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Web Design’s Back End: How to Design a Website Strategically

Web design is one of those topics that is very easy to learn about the front end of — there are hundreds of blogs that talk about design trends and new tools and accessibility and load times and so on and so on. But it’s not very often that someone gets deep into the back end of web design — the part that tells you why and what to design instead of how. So I’m going there — this is ‘web design strategy 101.’

Step One: What Are Your Goals?
I can’t tell you how many clients have come to me and said, “We want a website,” and when I ask them why, they respond with “So we can market online.” Like ‘marketing online’ is the goal. If you believe that ‘marketing’ is an endpoint, you’re not really going anywhere. So sit down and ask yourself what your actual, final goals are. They might include:

  • Expedite customer service by making an easily-accessible FAQ,
  • Spread brand recognition and position your business within the marketplace,
  • Sell products to a (more distant/less accessible/previously unexplored) market segment,
  • Acquire X more (or X% more) leads per week to pass along to the sales team,
  • Commence or improve reputation management efforts,
  • Or any of numerous other business goals.

Brainstorm, get together with your fellow entrepreneurs/board members/shareholders, and decide on what three goals you want to achieve up front. You can always add more later, but your initial design should focus on no more than three specific goals.

Step Two: Who Are You Targeting?
Your website must be able to gain the trust and acceptance of your target audience, and it must be designed to be easily usable by your target audience. That means without carefully defining that group, you can’t even begin to design a website. Depending on your goals, the target audience for your webpage could vary enormously from ‘existing customers’ (for the FAQ) to ‘fly fishermen’ (for selling products) to ‘people in Lennox, Worthing, and Canton’ (for a more distant market segment). You need to answer at least these basic questions:

  • What are the target audience’s basic demographics (culture, age, gender, education, etc.)?
  • What profession is most common among them?
  • What hobbies, entertainment, or pastimes are most common among them?
  • What websites, social networks, and forms of communication do they use most?
  • How much time and effort do they have to spare?
  • Why (did/would) they (buy/interact with/join) your (product/service/organization)?

With that information, you should be able to build at least a few basic profiles of who your audience is. But keep in mind that most products these days have multiple different market segments that associate with them, and keep an open mind. If you sell wire coat hangers, you probably have a segment that is ‘clothing stores,’ a segment that is ‘college students,’ and so on. But stretch a little, and you’ll also find unusual market segments like ‘low-budget audiophiles,’ who have discovered that a wire coat hanger makes a budget alternative for a Monster cable, and ‘SCA armorsmiths,’ who run through hundreds of wire coat hangers to make enough rings for a single suit of full chain armor. Particularly if you’re a small business, uncovering and exploiting those unusual sideline market segments can make the difference between surviving and floundering.

Step Three: Define Your Brand
Every brand wants their message to resonate in a particular way, and every website does resonate in a particular way — the challenge is to make sure that the two resonances are as similar as possible. To do that, your web designer needs to know what message you’re trying to send. Every design decision, from the amount of whitespace to the color scheme to the font, can deliver messages as varied as ‘Our coat hangers are tough as nails,’ ‘You can trust us with your clothes,’ or ‘Hang more clothes per dollar than plastic.’ And those can all come through without using words, just based on the layout, iconography, and other design choices for your site.

But before you can turn your brand into a design, you need to know exactly what your brand is trying to say — and that means using those customer profiles you just wrote up in Step Two and figuring out how to appeal to the (biggest/wealthiest/most reliable/etc.) group of them without alienating the others. Sure, a chain-mail maker would love tough-as-nails hangars, but how much is a clothing warehouse going to care?

Step Four: Define Your Important Interactions
The next thing that you need to do is define how you want your customers to interact with your website. This might sound very similar to ‘define your goals,’ but this is more akin to tactics vs. strategy — we’re talking about the specifics of how, for example, your existing customers are supposed to reach, and navigate your FAQ. Now, most of this stuff will be done as a matter of course by your web designer, but there may be some interactions that you believe are important enough to define individually. For example, you might want to have a brand-building website that is very low-key with the branding in order to focus on amazing content and social shares — or one that is very obviously branded in order to minimize the chance of a viewer not making the connection.

Step 5: Determine What You Want to Emphasize
Finally, you should sit down with your web designer and talk about the different attributes that can be emphasized while designing a website, and which you prefer to have emphasized. For example:

  • Usability vs. Features: In general, the smaller the number of things a given tool does, the easier it is to use. You need your website to be usable by anyone who visits it, but you also probably want it to do more than one thing — so which is more important?
  • Clarity vs. Attention-Grabbing: Similarly, you can have a website that is remarkably easy to take in — offering a low cognitive load — or you can have one that grabs at the user’s attention and draws them in (which is something that distinctly increases cognitive load).  Which is more important?
  • Accessibility vs. Low-Cost: Accessibility refers to the efforts a website goes through to be universally…accessible. For example, a website that offers an instructional video may choose to have captions available on that video for the hearing-impaired. A website that offers charts of data might elect to have a ‘colorblind-friendly’ mode. Any website can be inaccessible from certain browsers or device if not coded appropriately. All of these things are good ideas, but they all cost more money to implement — which is more important?


Once your web designer has all of this critical background information in hand, they can commence the actual design and coding of the website — and you can be confident that, by the time he’s done, you’ll get something that does the jobs you need it to do.

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