How do I get started with a new website

Getting started with a new website is a very common request. Organizations usually started with a free website builder or doing it themselves with a tool such as Dreamweaver. But what happens is after some time the site becomes too unruly to continue to manage. They want something different. But the question is, where do you start with a new website?

Identifying Needs of New Website

Every website is unique, just like every organization. The first major step you need to take in designing your new website is to come up with three lists.

  • What you absolutely NEED
  • What you WANT to have
  • What you DREAM of having

It’s very important to take some time to figure out what belongs in which category. The items you need are the minimum set of things required to make your new website successful. The items you want are things that would be useful and fun to have, but you could compromise on some of them. Lastly the items you dream of having. These items you dream of your new website having are frequently things your budget will not allow for.

Choosing a CMS

A CMS or Content Management System is the backbone of your new website. For most small to medium websites, one of the popular open source CMSs is going to be a good choice. The popularity of a CMS means two things: you can find a lot of support articles, tutorials, and plugins online; and you can easily find a developer for updates/changes down the line.

Most content management systems rely on MySQL databases which are supported by most web hosting companies. However, I have had clients whose hosting plan did not include a database, for them I have used a CMS which relied on XML. This works fine for small websites, but if you are going for a medium sized site with more features, you will need to switch to a different company or plan.

Another factor to consider with your new website is integration with online services. Many organizations worry about social media interaction. Social media sites are designed to be very easy to integrate with “sharing” buttons. Usually the more complicated online services to integrate are those from Salesforce or other cloud services. These cloud services have their own databases which must link into your website using special code.

Some popular CMS solutions you may want to consider:

  • GetSimpleCMS – An XML based CMS which is great for smaller websites who don’t want to deal with a MySQL database. Simple and quick to learn.
  • WordPress – Known for blogging, this CMS is the most popular for new websites. It has a very wide support base and lots of features that can be added with plugins. It comes in two versions, which is installed on your web server and has almost unlimited customization and which is a managed site with little customization.
  • Joomla! – This CMS boasts lots of plugins which allow for a bit of cutomization. It is considered to have a steeper learning curve as opposed to WordPress and many people don’t like the blogging abilities of it (probably because they’ve been spoiled with WordPress).
  • Drupal – Arguably the steepest learning curve of the CMSs it also has a lot of possible features and extensions.

There is another option which isn’t really a CMS. It’s a framework. Frameworks are more like toolboxes and raw materials, whereas CMSs are more like assembling a kit. Frameworks are used for larger sites with highly customized features. They can be very powerful, but you will likely need to have a developer (or team) working for you to maintain such a site.

Design Considerations

In all of the CMS listed above there is a separation between your content and how your content is presented. This means that fonts, colors, page layout and more are all handled by a theme which is kept mostly separate from your actual content (there may be ids in your content which correspond for special styling in the theme). The advantage here is that you can dramatically change how your site looks without having to actually change your content.

When deciding on how your new website will look, you need to keep a few things in mind:

  • Screen sizes – Your new website will likely be viewed on a number of different screen sizes. Large desktop monitors, tablets and smart phones. This means your site needs correctly display on a variety of screen sizes. Due to the number of tablets and net books out there, your design should generally not be larger than 1000 pixels in width. Also you will need consider how well your new website displays on smart phones and quickly it loads on clogged 3G networks.
  • Technologies used – HTML5 is rapidly replacing Flash in many websites, in part driven by some smart phones and tablets not supporting Flash.
  • Color Palette – Certain colors have strong cultural significance. Other colors are associated with urgency or danger (red, orange), hunger (yellow), professionalism (blue), regal or elite (purple), babies (pastels), children (primary colors), money (green), women (pink)
  • Typography – For reading blocks of text on a computer screen, generally a sans-serif font is preferred by most people. So if you have longer text blocks, consider fonts similar to Verdana. Fonts can also cause just as much emotional impact as color, so consider your fonts carefully. With the recent advent of web fonts, there are now thousands of fonts to choose from.
  • Images – Images should be optimized for the web. This means most of the time using PNGs/GIFs or JPEGs. JPEGs are better when there is a lot of subtle color changes (like a photograph), whereas PNGs/GIFs are better for strong color blocks. PNGs/GIFs are also required if you want to have parts of the image transparent.

Once you have your needs and design considerations decided, you can select a theme.

Do it Yourself or Hire Someone

A major item in getting a new website is budget. Fortunately many web designers/web developers have different price points depending on what you need, and if you are up front with them regarding your budget will try to work with you. Frequently you find more flexibility of price point with independent designers as opposed to larger design firms.

The reality is a lot of do-it-yourself folks end up hiring someone mid-way thru because it became more complicated than they thought. So really take a look at your skills and be honest with yourself about whether you can do it (and have the time). There is no shame in hiring someone else to do it.

Some common things which can reduce your cost:

  • Existing Themes/Templates – When you go out and do some research and find a couple themes which meet your needs (or come really close), then a designer can often modify that theme for a lot less than designing one from scratch.
  • Use of Plugins – There are a lot of plugins available for various CMSs. And frequently these plugins do a LOT of work for your designer. Often your designer will already be familiar with many of them and installing them takes only a few minutes.
  • Fewer Revisions/Changes – You will be billed for every change. So up front decide on a limit so that the changes don’t spiral out of control.
  • Time is Money – If you want to save money, you are going to have to put in your own time. For example, if you are thinking of using WordPress you can set up your own blog and play around with the user interface. Also familiarize yourself with online help forums and official help documents for your CMS.
  • Remember to save for training – Remember that in your budget you will need to save some of the designer’s time for your questions and instructions on how to use everything. In your agreement with the designer, make sure there is some support after site launch and there is some training time included.
  • Flat rate vs hourly – Larger projects you usually want a flat rate. These types of contracts will impose a limit on how many revisions you can ask for, but will bundle everything together which usually results in a discount. Hourly can better for updates or small projects where you really just need a couple hours of the designer’s time. Hourly contracts can specify a limit on how much you will be billed along with a minimum of work to be done.

Non-profits: There are some design professionals who happen to also have big hearts. They can be found on websites like Sparked (all over the world, generally shorter term projects) and Catchafire (US & Canada, managed pairing with volunteers generally a little longer term projects). You may also be able to find them on places like Craigslist, but it’s pretty hit or miss. When working with a volunteer professional, remember their time is valuable and they are fitting you in around their paid clients, so be respectful of that and try to be timely in your responses and reasonable in your requests.

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