not indicative of how it should or will perform in the future. Just because a certain page is ranked in the bottom quartile of visits doesn’t mean that the page’s content is unimportant. Perhaps that page didn’t receive top-level navigational treatment. Perhaps the website’s linking structure penalized that particular page. Understanding the client’s motivation and goals is more important than relying on historical or current-state data to draw conclusions on the future. However, bringing a sound quantitative and qualitative approach minimizes critical missteps.

User Experience Mapping

Once we have a clear understanding of where we’ve been, we get to start crafting where we want to go. Overarching business objectives, short term goals, and strategic planning have already been shared between teams, allowing transparency and true partnership. Among the conversations we have with the client, we want to understand the main website purposes. Do you want visitors to take a step in your sales process? Does that look like a form fill or like a deeper understanding of your offerings and explicit validation? How can we best serve your different visitors the information while satiating their specific palettes for content consumption? Enter the qualitative piece of the equation.

Once we harness the audit findings, we marry our data insights with recommendations that are based on what our client wants their visitors to do. With a proposed sitemap outlined, we step into the users’ shoes and pretend to navigate the website from their perspective. Along the way, we ask questions like “what am I searching for upon landing on this page?”, “what type of content will get me to move forward?”, and “is this content answering my question?”. By walking through the hypothetical website, we are able to catch and rectify issues we may have missed when going off of purely quantitative data and pivot the structure of the website to not only encompass the data findings, but to also appeal to the person behind the screen.

Personas & Journeys

User journeys and walking in your users’ shoes sounds great. But how can we be sure that we are not fully basing our work on assumption? Two words: persona research. Personas are intentional groupings of types of customers or visitors who have unique motivations and barriers; we use personas to help us segment audiences for our clients to ultimately tailor content to their main stakeholders. Executing persona research comes in many different forms such as surveys, focus groups, and individual interviews. 

While survey and focus group information can be indicative and helpful for segmenting groups, at Walk West we lean into individual interviews. Not only do interviews give uninterrupted streams of consciousness from our client’s customers, but we are able to hear tone, note emotion, and dig deep into the parts of our client that the individual loves… or hates. We assemble a list of questions to understand the person’s background, their current role and frustrations within that role, how they met or started a relationship with our client, and what that experience has been like for them. Although our team has these written questions before executing the interviews, each conversation ends up looking a little different, as each person teases out or latches to unique topics. 

Once interviews are complete, we review our notes and synthesize findings. By outlining overlap between conversations, we are able to group together perceptions a persona might have, messaging techniques that resonate with them, the best channels to reach them (and when!), and more. By identifying these personas and crafting marketing efforts to best serve different types of customers versus customers in general, experiences are elevated and satisfaction surges.

Next Steps

This process serves as a great foundational layer that helps us understand our clients’ customers at a deep, personal level. The foundational layer is not yet complete. In our next article, we’ll begin assembling success metrics by which we grade ourselves on and by which our client grades us on. After all, we’re doing this for a reason and that reason isn’t merely a new coat of paint.

Our next article in this series will focus on Goals & Conversion Paths…stay tuned!

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Brian Onorio is the Founder of Walk West. With a background in technology, Brian leads and shapes the agency's strategic mission with world class creative and sound, data informed methodologies.

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