A question most web designers never get to ask their clients in any serious way, unless they are wearing a well-tailored suit, have a gaggle of assistants, an avant-garde post-modern office with bad excuses for art, and billings in the millions of dollars, is why they actually need a website. Even a straight and honest answer to why they want a website would suffice, but rarely is this question asked, even more rarely is it answered, and almost never is the answer satisfactory. This is a shame, because it is the most important question in web design.
After creating websites for over a decade, I can safely say that every nuanced need for a website can be reduced to three basic reasons. These may not be the reasons you get if you manage to ask this question, but these are the true meanings to be inferred from anything ranging from a monosyllabic grunt from the CEO, to the 20-page strategic website plan handed to you by people with titles such as Assistant Vice President of Corporate Team-Building Assistance.
Everyone has one
By far the most common reason people want a website is because everyone else they know has one, or one person they know has one and they don’t wish to seem behind the times, or they read this ad at the back of a magazine about getting rich of the internet and are now convinced that this way lie diamond-encrusted unicorns surfing golden rainbows.
There is also the fun to be had by dropping the term website into social conversations in the future, talking casually about ‘my designer’, and having brand new business cards printed to include the shiny new web address in bold letters. All these are strong motivators, no matter what the official excuses are. Unfortunately these is also the worst reasons to have a website.
This reason to want a website is also sometimes referred to in the business as ‘I have an important conference next week; Can you get my site to be number one in Google by Tuesday?’
If you’re still wondering, the answer to that question is no, but the marketing potential of the internet is a strong motivator for people to consider a website. The tricky part about marketing as a motivator is that it can swing either way on the scale between ludicrous and practical. There are many practical ways a website can be used as a marketing vehicle, but it isn’t a magic potion, any more than printing 5000 brochures and storing them neatly in your back-room is a magic potion for getting your name out there.
Having said that, any serious online marketing effort can do little wrong with having a proper website in the centre of its various activities across sites and social media platforms. Ultimately, in the fleeting world of the internet, your website is the only thing you can own and control completely.
Having a website which performs a function and is actually useful to your potential audience is the ultimate reason to have one. But only a small minority of people actually want a website for this, the best of reasons, and some of those people misunderstand the meaning of useful.
As a designer you come across many a client who honestly believes that their customers will find the complete listing of their board of directors and each of their favourite flavours of ice-cream to be invaluable. That is rarely true. To make a site useful is to think of what the user can get out of it rather than to imagine what you want to get out of them and few people making websites or commissioning them think at that level.
This isn’t an answer to dream up in a hurry, or a matter to dismiss without thought, because whatever you might think you want, you don’t actually need a website like everyone else; You just need a website that makes you very useful to some of those everyones. So, if you are toying with the idea of launching a new online presence for your company, yourself, or your service, you should be thinking about its usefulness to the ultimate user. You should also be asking yourself that most important and central of questions in web design, why do you need a web site?