August 5, 2015

Websites: Building Your Organization’s Online Home

Gadi Ben-Yehuda • Guest Blogger

In many ways, an organization’s website is its digital home: as an organization leader, you decide the colors of the walls, the kinds of appliances and amenities to be installed, and the house rules. In short: all the things that visitors will see and how visitors are supposed to behave. Organizations also have to decide on the things that visitors will not see, but will determine how your digital house is going to work.  The content management system (CMS) and web host which together are like the plumbing and electrical system. The information architecture is like the framing and the programming language is like the foundation.

Overlapping Website Disciplines: Information Architecture, Design, Development

Building or redesigning a website entails many decisions and should require the active participation of nearly the entire organization. A successful site reflects your organization’s values and mission and enables all of its critical functions. Many different kinds of professionals are needed to build a website that will both serve an organization’s immediate needs, much like building a home that will serve the needs of a young family, but will also house an elderly couple once the kids leave. See our post about when your organization should consider a website redesign.

A comprehensive website redesign team will have at least one person who specializes in each of the following core functions:

  • Information Architect: Briefly put, the architecture comes first: making sure all the “rooms” are in place, that there is a logical flow from one part of the site to another, and that every need of the owner has been met.
  • Designer: After the architect has drawn up plans, the designer steps in to talk wallpaper, fixtures, lighting and landscaping—adding “look and feel” to the plans.
  • Developer: Finally, the developer picks up the task of building everything that the architect and designer have envisioned.

Information Architecture: Making Sure Every Need is Met

In the popular imagination, architects are part artist, part engineer, part confidant. The architect listens to their clients, hearing about the routines of their lives and creating the spaces that become, as one famous architect put it “machines for living”. Information architects are no different. They listen to their clients and ask questions: what are the things that people will be doing in this (digital) home? Is it only for giving people information? Or will they also be able to make purchases? Will they want to sign up for events? Will they also be able to comment on what they read? Will they be able to post their own pictures or videos?

The information architect then drafts a set of plans that detail how the information and features that an organization needs will be housed in a single cohesive structure. Some parts of that structure are common from site to site: a landing page that sets the tone and introduces the organization and its content and features; an “about us” section with a “contact” page; exits to social media properties; calendars of events.  Other features are organization-specific: for groups that have memberships, there may be a “members only” portion, hidden behind a login screen; nonprofits may have a “donate” page; advocacy groups may have calls to action.

In the same way that a family might talk to an architect about the kind of life they want to live in the house the architect will design, an organization should talk to a web design team about what activities they plan for their site and how they plan to grow and curate the site as both it, and your organization, change over time.

Design: Communicate Your Values and Mission

When people are decorating their home, they can choose warmer pallets or cooler; they can choose overstuffed couches or more modern designs; they can display their books, trophies, and pictures of their children or have a more uncluttered view. And all of these choices speak about what kind of family or person inhabits the space.

The same is true with web design: organizations can fill the browser window with many images set on a vibrant backdrop, or they can have a single image that dominates the visual space with very little accompanying text, or they can present visitors with many smaller, discrete content areas and features. Each of these decisions must be thought-out and communicate what your organization wants visitors to know about its values and mission.

For example, organizations that support or serve children may want to have a more colorful, playful pallet and present visitors with pictures of children.

What is most important for organizations to consider is that their site is the purest digital distillation of their brand identity. While they may (and likely should!) participate in social media, the only digital space over which an organization has complete control is its own site.

Development: Putting the Website All Together

Finally, the developer comes in, looks at the “plans” from the architect, the “sketches” from the designer and puts all the pieces together. The developer will also work with the content team—either with the client or part of the web team—to write up the copy that will live on the pages, as well as with the designer to supply additional imagery as necessary.

The developer is like the general contractor who builds the house.  This is the person who makes sure all the plumbing fits together, all the electrical outlets work and all the walls are up to code. In the digital realm, this usually means that all the links and navigation point to where they are supposed to go, all the features (calendars, donate pages, sign-up forms, etc.) work as they should, and that the site will handle all the traffic expected without crashing.

The Beginning, Not the End

While a website might be the single most important piece of branding and digital property your organization maintains, it is still only a single piece. It is important to tie in the identity of the site—its tone, content, and approach—to the identity the organization presents in the real world and on social media.  That will be the topic of future posts.

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