Strategy before design

By Ben Dwyer

Website designers often experience a seemingly easy, yet impossible challenge:

They are briefed on an idea for a website, and are sent off to design and build it. They draw up some initial designs based on their own ideas about what they think looks good. The client then picks the design they like best and the web designer builds the site.

One glaring problem with this approach, that always seems to be overlooked, is that the designer has no idea what will actually be on the site. What will the content be? How will users find what they are looking for? The designer makes a guess about a rough structure for the site with some prototype pages, but almost all of his attention is on the design. Naturally he wants the site to look great – he is a creative designer after all! He puts put together his ideas, which are usually appreciated by the client, and everyone is happy. For now.

When the content doesn’t ‘fit’ with the design

Fast forward a few weeks and suddenly its a very different story. Someone has tried to put some content into the beautiful layout and it doesn’t fit. There’s not enough space on the page for the features that are required. The navigation structure doesn’t reflect the structure of the content. The layout that the designer worked on so carefully is simply not fit for purpose.

What usually ends up happening next is the designer tries to crowbar into the layout all the additional things that are needed, and rework the navigation structure so that it is at least possible to reach the pages that are lower down the hierarchy. This is very unsatisfactory from everyone’s point of view. The designer is frustrated and no longer proud of his design, which is now cramped and has lost all the elegance he worked so carefully to achieve. The client doesn’t like result: The dream of the initial design has been compromised and the result is messy and awkward. The user isn’t happy either: This site is hard to use, it doesn’t make sense, things aren’t displayed logically and it just looks wrong.

Who is to blame for this? Is it the designer’s fault that he didn’t know what was going to be in the site before he built it? Is it the client’s fault that they didn’t provide a well scoped brief? After all they aren’t the web experts.

Consider your users

The problem is that no one had thought about the strategy. No one had thought about how this great idea would be realised. This is easy to do. When you are excited about a new idea you want to get it out there as quickly as possible. Rather than carefully planning a project, its easier to get carried away and simply rush in and build it.

This why you need an interactive strategy.

Thinking about your interactive strategy makes you consider how your project will enable you to achieve your objectives. It makes you consider who your users are, and what they want. It makes you think about how your users will find you, and what they will see when they do.

Fashionable experimentation

Often the decisions that are made about a new interactive project are based on current trends. Features are implemented because they are fashionable. Decisions about design are made because of the designers own artistic preferences. Someone might suggest creating a Myspace profile a YouTube channel or a Facebook group, simply because they have heard about someone else doing it, rather than considering the reasoning behind this decision. All of this is guess work and experimentation. These ideas are based on the latest trends, not because of the results they will bring.

Informed decisions achieve goals

By thinking about your strategy first, you can make informed decisions about your project based on the real benefits they will have in helping you to achieve your objectives. This actually makes it easier to make decisions later in the process, for example:

If you are given three new site designs to choose from, how do you decide which one to go for? Usually people pick the one that they like best, but this is a dangerous situation for a project owner to be in. Decisions about how to spend money, whether it’s an investors money or public money, should be made based on which one will produce results, not on the personal preferences of those involved. On the other hand, an interactive strategy will help you consider which design is best for your site, based on what you are trying to achieve. It will help you to look at what kind of design your users will feel comfortable and familiar with. Now you can make informed decisions which will help you to achieve your goals.

Measure success with an interactive strategy

It is common for people to confuse the “look and feel” of a website with the thing itself. The “look and feel” is undoubtedly part of a website, but there is much more to it. Focusing on this means that all of the other important areas of designing a site get overlooked. There is no plan in place to achieve the objectives, and no way to measure the success of the project.

This is the point of interactive strategy. You plan your project and make decisions based on the objectives you are trying to achieve; your strategy comes first.

View all articles >

Meet the Author

Ben Dwyer