How to Plan Your Website When You Don’t Even Have a Website Yet

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You want to create a new website for your business, or a project gone official. The website doesn’t exist yet, but you know you’re going to build one. Let’s say I offered to give you a consultation about building that website. Your reaction might be, “But I don’t even have a website to consult about yet…”

No, you don’t. But get this – you don’t need a website to plan one!

You can totally prepare a website without having anything set up yet. From the technical point of view, putting together a website is easier than ever. Crafting a website that does its job well? Not so easy. Planning a great website is hard work. Don’t let all the shiny gadgets distract you from the fundamentals.

Think about building a house.

Comic drawing of Anne Dorko standing in front of a castle and a flying pet dragon.

You may not be an architect, but you understand what it’s like to live in a house. You know your optimal kitchen size, how many bedrooms you want, and whether you prefer a tub or shower. If you designed your dream home, you wouldn’t sweat how many shingles go on the roof. You would start by laying out a floor plan.

Planning a website works exactly the same. Remove yourself from the idea of constructing the website with technology. The nuts and bolts won’t end up being as big of a problem as you think. Take a step back. Think about it – like anything else, a successful website needs a plan. A blueprint, if you will.

Otherwise, it ends up being a useless piles of tools and materials. You don’t want to end up with a virtual abandoned lot. Let’s talk about how you can plan out your website right here and now, without knowing anything about building websites.

What Does it Mean to Plan a Website?

There are many ways to plan a website, but today I’m showing you how to do it on your computer without any new software.

Forget everything you know about websites for a second. A website is a bunch of text on pages, almost like Word Documents, that all go together in one place and link together.

You can completely plan out the pages of your website before worrying about how to set one up.

And honestly? You really should. Planning a website means:

  • Knowing the pages that will be in your navigation
  • Knowing what the function of each of those pages are
  • Knowing how they will achieve their function (by writing the content)

How to Structure the Content of Your Website

Think about the folders on a computer. For example, you may have Documents, Pictures, and Downloads. You navigate through these folders to find the files you need within.

Websites work in a similar way. You can completely plan out the content of your website right on your computer with folders and files.

First, create a folder that represents the website. You can call it whatever you want – maybe ‘My Site’ or whatever the name of your site is! 🙂 Here’s how to make a folder in Mac, and how to make a folder in Windows.

Step One: Create a folder to represent your website

Inside this folder, you will create a few more folders. These folders represent the website navigation. The names of these folders designates the links someone will see when they land on the site.

For example, you might have:

  • Home
  • About
  • Services
  • Contact

Step Two: Create subfolders to act as navigation

Within each of these folders, create an empty text file.

  • Home > home.txt
  • About > about.txt
  • Services > services.txt
  • Contact > contact.txt

Here is how to create a text file on a Mac, and how to do it on Windows.

Step Three: Create the pages of your site using text files.

Now it’s time to plan out the content that goes on each page. You can add or edit content to each of these text files to suit your needs.

Make sure you answer both of these questions for each page:

  1. What purpose does this page serve?
  2. How does the content serve this purpose?

The content of these pages determine how successful they will be at their jobs. If the content isn’t clear in a plain text file, the final version of your website will be even more confusing.

How to Design the Experience People Have on Your Site

Planning a website using folders and files helps you to address the most important elements of a website without distraction.

Think about it this way: A person should be able to open up that folder on your computer and find the content they need. There are no extra visual clues on the computer, the folders and file names should be enough.

In other words, the only help they have is the way you’ve organized your folders and named your text files. Your website needs to be that easy to understand at a glance.

Once the reader find the right document and read its contents, is it what they expected? Are all the answers there and easy to find?

Remember, a website is a glorified set of folders and text files. Web users are impatient and don’t want their time wasted.

You don’t need design skills to make an intuitive website. Even an ugly site can be easy to use!

The most beautiful graphics won’t fix unclear navigation. If your site can’t pass the folder and text file test, people will have a difficult time using the site, too.

Keep these tips in mind as you plan your site:

  • Name your folders and files clearly.
  • Organize pages that go together in the same folder by creating multiple text files.

How to Test Whether Your Site is Well Planned

Okay. So you’ve set up your website in the form of folders and text files. How do you know whether it’s any good?

First, choose one task you want someone to do on your website. Here are a few examples:

  • Find contact information and send you an email.
  • Sign up for the weekly newsletter.
  • Choose the appropriate service you offer for their business.

Now, open up the folder on your computer – the one where you’ve organized your website content. Sit down a friend and ask them to use this folder to complete the set task. The goal is to do it in three clicks or less.

Can they do it?

If not, ask why it was so difficult. Then, adjust appropriately and try again.

Common Challenges Faced by Users

  1. Folder and file names are vague.
  2. Files do not hold the expected information.
  3. The information in the text files was difficult to read through.

Quick Fixes for Common Challenges

  1. Rename the folders or files to make them more descriptive or accurate, as necessary.
  2. Update each file so it has the expected information.
  3. Make sure that each text file is easy to scan by avoiding huge walls of text. You can break up the page with informative headings and by grouping related information in lists.

Going through these steps with someone else is called user testing.

This particular method of user testing is easy and inexpensive. And, taking the time to do user testing helps you launch a website that does what you expect it to do!

It’s Time to Plan Your Website

Now it’s your turn. 😀

This simple exercise is a great way for beginners to understand what it means to plan a website. This process helps even the most experienced bloggers design more user-friendly sites.

In review, here is how to plan out the content of your website:

  1. Set up a folder on your computer that represents your website. Call it My Site, or whatever makes most sense to you.
  2. Use folders to organize the main content of your site, like Home, About, or Contact.
  3. Create text files within each folder to show what pages will be available when you click on those options.
  4. Fill each text file with the content that will go on each page.
  5. Test it until someone could easily find any information they need from your folder structure just by glancing at the names.
Don't be afraid of having some fun while you're at it.

Don’t be afraid of having some fun while you’re at it.

Go ahead and try planning out your website right on your computer. You can do it without any internet at all. Then come back, and let me know how it goes. What trouble did you run into? Let me know how I can help in the comments section.

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About Anne Dorko

Anne is always sharpening her web strategy skills, from design to content creation. She helps people like you succeed online by sharing insight from her 10 years of experience. Go get your 30 minute consultation while orientations are still free!

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3 comments Leave a comment

  1. A very intuitive, low cost way to put together a site’s information architecture. I figured I was an old pro and initially skipped it, but your article convinced me of my folly. I’ll benefit from trying it your way.

    • Yes! It’s easy to think you’ve got it down, but honestly it’s such a good practice. It’s better to be thorough, especially when it’s such a simple process. I’m glad you’ve seen the light 😉

  2. Char  says…

    This is ridiculously helpful! I had massive trouble trying to plan my website and which page should go under which sub-menu. Working out how to make my website easy to navigate has been a big struggle for me. Thank you for this tip. I’ll definitely use this in the future 🙂

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