What’s a truly custom website? A website coded from scratch. Often started as a “wireframe”, a blueprint of navigational elements, custom websites give us free rein to be fully branded and unique in design and function. Building a custom website requires extensive planning, with designers and developers working closely together to ensure that there is a seamless user experience.
While most clients appreciate the end result of having a custom website, few understand the process and time required. Custom web design follows a series of purposeful phases, from content planning to development and testing. Understanding the process will better arm you to partner with your design/development firm and reap the benefits of a custom website. Here’s a breakdown of the process and tips for efficiency and success along the way.
Understand the web design process
Having a solid understanding of the web design process will give you a leg up to be an educated partner in the design of your website.
Responsive website design starts with careful planning of content. What essential elements of your company would you like to showcase to attract prospects, clients, and new hires? Planning out content into pages that make sense for your audiences is one of the first steps in the web design process. Your web design partner will lay out the site based on the content that you anticipate showcasing, creating a sitemap that outlines the pages and menu items, and wireframes, which act as blueprints for the content on each page.
Once the sitemap and wireframes are completed, the design phase commences. The benefits of a truly custom website are that the design can be tailored specifically to content provided, so having content in place (text, images, and video) sooner rather than later allows for the site to be designed and built specifically custom to the content that it was intended for. Oftentimes, design edits are included in scope, and designs can be adjusted relatively easily before development begins.
As designs are finalized and approved, development begins, where design is translated into code. Custom development takes a considerable amount of time, so be sure to anticipate it taking weeks – months for your site to be translated from design mockups to a live website. Behind the scenes, careful planning will go into the “back end” content management system, which is where you will update content on the website. Finally, as pages are developed, they must be tested across devices, and each page of the site must be optimized to appear on search engine results pages when relevant criteria is searched, to load quickly, and to display correctly across all devices (desktop, tablet, and mobile).
Be realistic about design and development time
When designing a website that is fully custom and responsive to all screen sizes, designers have to account for at least 3 major breakpoints—desktop, tablet and mobile. In addition to design time, developers will need to write code that makes the website design (sizing, layout and content) adjust depending on the device, and need time for testing the three breakpoints across different browsers and devices.
Start to gather content now
A new website is only as good as its content. Have a plan for gathering high quality, wide format imagery. Whether this involves photo shoots of your people, your work, and your office space, or engaging the help of your design partner to fill in the blanks with edited stock photography, make a plan and start to gather content early. Oftentimes writing copy can be time-consuming, specifically when it involves subject matter experts. Schedule time to interview these people and record notes so that others can help write. And ultimately, it’s best to have one person in charge of polishing copy so that there is consistency in voice and tone throughout the site.
Plan to focus on content hierarchy
When planning a responsive website, it’s important to determine what content is essential for mobile and what isn’t. Think “mobile-first”. What is your audience looking for when they go to your website on their mobile device vs. on their desktop computer? Their needs and interests are often different. Mobile users are often goal-oriented. They’re on your site for a specific purpose –whether that’s finding your contact page or getting a quote. So placing a firm’s phone number front and center may be essential on mobile, but not necessarily on desktop.
Think through each device—mobile, tablet and desktop—in terms of content hierarchy. This involves going through your sitemap and deciding what the most important content is on each page, since each device will display your content differently. For example, a mobile device’s screen is so narrow, it forces content to be presented in a single column. You’ll want the most important content first, and on mobile, that likely won’t be the image or graph that may appear at the top of the page on the desktop version. It’s essential to finish planning this content before design begins, because for websites with custom design, we design specifically for the content that will be on the page. This requires more time for the client upfront, but the result is a more efficient process and an effective, beautiful design for your website.
Be prepared for separate designs for mobile
When it comes to design and function, what makes sense on desktop might not make sense for mobile. For example, large autoplay videos will take too long to load when using data, so they aren’t recommended on mobile. Tables, charts, and other wide format content will need to be handled separately on mobile. Filters for a portfolio are helpful on desktop, but can be cumbersome for users’ fingers on mobile devices. There are going to be subtleties, variations and differing content priorities—and that’s okay.
Get the design just right before coding can start.
The best time to request design edits is before development begins. Changing a design can be relatively fast – just a few hours in many cases, and sometimes design edit hours are included in scope. However if the site has already been developed, coding a new design can be very time consuming, and likely results in a change order.
Plan for two weeks of testing and QA before launch.
Custom websites necessitate careful testing to assure that there’s a seamless user experience no matter what device visitors are using. We can only effectively test the site across devices and browsers and minimize the likelihood of glitches after designs and development are be complete and all content is in.
After everyone is pencils down on content entry, plan to test the website on as many devices (i.e. iPad, iPhone, Android, etc.) and browsers (i.e. Chrome, Firefox, Safari, etc.) as possible. Allow for two weeks for this testing and quality assurance phase.
Clear your cache if anything looks incorrect
Often during website updates, changes won’t appear immediately if you’ve visited the site recently. This is because of files that your browser stores in its cache in order to load the site faster. To get around this, clear your browser’s cache when something looks off before flagging the bug to your development partner.
Essential for prospects, clients and talent
While building a custom responsive website requires investment of time and resources, it’s well worth it in today’s multi-screen world. They’re essential for business development and hiring top talent, as your website is often a prospect’s first impression of you. A responsive website will help your company meet the growing demands of mobile visitors and provide a great user experience for all of your prospects and clients.