When we talk to our client about designing a logo, they can’t help but ask us the question "what do you think it’s going to look like?”. Our answer is simple - “we don’t know yet, because we don’t know you yet”.
Back when I was first starting out I would respond with something I thought the client wanted to hear, or worse, I’d jump right in and start designing something. This was great for the ego (mine) but it would become slowly deflated after excessive revisions, and changes until the design would be both undesigned and ultimately what was not needed by the client. You know, a design by committee hybrid logo that, oddly enough, looked rather similar to the market leaders.
A few decades later, some more experience and some deep soul searching later and our answer to the question is the one I’ve just given.
So what does logo design have to do with homepage design? Well, the client is coming from exactly the same place. They’re excited about a new look for their business and can’t wait for that magic bullet homepage to revolutionise their sales and online presence. Then the web community encourages this by providing a process of design, sign off and build that starts with the design of the homepage. But…
You’re doing it the wrong way around
I understand why we do it, because of the perceived nature of the business from the clients perspective, it’s easy to make changes down the track, I mean you’re just changing pixels on a screen, aren’t you? But because of this trap that we always get caught in, we need to set some ground rules – a way to control the process so that the client understands that they need to sign off on the design first before we build the site. The homepage is a lot like the executive summary of a business plan, where it is often the only page people will read before making a decision about you and your business. But the problem is that when you design the home page first then you’re running the risk that it won’t be right by the time the site is finished. And it won’t be. Because you don’t know what is right for the client until both you and the client go on a journey together. Until then there’s an extremely high chance that they will want to come back and change something after you’ve already put the hours in coding it.
Setting the tone for your relationship
When you’re approached by the client to build a website, a lot rides on that initial meeting. Both parties are trying to figure out what the business needs, while at the same time you're trying to appear knowledgable and convince the client that you’re the right team to entrust their website build to. But what would happen if you were to answer the ‘what will my website look like?’ question with “I don’t know yet, because we don’t know you yet”? I’ll tell you - by setting that expectation up front with the client – that website design is a process, not a ’ta-da’ moment – you are actually setting the theme for your relationship be one of collaboration. You’re not putting yourself in a vulnerable position by admitting you don’t have the answers, though it may feel like it to the inexperienced, instead you are implying that you also have expectations of your client that they need to come to the party and supply you with information about their business in order to create the best website solution. It implies that your websites are not cookie cutters and not just a retread of the last site you designed, but that care will be taken in ensuring the right solution will be found for them. All that is conveyed in just a one-line response!
Stop taking it for granted the client has all the answers
I’ve already said you’re doing it the wrong way around. Now that you’ve got the expectations of your client adjusted, let’s talk about the homepage. When we design the homepage first we’re making a huge (like really big) assumption – that the client is a marketing guru! Sure, they know their product or service inside out, and sure, they think they know their customers. But I’ll bet that they don’t. When it comes to marketing their own business there are two things going against them, one – they don’t know a thing about marketing (that is, looking at their business from the customers perspective), and even if they do, they two – are too close to their own business that they can’t get perspective on it. What this results in is awkward content and an unclear unique selling proposition (USP) mixed with a brief that lacks focus.
Stop the client taking it for granted that you’re a marketer!
What is really killing the process is that they then assume that you know how to lead them through a marketing brief (note I say ‘marketing’, not ‘web’ – because after all a website is nothing but a marketing tool). So when the proverbial hits the fan, and the client wants to make changes after the site has been built, you feel like you’ve been blindsided and either have to suck up the scope creep, or charge the client for the changes, with both these scenarios leaving one or the other of the party unhappy.
Designing the homepage last
Now that you’re no longer assuming that the client will provide you with an awesome, focussed, USP driven website brief, let’s get back to that homepage design. When your customer wrote their business plan they were advised to write their executive summary last. This the overview of the businesses intentions, USP and drivers. They write this last because the process of writing a business plan is about filling in all the gaps regarding their business and thus ensuring that they have considered their business from all angles and have a better understanding of their own business. Now when you think about a website it’s the same thing. A website has a generalised format for which the content is arranged: A homepage; Product pages; Service pages; An About Us page etc. Unless your client has provided you with the website content before you begin the design process (and if they are not a marketing company, I highly doubt it) then they will not really have a solid understanding of their business from the customers perspective. Once they have that, then they can write a more cohesive, effective homepage and know what are the important things they want to include on this business overview page.
Alternatives to homepage mockups
"So what am I supposed to show them if I can’t give them a homepage design?" I hear you cry! As part of your design process, it’s inevitable that you'll research sites that have similar feelings and looks to that which your client wants to convey. By adding an extra step and putting that research together in a mood-board to share with the client you’ll have the opportunity to gauge their feeling without you needing to go through a multitude of design options. It also gives you the opportunity to include your client on the design journey and give them buy-in to the final result.
Ask different questions
While your information gathering form that you take your client through will typically discuss things like the number of pages, sitemaps and domain names, think about preparing an additional form that asks them basic marketing questions. By asking them to provide you with things like a homepage statement, and statements for each page on that site map, you’re getting them to think about their business from a marketing perspective. Sure, they might not get it right straight away, but until they can provide you with these small but essential content tools, you can’t begin to design that homepage.
It’s also a great time to remind the client that most organic searches won’t take users to the homepage and to ensure that each page is a homepage in itself, and doesn’t assume that they have entered via the main homepage.
Killer homepage statement and image
Once you’ve got a statement for the homepage, you can start to map out the homepage and get a better sense of what other information and pages are essential to be linked to. With a better marketing perspective of their business, the client can then create a homepage statement that states exactly what problem they solve for their customer. This statement will be influenced by the goals of the website, whether it’s to sell things, provide a service or educate a potential customer into doing business with them. Then you can create that banner image that supports their homepage statement. Now you’ve got the beginnings of an awesome homepage design!
I dare you to attract clients that want a website that helps their business
If you’ve read this far then I’m assuming that you are the type of business that builds websites that make a difference in your client's lives. Or, you’ve never had to redesign a homepage (or other pages) later in the process. Or you've never had a client stall because they don’t supply you with final copy that’s required in order to launch the site (and allow you to send the invoice!).
But, if you have had to do the hard yards and continue to struggle with clients that present you with the previously mentioned aggravation, then you’re on the right track because you obviously care about your clients (believe it or not!) All that is missing between you creating awesome tools for them to do business and eliminating that aggravation is doing it a bit differently.
Readdressing the way you design a website is the first step. The second is looking at collaborating with a business that specialises in helping your client to work through the issues related to finding the right words for their business. A business that saves both parties time and money by asking the right questions and changes the approach to web design by looking at the customers needs first.
Delineate helps business owners to differentiate and design the right message for their business. We don’t build websites, we build brands that are supported by the websites that you develop.