Usability, Web Design

Building a Website Is Like Building a Kitchen, Part I

Websites are like kitchens, or maybe I've grown up watching too many kitchens get renovated... and maybe a bit too much HGTV (Fixer Upper is my jam!).

When my husband and I bought our current home a few years back, I immediately wanted to demolish our kitchen. Why? Well to start, it's pretty outdated—the ovens are the originals from the 60's (but hey, there are two!). A beautiful, modern kitchen can still be dysfunctional though. It may have gorgeous subway tile, quartz countertops, and state-of-the-art appliances, but if the dishwasher is on the polar opposite side of the sink's location and the cabinets below the stove are too small for the pots and pans, chances are one would slowly grow frustrated with the setup. 

Kitchen Blueprint

Our kitchen is also small and lacks counter space. Every day I am reminded that it doesn't have a functional layout to accomplish simple, everyday tasks. Cooking dinner is an engineering feat to figure out how I can chop vegetables for an appetizer and prep the main course in the same space. And hosting Thanksgiving? Let's not even go there. Even though there are two ovens, there's nowhere to put those delectable dishes once cooking is complete. While increased productivity is great with two ovens, the lack of available counter space is still an issue. Efficiency, convenience, and time are all precious commodities in the kitchen, and if these start to falter, doubt and regret begin to take course.

So what makes a great kitchen? That depends on the people who will be using the kitchen. It's not the designer's job to assume what that should be. It requires questioning of the homeowners' everyday events, digging into the details of their expectations, and lots of feedback loops. My dream kitchen is different from someone else's dream kitchen—and that's perfectly fine. For instance, I put a high priority on a designated area for coffee, while someone else may want to have an area for baking. Most important is that it functions to help accomplish everyday tasks.

Planning and building a dream kitchen has a lot in common with redesigning a website. It's easy to change the colors of the website, but if the content remains stale or doesn't provide what users need, your site visitors will not find value in your institution.

So where do you start?

Start with Paper

Write down what you consider important to accomplish based on the following:

  • What do you want your website to provide?
  • How will it bring value to your site visitors?
  • Who are your site visitors?
  • What tasks can site visitors accomplish on the current website?
  • Are there any limitations you are working with?

Focusing on the overall goals for your website creates a foundation for everything else to come. Determine all future decisions by referencing your goals. This will be a huge time saver and keep discussions on point. Like any project, there are limitations such as time, finances, and resources. It's important to list everything up front to make all team members aware of the scope and prioritize accordingly.

It's also worth noting that asking your web visitors why they come to your site and how they use your website will provide the best insights. Set up a few surveys and feedback sessions with your students, faculty, staff, community, and alumni—anyone that you want to target for your new website. They'll be candid and let you know where they succeed, fail, and everything in between. 

Build the Foundation

Just as a kitchen has a blueprint that lets you know where everything is located and all its dimensions, your website will do the same with a functional spec. Keep the focus on functionality, not design. Note that blueprints never made it past the color blue for a good reason! As exciting as it is to choose colors, media, and animations, it is so important to create an environment where your site visitors succeed. The color of your site does not matter when answering these questions: Will our functional spec help achieve our goals quickly? Does our functional spec empower our site visitors to accomplish their tasks intuitively? That begins with the functional layout of your website.

Information architecture (IA) is a great place to begin laying out the structure of your website. It is the foundation of your site visitors' user experience in how they navigate your site. A few things to keep in mind when creating the IA:

  • How many levels deep must a site visitor dig before finding a page? (Hint: the less, the better)
  • Is the wording clear and concise?
  • Are items grouped logically?

This is another point where feedback is an asset before moving into the details of the website. I recommend running a card sort or tree test to see how people group and navigate your proposed IA and adjust as needed. I bring up user research a lot in the beginning phases of a redesign because it is low risk to make changes—no code has been written and the cost to make these changes is minimal.

Stay tuned for more on my building a kitchen series. In the meantime, download the latest E-Expectations Report to find out what prospective students want to find on your website

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Nicole Conary

User Experience Design Engineer

Nicole has a lifelong love of technology and is always looking for ways to make products easier to use. With degrees in English (Cal Poly, SLO) and Computer Science (CSUCI), she got her start in Marketing at OmniUpdate and has since found her niche on the Development team as a User Experience Design Engineer. As a Ventura County, California native, Nicole enjoys being with family and friends, playing video games, rooting for the LA Kings (Go Kings Go!), plotting ways to own a Tesla, and a good glass of wine.