The Journey of a Thousand Miles

By Clinton R. Lanier

There’s a pretty tired cliché used all the time that goes something like this:

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

Like all clichés, it’s true while at the same time a bit trivial. In the case of building websites, this particular cliché can help teach one of the most important lessons to learn. Let me try to put it in terms of what we do: it’s not how you end a project that gives you success as a web designer/developer; it’s how you begin it.

My students often have trouble with this uncomfortable truth when designing and creating their web sites. They usually want to jump right into a project and start designing it before they do anything else. But before I let them begin to even sketch out their ideas for a single page, I make them answer two key questions about their projects:

1. Who is my audience, and …

2. What purposes do I need to consider?

The answers to these questions, and not the design considerations, are what you need to focus on when you start a project. And, without carefully considering each question individually (and then together) I assure you that even the most dynamic of websites will ultimately fail.

For this article I’ll discuss each aspect in turn, and then combine the two to show you how attending more to these areas will give you a much easier design job in the end. I’ll also spend a little time talking about the economic aspects of this strategy, and how you can use it to increase revenue and lower your chances of spending hours designing a site the customer doesn’t even like.

Question 1: Who is going to be using this site, and what are they like?

The first and most basic consideration to make is about the audience or users of the site (I’ll just use ‘audience’ from now on as a general term). And I don’t mean your audience, but the audience of the website you’re about to make. You must both identify that potential audience and then identify the characteristics it possesses, affecting how they engage your site.

Start with your client: ask him or her to tell you who the customers are. There’s a good chance they’ll already have a fairly good understanding of the customer’s demographics—from their ages to their ethnicities. You can also simply think about the product, service, or organization that the site is being designed for. Do some simple Internet research to help you figure out as much as you can. Record all you can about the potential audience. 

Factours to think about include:

  • age.
  • education level.
  • technological literacy.
  • familiarity with the organization or product.


Next try to understand how these characteristics will affect the design of the site. For example, the age of the audience could determine what images you include or what references you make to popular culture. To highlight this point, look at, a site designed entirely for girls between the ages of 8-13. The site design would be completely inappropriate for an audience of older girls, an audience of boys, or an audience from a culture or country that knows nothing about Barbie (though, finding a locale knowing nothing about Barbie is sadly becoming difficult).

The next characteristic I list—education level—should seem pretty straightforward, but “technological literacy” may not. What I mean by this is the extent to which your audience is comfortable with and experienced at viewing websites and surfing the Internet. If your audience is “highly technologically literate,” you can be comfortable in assuming they’re familiar with many of the features of Web 2.0, like user forums or article comments and feedback (user-generated content). However, and I run into this all the time, there are those users who have no idea what a forum may be for or how to use one—and they’re said to have low technological literacy.

For each of your user’s characteristics there will be an associated effect on the design of your website. I always urge my students to first brainstorm about the characteristics of their audience, and then next to each characteristic, brainstorm the associated affect and how they can design for that affect.

In the case of technological literacy, the audiences’ level could determine what type of features your site includes. Does it have a high degree of interaction, expected by young people or those who spend much of their time online, or should the pages be static, and “safe” to reassure those unfamiliar or uncomfortable online? For each characteristic there will be a number of associated compensations you must make in the design, and knowing this at the beginning is a whole lot better than finding out about it after the site’s been deployed.

Question 2: What is the purpose of the site, and what are the users’ purposes for going to the site?

It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but people will often design a site that doesn’t necessarily reflect the site’s true purpose. An e-commerce site, for example, should have as its focus not only the product, but also the e-commerce mechanisms needed to carry out a transaction. Even if a site is displaying the store’s products in stunning galleries with comprehensive descriptions, detailed close-ups, and multiple views, all of these features will be for naught if a customer can’t figure out how to check out and pay for the products. Even worse are the e-commerce sites that simply “hide” the products from the customer to begin with.

The fault in such cases usually lies with the designer who spent too much time being creative and not enough time planning. Understanding the site’s true purpose and planning a design around that purpose will resolve potential conflicts between creativity and function.

On the flip side of this discussion are the users themselves: what do they want to do on the site? Do they want to learn about something, like a product or service, or do they want to purchase something? While seemingly related, these are two entirely different purposes. If users are browsing your site to gain knowledge about something, they’ll be turned off by pushy e-sales tactics, like incessant pop-ups and links leading them to purchase mechanisms. Instead, in this particular case, a more passive approach is called for.

Take for example a car company. While the company’s website has the primary purpose of selling their cars, the company understands customers go to the website to learn about the products, not buy the products. So instead of treating the site strictly as an e-commerce site, which overtly “push” their products, the car companies instead use their sites to disseminate information about their vehicles, and they do it in a way that makes customers more willing to buy it at the dealerships. To see what I’m talking about, look at and While Ford wants you to learn about their cars, CarMax just want you to buy them. Look at how different the approaches are, and you’ll instantly recognize the different purpose each site has, and the corresponding purpose the audiences for each site have.

To find out these purposes you again need to do research. Talk to your client first. Make sure that, not only do you understand what the client’s purpose for the site it, but that the client himself understands the purpose (they commonly won’t). If you can, the best way to understand the audience is to talk to potential members of that audience. Conduct surveys if possible to really make sure that you are designing this site to fulfill the goals—that is to meet the purposes—of both players: the client and the user.

Knowledge is Power

Sorry to use yet another tired cliché, but, tired as it is, it rings true. From a design perspective, answering the above questions will naturally lead to an easier job of creating the website. From the answers about the customer you will have a better sense of what images, colors and fonts to use. You will also understand better how you can organize the site to provide the user with an experience they will already be familiar with (necessary for increased usability). Your tone will be appropriate as will the language you use (derived from understanding cultural characteristics and education level). In essence, the design will have been narrowed down immensely.

At the same time, by understanding your audience, you will better understand why they may go to the site in the first place. From their, you match that against the purpose of the site itself. Although I’m sure Ford would love to sell cars online, as CarMax is capable of doing (though I’m sure rarely does), they adjust their own goals and make them as much as possible coalesce with the goals of the audience.

Ultimately, following the guidelines here will save or make you more money, and will definitely pay off in time dividends (and will probably cause you less frustration). Organization is always a key to success, but for some reason I’ve seen many a web designer throw organization out the window in favor of the instant gratification gained by the creative design process. And sometimes it works out, and the designer delivers a product that the client is happy with, that meets the audience’s purpose and compensates for their characteristics.

However, this rarely happens. Instead, the scenario usually unfolds like this: after spending a short amount of time with the client, the designer thinks she understands what the client wants, gives little if any thought to the audience or user, and creates a site based on a cool design that meets the designers presumed purpose. This, of course, fails miserably, is nothing like the site the client actually pictured or wanted, and is not useful at all to the audience.

The designer then has to sacrifice more time starting from scratch, learning the things she should have learned to begin with, and ends up with a site the client is happy with. By this time, however, the billable hour average has dropped to somewhere around $10.00 per hour because of all of the extra time the project has cost.

In some instances, you can also charge for the time you spend in these discussions. I bid recently against another company to build an enterprise-level content management system (and won). During the process I inadvertently ended up with a copy of the competitor’s cost sheet (a generic one, not for this specific project, so nothing unethical about it). The first phase of their design and development process is called the “Discovery” phase. 

Let me quote what happens in this crucial “Discovery” phase:

· Review current Web site and available documents.
· Company consultant, writer, designer and interactive strategist visit the organization (one day)
· Develop the discovery document with up to two rounds of revisions

So, before they set mouse to PhotoShop, before they set CSS to Notepad, they try to understand what they need to create. They do so by conducting online research and visiting the organization to talk to the client (for one whole day). Their cost for this is—and I swear I’m not making this up—$20,780.00!

Obviously things change with an enterprise-level project: the organization is bigger, the problems and solutions are more complex, the profile of the site is bigger, etc. I don’t expect many individual designer/developers to get that kind of money for the discovery phase of a small business’ web site design. But know these two things:

1. You’d be justified to charge something, and …

2. Even if you don’t charge anything overtly, include it implicitly in your price because the process creates a better product. Guaranteed.

About the author:

Clinton R. Lanier is an Assistant Professor of Technical Communication at New Mexico Tech, and the owner of Lanier Infomedia (, a web design/development and technical communication consulting company located in Las Cruces, NM, USA.

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This entry was posted on Friday, May 22nd, 2009 at 7:56 pm and is filed under Business of Web Design, News, Web Design. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

2 Responses to “The Journey of a Thousand Miles”

  1. karen rose says:

    Nice article … (Journey of 1000 miles). Cliches are cliches because usually there’s truth in them! No need to apologize for them!

  2. Pat OBrien says:

    I loved it, and thanks for making me think more globally. I learned about Audience and purpose in Communication classes, and just now it all made more sense. Thanks for helping me extrapolate my knowledge. I think Pirsig said something like, “The problem you have to day, may not be all that big, but the solution to that problem may be bigger than you’ll ever realize [or appreciate]” (paraphrased from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance).

    Also, because of my naiveté, I assumed that I was the designer—the Absolute Lord of the Web Design Project. I am the expert and the customer will accept my designs as the best ideas for their particular business. I had assumed that their input is secondary, because I am the professional, the expert. Thanks for bringing me down to earth. I will use the Discovery tool, before the pencil hits the paper. I am glad to have learned this lesson in the comfort of my own home.

    Thanks again