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Three Ways to Plan a Web Site



1. Introduction



Most organizations have difficulty in defining what they want in a web site. Nonprofits, because of their tendency to involve multiple stakeholder groups, have particular problems in coming to decisions on web site design. This can lead to months of paralysis. At Good Enough Information Systems, we use several different approaches that are intended to lead quickly to a usable design and a do-able project.



Before you start: resourcing the web site



Think of a web site as a continuing communications expense, rather than a one-time cost. Before designing your site, consider how much you are willing to spend on annual staffing and maintenance after the web site has been launched. If your agency can't afford to assign a staff person to write and post new content every month, or to monitor and respond to discussion boards, try to create a site that is updated only once or twice a year. If you want to use the site for fundraising, advocacy or community development, make sure to budget at least one day a week for maintenance and writing. More ambitious goals may require one or more full time staffers. After you go through the planning steps described below, revisit your budget. You may be willing to spend more. or less. depending on the value of the web site to your organization's mission.



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2. Brainstorm a wish list



Organizations that are ready to consider a web site usually have some fantasies about what they will achieve. You should get a list of those fantasies, if only to clarify expectations and provide a basis for negotiation about priorities and costs. You don't want to create a web site that your board members hate because you neglected to put in the functions they wanted most. Wish lists can be gathered from board members, staff, volunteers or other stakeholders. Just be careful not to promise too much. It's common for people to have unrealistic images of what a web site can do, based on their exposure to elaborate and expensive sites like http://www.helping.org or http://www.volunteermatch.org. (Both are worth looking at, by the way).



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3. Look at best practices



As part of your brainstorming process, identify any web sites or organizations that provide a model of success. Try to find web sites that can demonstrate effectiveness (e.g., by the amount of funds they have raised, or volunteers mobilized, or the number of visitors they get). Look at award-winning sites for ideas about design and functions, but don't get too wedded to them; many sites are granted awards for their looks rather than their effectiveness, and others cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to develop. I have listed a few sites at the end of this article that you may want to start with.



Also look at several web sites of agencies that you respect or admire, to see how they have approached web design.



You can use this process to narrow down some formats or design approaches that might work for your organization, and also to clarify your thinking about the functions of a community web site. As you view sites, make notes on the ones you like best, and track good ideas that you might want to implement in future phases.



After you have assessed several web sites, take another look at the 'wish list' you prepared in the first step, and add any new ideas you've gathered.



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4. Define core information needs



The third step is to identify the levels of information that should be on your web site. In this step, you are starting to pare down your expectations and create priorities.



* Level One: Core corporate information



List the content that your agency must have on its site to satisfy basic public information needs and accountability. Examples might be your address and contact information, programs and services, community served, and your primary funders. You may also want to list the names of your board members, annual financial summaries, and your mission. This should be the minimum information that is on your site, and it should be updated at least once a year.



* Level Two: Information that supports core functions



a. List the core functions of your agency. This might be service delivery, volunteer matching, fundraising, communication and/or advocacy. Be conservative here, and include only the functions that are key parts of your mission and mandate.



b. List the information, tools or resources that would significantly help your agency in carrying out those core functions. You may need some help from a web consultant to assess your core functions and do an options analysis. Two common and inexpensive examples are event calendars and email newsletters.



* Level Three: Web-based tools that support the community



List other ideas from your wish list here. These are optional functions or web site sections that could be funded as part of your community programming, NOT as part of corporate administration. You may be able to get special grants for these ideas, if they show promise of high impact, and fit well with your mandate and position. Feel free to play with these ideas - you can review them again after the launch of your web site. You can use these ideas to think about your future plans, and to ensure that you build a web framework that can support growth and development. However, we recommend that you not build 'level three functions' into your first web site design. You should use a phased approach that enables your agency to build its site in stages, getting used to the process of software development and the unexpected costs that are often part of the web maintenance process.



At the end of this three-stage process, you should have a list of web site components and functions that are divided into three categories: essential, important, and 'nice to have'. You should also have a list of existing web sites that you can show to your web designer as examples of the look and feel you think would fit your agency's personality and profile. And you should have an idea of your budget. At that point, you will be in a great position to discuss your web site plans with web designers, and negotiate a plan that will meet your needs.



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5. Best and Worst Practices



Take a look at these web sites for ideas about how to use the web to build community. Some of them are very plain, and even ugly, but they all have won awards and are cited as examples of best practices. Most of these suggestions come from this year's Webby Awards.



* Craig's List: http://www.craigslist.org. Deceptively simple, this site is worth looking at, to 'clear your mind' about innovative and effective community sites. It won this year's Webby Award for community sites.

* Jakob Neilsen's usability site: http://www.useit.com. Ugly, famous and incredibly useful, but not for the general public. It comprises articles on usable web design by an expert in the field. I do not recommend this format for most community agencies, but you should look at it to see what is considered by many to be a highly successful site.

* Your Congress: http://www.yourcongress.com. A quirky U.S. political advocacy site encouraging citizenship engagement. Another political site is Open Secrets (http://www.opensecrets.org). Be sure to visit the new Canadian site, Rabble.ca (http://www.rabble.ca). It's too new to have won many awards, but it will!

* Yahoo: http://www.yahoo.com. Another ugly site that's one of the most successful in web history. It is consistently rated as one of the most usable and useful on the net, along with http://www.google.com. People like sites that are extremely quick to download, and that have good, relevant information.

* VolunteerMatch: http://www.volunteermatch.org. This site is far too ambitious for an individual agency, but an interesting example of what can be done on the web. I don't know how effective this site actually is in mobilizing volunteers, but it looks great.



Finally, you should also look at some worst practices to see what doesn't work on the web. Check out the famous site, Web Pages That Suck, at http://www.webpagesthatsuck.com.



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