Web Design Strategy Step-by-Step

wheat-fields copyA web design strategy pays off for you and your organization. Whether your site is up and running or you are composing the blueprint for a new one – having a design strategy helps you make sure your site tells your story.

The key reason you need one is because this is how you “stick the landing.” It creates a vehicle for your team to capture and document conversations that always seem to go in circles. Once you have it down on paper everyone is on the same page when you carry out the plan and manage the operations.

It’s a living document and may change as your site evolves, but at its core, the design strategy tells the story of your site to your team and ultimately your audience.


A design strategy has six parts and — to be effective — it is two pages or less in length.

Part One: Your Goal. What is the purpose of your website? Why does your site exist? I’ll warn you now: this is not a thesis. Ideally you can write your goal in 30 words or less. Supporting documents can explain the goals in more detail, but for your design strategy keep it strategic and high-level. If everyone in your organization is to own the goal, they all will be able to remember and repeat it.

Part Two: Your Branding. This part has three elements and they all inter-relate. The first is a side-by-side analysis of your problems and your solutions. Trust me here: one of my first principles in communications is if you can describe the problem, you own the solution. So let’s say that your problem is the site struggles with duplication and redundant content. The solution is to have authoritative content – which means picking a winner and eliminating redundancy. Once you have identified your problems, think about opposites to find the solutions. Put your list of problems and the corresponding solutions in priority order.

The next branding element is to knit together the side-by-side that compares your business goals against the value proposition for your audience and the visual strategy that flows from these.

So let’s say your business goal is to unify your content. The value for your audience is that they will gain confidence in what you have to say. Visually this leads you to a focused look and feel.

As a practical matter they may lead to a decision to collect similar content from across your Web site and re-position it so it is all in one place. For example, you may have many opportunities to sign-up for different email alerts or RSS fees scattered across you site. When you unify the information into a one-stop shop for sign-ups that are easy to find you have succeeded in being focused, unifying your content and earning your audience’s confidence.

The third element to branding is your tag line. This is your chance to tie it all together with a memorable phrase. Think of this as the flag you plant on top of the mountain after you have scaled it. Some examples of past tag lines for Web sites I have helped craft illustrate how a tag line can tie it all together:

energyposterPut Energy.gov to work for you. This addressed the problem from a user perspective — that people didn’t see the connection between the agency’s work and their lives – and from a business perspective – that we needed to answer critics who said the agency simply didn’t work. The visual strategy addressed the goal of being relevant with a friendly look and feel.

AFPortal logoThe AF Portal: Get on the Same Page. The business goal was to put the entire organization on the same platform and adopt a new way of doing business. The user’s goal was to get a navigation structure that meant no matter what AF base you were on you wouldn’t have to re-learn the navigation to find what you were looking for.

The visual strategy was to go for a contemporary look.

Part Three: Target Your Audience. If you are like most organizations then you are no stranger to the need to know who your site is for. Think about the profile of who comes to your site today and who you want to attract in the future. You can get valuable insights into your audience when you look at the data of your Web analytics tool to see where most visitors go, and what they are searching for.

The act of writing down your audience segments and getting buy-in from your Web team can help you channel your energy into being audience-focused. If, on the other hand, you allow this conversation to float and remain unsettled, it hampers your ability to lead and prioritize your workload.

Part Four: What are the Top Tasks? What do people come to your site to do? After you name your targets, think through the content and services you have for each group and whether it meets the needs of your users. Typically Web content comes in three buckets:

  • Editorial content
  • Applications (sometimes split into self-service and job-oriented)
  • Instructions

Do you have content to match up with all your audiences? Is it unique or does it over-lap? Will you need to create new content to fill in gaps or can you reposition current content and cover your needs?

Web sites can do hundreds of different things. But the 80 / 20 rule applies. Don’t be surprised to find that 80 percent of the audience visits are on 20 percent of your pages. When you understand where the activity lies you can concentrate on your best-sellers. The rest of it? You may find that it is time to retire much of it and re-focus resources on what your audience cares about.

Part Five: Critical Success Factors. How will your team’s success be judged and rewarded? It is up to you to frame this narrative for those who will make these decisions. If you fail to do this, others may seize this ground from you and tell the wrong story. The risk here is that you will fail in the eyes of your organization and your reputation will suffer.

When you create your roadmap, you need to get it agreed to and signed out by the higher-ups. So when you finish with your design strategy, package it up and present it to your team and then your boss. Put an action memo as a cover sheet that lets your boss agree with the document and put their signature on it.

Do you want your organization to be standards-based? Do you want to save money? Do you want to repair or nurture your reputation? Think about the impact of these goals both internally and externally. Make sure that each goal is measurable in some way so you can chart your progress and take a victory lap when you break through your milestones.

Part Six: Technology Constraints. No tool is perfect. Get with your vendor or tech team and understand up front what the tool can and cannot do. Typically you do not want to bear the costs of customizing the code, you must understand the limits of the out-of-the-box solution so you can set expectations about what is and isn’t possible.


stagesThe benefits of a design strategy are many. It provides a historical reference point for the project. It seeds much better internal communications for your team. It also supports accountability because the elements are all traceable.
In addition a design strategy helps because:

  • Everyone is on the same page; this lets you manage up to your boss, manage down to your team and manage outward to your vendors and stakeholders.
  • You are leading with strategy; Let tactics flow from strategy and guide decisions, not the other way around
  • Endless cycles of the same conversation are put to rest so you can get on with the job of advancing the ball down the field
  • You have prioritized your workload by shedding what doesn’t measure up and concentrating on what’s important to your success

Ideally, the Design Strategy document is a living document. Take the measure of all new ideas for your team’s workload and budget against it. Sound reasons to shift strategy and move in different directions may exist. However, when that happens your challenge will be to step back and re-tool the design strategy to meet the changing conditions.

In the end, the document tells the story of what your website will accomplish and why it matters. You are ready for success when you finish this exercise.  It is the foundation for your website.  With the document in hand your next steps as a web manager come into focus: build the structure, then manage the life-cycle.