How to plan a website, for small businesses

We’ve made a short guide to help businesses plan their website, and giving them advice on how best to work with a web design agency.


Build a detailed content strategy, and leave design out of it

A content strategy sounds like corporate jargon, but it’s actually the most helpful and practical thing you can do for your project. Take an A4 page, fold it and tear it in half vertically, so that you are left with two long, narrow columns. Take the first of these and a pen; this is going to be how your site will look on a mobile phone. Designing a website for mobile first forces you to focus your message and to leave out much of the chaff which users will ignore anyway and which will add to your site’s loading time (which won’t help your search engine ranking).

You’re now going to write out all of the content (text, images and video) that you’ll need on your site. Don’t separate it into different pages, don’t add links and don’t specify colours or anything else design-related. During this process you’ll find that you really pare down your content and refine what your site is for (getting customers to sign up for a service, to contact you, to book a hotel room with you, to learn about your charity etc.). This helps to ensure a site which is uncluttered, easy to navigate and which delivers your message clearly and boldly.

You’ll also have this to bring to meetings with your web design agency, meaning that your designer will have a clear brief to work from and won’t have to spend time (which you will be paying for) convincing you to leave out the elements which you don’t need.

Learn a little about the internet, or ask to be taught

It’s always important to remember that you are paying a designer not just for their time spent building your website, but also for their knowledge and expertise. We have seen projects suffer from a client having read an article about web design and then approaching us demanding features, content management systems and layouts which just aren’t appropriate for their project, and ignoring our advice to the contrary. It is useful though to get an idea of how the internet works and how your audience uses it, as well as an overview of user-experience research and content management systems.

You should always feel free to ask your designer about why they use the tools that they do, and why they think certain solutions will be appropriate for you. Ask to see images of the content management system’s admin interface, and make sure that you’ll feel comfortable using it. Ask for advice on using social services like Twitter, and for detailed advice on an ongoing search engine optimisation strategy. A good web design agency will have no problem at all being open and helpful about your questions.

There are no hidden secrets in web design; it is an open and friendly industry in which most developers are actively engaged in helping to find the most semantic and user-friendly way to build the internet. The days of developers being able to charge inflated prices because their clients knew no better are over. You should commission a web designer for the same reason that you’d commission any other kind of bespoke craftsperson: because you believe their work to be beautiful and because you know that it will bring you lasting benefit. We are interested in meeting people, listening to what they need and building it for them, which brings mutual benefit and lasting positive relationships. Any other agency who also works this way will be happy to educate you about their industry.

How to talk about money

The majority of e-mails that we receive are from business owners needing a new website, and they usually consist of a few lines about their business, their desired date of completion for the project and a request for a quote for the entire project. We spend on average an hour replying to each of these e-mails, letting the potential client know in depth about the process of planning, designing and building a site, and giving them other advice to help them with their project. We then break down our costs per day, estimate how long a site like theirs will take to build and offer to meet to talk about their project further. We feel that an open and friendly approach like this builds trust and respect, and it helps both parties to get to know who they might be working with. 

It’s understandable that small businesses, many of whom are just starting out, are concerned about the cost of a project. We often hear clients say that they had received brief e-mails back from other agencies with a quote in the thousands and little else in the way of information, and with prices varying wildly from agency to agency, clients are bound to have their guard up. It can be damaging though to ask for a set price for a complete project and to ask for a quote in your first e-mail. We’ve made the mistake of agreeing to fixed-price projects with clients in the past, and the problem with these projects is that it devalues the importance of the agency’s work. When time is no longer being paid for, we’ve found that clients are more likely to give unspecific briefs, ask for many iterations of the same design, ignore our advice and arrange many more meetings than are necessary. As a result, these projects have taken far longer than necessary to reach completion, and we have ended up working for less than minimum wage, which means it is difficult to stay motivated and produce excellent work. If a project goes beyond the scope of the original agreement, it can be very difficult to convince the client that they should be paying an additional hourly rate. Web design agencies know this from experience, and so when they receive an enquiry which mentions money in the first paragraph, they will assume that rather than good quality work and an effective website being your main criteria, you’re looking for the lowest bidder. Agencies will then be wary of working with you and potentially less motivated, and the bond of trust that ensures a great project will be harder to build. 

We’d recommend contacting a design agency with your detailed content strategy, your goals for the project and how you would like to update the site in the future. You may also wish to include links to a few websites or pieces of design that you like. You can then ask the agency how much they charge per day, and how many days they think your site will take to complete. This allows the work to be broken down into quantifiable segments, and it will motivate you to work with the design agency to make the project as streamlined and concise as possible. It also minimises the chance of you receiving an inflated quote for the website with little idea of what that amount will buy for you. When a web designer is being paid by the project there will be a motivation to cut corners and finish the site as quickly as possible, but when they are being paid fairly for their work they will be more likely to follow best practise.

Feel free to comment or ask questions below!


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