The non-techy guide to commissioning a new website

Replacing a tired old website with something that looks fantastic, delivers value to your organisation and provides a great user experience, is incredibly satisfying and will do wonders for your professional reputation.  However, launching a new website is a major undertaking which has many pitfalls and the potential to go horribly wrong so, if this task has fallen to you, here’s a step-by-step guide to help you make the most of the opportunity and avoid costly mistakes.

Step 1: understand your users

Before you write your brief do a thorough review of your current site’s analytics.  Ensure you know the demographics of your visitors, the pages they’re visiting and what actions they are taking.  Then, look at the user journey to see if it could be improved.  If necessary, do further research to ensure you know what your users want from your site.

Also, assess whether you want your new site to attract different user groups and, if so, the journey your new users will take.

Finally, decide if you want a content management system which will allow your company’s staff to update the site themselves.  If your organisation has regular news and new information to impart, then this is advisable.

Step 2: create a water-tight brief

The brief is what your developers will use to quote on and should provide the blueprint for how your new site is built.  It needs to be very clear and include absolutely everything you want.  Don’t assume anything.  Here’s a checklist of what you should include:

  • Overview of your company
  • Overview of the site's top-level objectives
  • Overview of the site’s user groups (including analytics of devices, browsers and networks)
  • A map of user journeys
  • Calls to action
  • Features on your current site that you want to retain
  • New features that you require
  • Any issues with your current site that you want resolved
  • Brand guidelines
  • Device responsiveness (these days no one should be building sites that are not responsive but you should still always explicitly state this as a requirement).
  • Any other technical requirements such as a content management system
  • Links to examples of websites you like

Once you’ve written your brief get others to look over it and, if appropriate, invite other departments to give their input. 

Have a must-have list and a nice-to-have list.  That way, if quotes come in higher than budgeted you know where you can compromise.

Step 3:  choose your developer wisely

The cost of websites can vary hugely: in the UK they can be as low as £300 for a few basic pages, or a high-end site for a large organisation may cost well over £100,000.  It all depends on the size and complexity of your requirements.  By getting quotes from at least three providers you’ll get an idea of what cost is reasonable to meet your needs.

Look for developers whose web designs you like and who, ideally, have worked on comparable projects. Individual developers may be cheaper than a company but you will be dependent on one or two people and that is likely to mean the project will take longer. 

Go over the bids carefully.   Ensure the quotes are based on a full understanding of your requirements and check that it includes all the must-have elements. Again, never assume anything. If something is not explicitly stated as covered by the quote, question it. 

Remember to also look at the project plan and payment schedule.  On any sizeable website project you generally pay in instalments, with an amount on commencement and the final instalment after the website has gone live.  Be wary of any developer who asks for the whole fee up front.  If you are using a company, check they are financially secure before confirming.

Step 4: keep the project on track

During the build give the developer space to get on with the project but keep in contact so you know if there are any problems or delays from their end.  Your web developer will provide a project plan, keep this to hand so you know when you need to allow time to provide feedback and input.  The quicker you get back to your developer, the sooner they can get onto the next stage.  

When your input is needed be thorough with everything you check and specific with your feedback so the developer can fully understand and implement your comments.  Always question anything you’re unsure of.  This will save you time and, again, help to keep the project on schedule and delivered as expected.

Finally, a word of caution, bear in mind the completion date on the project plan is not set in stone and delays can occur on any sizable web build, so do not to lead your colleagues to assume that the new site will definitely go live on a certain date.  This puts the project under pressure and reflects badly on you if it doesn’t happen.  It’s more important to get the site right for the long term than meet a specific date in the short term.

Step 5: be reasonable with any changes

Bear in mind that any changes or new requirements added after the quote will cost you time and money.  If you have gone through steps one and two and created a clear, well thought through brief it should minimise the likelihood of needing to do this.  

However, occasionally something can crop up at a later stage.  If so, make sure you clarify the consequences on your timeline and budget.  Even if the developed doesn’t mention additional costs, anything that takes more time than they have allowed for in the quote is likely to be charged at the end.

Step 6: plan your written content

Supposedly only six per cent of people read beyond a headline (so if you’ve read this far, congratulations!).  To buck the trend, you need to make every word count and craft your text carefully so key messages cannot be missed.   There’s a lot of advice and guidelines about writing for websites so do your research.  Get the opinion of others.  If necessary, consider using a copywriter.

Here’s a checklist for your web copy:

  • Spelling and grammar correct
  • Is this information relevant and necessary
  • Is the information clear
  • Is the writing style and presentation consistent and does it meet your organisation’s house style 
  • Does it have the correct tone of voice for your business e.g. friendly, authoritative, fun

Finally, make sure you allow enough time to get the copy done on schedule in the project plan. 

Step 7: be thorough with user acceptance testing (UAT)

This is where the user tests the site to make sure it works in a real-world scenario.  It’s a good idea to get different users to help you at this stage.  Do all checks on a desktop, mobile and tablet view.  Here’s a check list:

  • Links: are they functioning correctly, consistently styled and is it clear what they are and where they lead to
  • Forms checked – e.g. is the information being delivered where it is supposed to go
  • Page headings clear and explanatory
  • E-commerce functionality – is the order and payment being received and processed
  • URLs clear and consistent

Step 8: let it go

Be careful, if you’re one of those people who can go on forever making tweaks and improvements.  You can end up causing the project to seriously over run for no good reason. At some point you need to draw a line under the project and push to go live, so recognise when it’s time to stop.  If the site functions correctly, is a clear improvement on its predecessor and the developer has met the brief, then that time has come.  If necessary, allow for further development work after launch but don’t delay launching a hugely improved new site for minor amendments that only you are conscious of.

In essence, like any other project, the secret of successfully commissioning a new company site is careful planning, clear communication and thorough checking.  Good luck!