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Page 7 — Planning Stage

During stage two, you and the team establish every element of every page. By the end, you'll have developed a document that describes visually and textually how to build the website. The brainstorming is over and it's all about the details.

Site map: Start by designing a site map. A site map helps you plan the structure of the site. The process of sketching a basic diagram will force you to consider the many issues you'll face when building the site.

Schematics: Once the client signs off on the map, start visually describing each page with simple schematics. You need to stress to the client that these are not design documents. Make them as simple and unattractive as possible so there is no confusion. The schematics define the content for every page. This is necessary for editorial to anticipate the text they'll write, and for designers to know the elements they'll be designing.

Functional specification: The next step is to take the schematics and describe how each page functions. The document that will emerge is called the functional specification. Engineering and production should contribute to it, adding details about the server, site structure, security, and so on. This information is essential to the Web team when they build the site. The details need to be reviewed and approved by the client before work starts.

Once the functional spec is in good shape you can revise the schedule and start dealing with staffing. But until the functional spec is complete and approved by the client, you won't know what the real budget and schedule will be. The client may cut something substantial from the project that would have required a whole team of programmers, so waiting to hire them would be wise. I worked on one project a small design firm was doing for a big luxury goods company that kicked off three times. Three times before a contract was officially signed, we rushed to find design and Flash resources. Three times we had to call them back after they were hired and tell them the project was on hold. Though the client appeared to be entirely supportive of the project, and had legitimate reasons to pull out, it was very frustrating and also made us look bad to our contractors.

You will most likely need to revise the functional spec several times. This will require spending hours with the client reviewing the site map, schematics and functional description until the site is what they want. Deliver a final budget and schedule with the functional spec, but don't do any additional work until they've signed next to the X, in blood.

Most companies charge for the functional spec, and for good reason. The client can take the functional spec to any company. Just because your company put it together doesn't mean you get to build the website.

Design treatments: You shouldn’t design the site until the functional spec is complete. However, your designers may want to produce some initial comps since, without a doubt, the first thing your client will ask is what the site will look like. Design will use the functional spec and schematics as a guide for designing the pages. If possible, design should also have final text so they can design using the right words.

I was a freelance project manager for a San Francisco design team creating an international web portal site. They designed lovely pages in English with consistently sized title images. Then we realized these titles had to appear not just in English but in Japanese, French, Spanish and German. This changed the entire nature of how to approach the design and would have affected the launch, so the client decided to go with English-only titles.

Plan for design reviews and give the client enough time -- at least two or three days -- to review the design. Always ask for written feedback. This ensures that the client has reviewed the design carefully and critically. Ask them specific questions about the design. They may say they don't like the website colors, but what they really mean is they don't like the yellow outline on the featured product images and in reality everything else is OK.

Design and production specifications: Once the design has been completed, the design and production staff should work together on a style guide. The style guide is a document that details color, font, sizing and naming conventions. The designers should be available throughout the production process to review and create any new or replacement art that is needed.

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