Design process
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Mar 23, 2017

6 key steps to take before building a small business website

Before you get started on your next small business website, make sure you know how to make it a success with these tips.
Whether you’re a small business owner looking to DIY your website, or a freelancer specializing in small business sites, taking these 6 steps can spell the difference between a business-revolutionizing success and an utter and complete mess.

1. Define your website’s goals

Two hikers on a hilltop, surveying the vista before them
‍You and your client need a clear — and shared — understanding of what your website needs to accomplish.
The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t being said.

-Peter Drucker

Before you start placing the first pixel, both you and your client need to know what purpose the website will serve for the business.

What message should visitors leave your website with? And what is the most important information a potential customer needs to know about this business?

Talk to your client. Learn the backstory of their business. Find out what marketing they’re doing and how they want to grow. A new website is a major step in the evolution of any business — but the role their website plays in that evolution can look very different between a brick-and-mortar store and an ecommerce outlet.

Your client may already have an established brand, complete with logo, color, and other guidelines. A newer business, or one that’s updating their branding, may offer you more freedom in contributing to their brand identity.

If they have a website, go through it with them. I’ve found it helpful to bring printouts of all of the important pages. Review each page with the client, and take notes on which elements of the current design work and which don’t, from both their perspective and your own. These notes will prove invaluable when you finally sit down to start designing the new website.

Also, find out if they want to host a blog, or any other sort of dynamic content, like a revolving featured product. Having your content management system’s Collections figured out before you get started will save you the trouble of figuring out how this will work later, as the elements of the design become more concrete.

2. Know what website platform they’re using

If your client already has a website, find out what platform it’s on and where it’s hosted. You might be able to tell at a glance, but if not, ask away.

Unlike Webflow, many platforms out there will lock you into a template, making it difficult to achieve a fully custom design.

Most clients want to give you the creative freedom you need to make the best website you can — and many even yearn to be freed from their website’s current platform. Others may have learned their current website’s platform inside and out, leaving them reluctant to make a switch. In the latter case, you may have to design and build within the confines of their current platform, but there are plenty of ways to convince a client to make the switch to Webflow.

Either way, it’s good to know what limitations you might face so you can pitch a design concept that will work for your client.

3. Highlight what matters

A man pointing a flashlight up at the night sky
Build your website to illuminate what’s significant to your client and its potential visitors.

I recently did a complete website redesign for a nonprofit organization that helps adults with autism via a variety of artistic and vocational programs. They offer classes in jewelry, ceramics, and woodworking and sell their handmade products both online and at various events.

Their website wasn’t terrible, but it was outdated. The content was impersonal, dry, and focused on the details of their programs — instead of the most most meaningful aspect of the organization: the lives they help improve.

I had a number of stakeholder meetings before writing a single word. I learned about the challenges adults with autism face. I also learned how their creative programs helped their clients gain valuable new life skills.

When creating content for the new site, we focused on these students and the artwork they created. We included many photos of students working together to create these handcrafted items. The new copy I wrote told their story. The updated images showed them engaging in their crafts.

The new website was a success. Instead of being cold and sterile, it captured the joy of the students, teachers, and the spirit of their organization.

In designing a website for a small business, you need to discover what the most important aspect of that business is. Often, it’s an emotionally charged one, which can help a lot, given that people make purchasing decisions and respond to marketing messages emotionally.

Whatever the focus turns out to be, keep it in mind when designing every single element of the website, from the photos to the copy to the interactions.

And don’t satisfy yourself with what you think is the most vital aspect of the business. Talk to your client to find out what they value in their business and what their customers find most important. If your bike shop client is famous for their repair department, make sure that this isn’t pushed down to the bottom of a page or glossed over.

4. Gather, source, or take some great photos

A Leica SLR camera
The quality of your photos can profoundly affect the overall website design. Make sure you have a good selection to choose from.

In my recent autism website redesign, I tasked the client with providing me with all-new photos since all of their old images were low-resolution and poorly shot.

Luckily, one of the teachers is a photographer and provided me with many great images. In doing any sort of website design, it’s better to have a multitude of photos to choose from. Too many of the same sort of image can distract and even bore customers.

If there’s an ecommerce element to the small business website, make sure you have multiple photos showing different views of the products. It’s easy enough to shoot your own product photos with a light box and a relatively inexpensive camera.

Also, be sure to take some interior shots of the business, if appropriate. A nice wide-angle shot of flowers in a florist’s or a wall full of skateboard decks, can make a great hero image for your design.

And don’t forget to include shots of employees in action. These should be candid and not staged. Save those cheesy smiles for the DMV — though even a little cheese has its time and place.

‍Vegan soapmaker Strawberry Hedgehog captures the quirky nature of their business and personalities in this fun photo.

5. Know who your client's customers are

Underground train station
Knowing your client’s audience demographics will help you tailor your design to their tastes and needs.

When designing a website for a small business, you need to know who their customers are. If we look back at our Strawberry Hedgehog vegan soap maker example, we can infer immediately that theirs is a younger demographic that values artistry and products that are outside of mass consumerism (and is probably also vegan). Between their quirky imagery, bright color pallette, and colloquial tagline “Smell Ya Later,” there’s no mistaking who their brand is marketing to.

Before starting to design or write content, you need to know who you’re trying to reach. Knowing the age range, socioeconomic status, and even ideology will help you create a website that connects with them.  

London Gold website homepage
Knowing who your audience is will determine the choices you make in your design. A luxury brand calls for a very different aesthetic than a vegan soap maker.

Your client will almost certainly have a strong sense of their target demographic, but it can be worth checking the demographic data provided by tools like Google Analytics and Facebook Pages to get an even deeper sense of who’s buying what a client’s business is selling.

6. Get all the information you need before you start writing

Books nailed to a wall

We’ve all had those well-meaning clients who send us multiple drafts of marketing copy they’ve written. We know their intentions are good, but often, their writing is ... less so.

Still, I’ve found that the best marketing content tends to come from a client’s own words — and their customers'.

When meeting with your client and other stakeholders, take note of the important and/or resonant phrases your client uses. Use your phone to (with your client’s permission) record your meetings with them.

You’ll find that what they tell you in person is more concise and informative than whatever word document they send your way.

Some clients are cool with edits, others take them as a personal attack. Leaving them out of the writing process will eliminate a lot of potential headaches.

That doesn’t mean they can’t contribute to the content creation process. Have them give you bullet points detailing what the content needs to focus on. This, combined with your notes and research, will give you all you need to start writing some killer marketing content.

Of course, all clients are different, and some will insist on sending you marketing content. There might be something you can use. Make it a point to explain to them what makes effective web content and how it fits into the website’s design. Let them know that everything you’re doing is to help this new website succeed.

If you don’t have confidence in your writing, you can always farm out this work to someone else. But if you’re a designer who can also deliver amazing writing, your skills are even more valuable.

You can always become a better writer. If you haven’t already please check out our “4 reasons designers should write.”

It’s vital that you prioritize content so you can design and build your website around it. Starting without content can lead to major structural changes later on.

Knowing where to start helps you get there faster

‍Make sure everything’s in place before you blast off.

Knowing your client’s expectations and goals are vital to the smooth execution of any website design project. Having all of your marketing content, images, and other elements together will help you launch sooner and experience fewer hang-ups. It’s hard to improvise a website design project as you go — and the chances of everything crashing to the ground, including your client’s faith in you, are high if you haven’t prepped appropriately.

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Jeff Cardello

Writer, improviser, and reformed music snob. Check me out @JCardello.

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