Are you thinking about creating a website? Or a blog? Or an app? Do you want to be “in the cloud,” but you’re not really sure what that is? Have you been talking with colleagues about this idea, or received direction from your boss, and started figuring out how to do it yourself, or looking into hiring a designer/developer to build it for you?
Great! Good on you. Making things is really exciting, and it’s really fun to hit the ground running.
The natural next step you might make is to start price shopping around, looking for an agency or creative you can afford.
Not great! But no fault to you: this is what most people do next. And it’s something that results in a lot of wasted money in the long run.
Before you start designing or building something that you have in mind, and definitely before you start paying someone else to, there are a few things you need to figure out.
I’m not immune from this: I’m generally elbow-deep in a new color scheme before I’ve even figured out the name a new project I’m working on.
But over the years, as I’ve been creating things for myself and with collaborators, and working with clients on projects, I’ve learned that the questions in this post (all of them are italicized) really need to be answered before a single pixel is produced.
I don’t do freelance work any more, but, if I did, this is what I would work through with any client before we started to create their project together.
Use this annotated checklist for any project you’re working on, and you’ll save yourself a lot of wasted resources (time, money, enthusiasm), and have a better chance as accomplishing your goal.
Speaking of goals…
✅ Establish a Goal
This might be obvious, but I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been talking with someone from a non-profit about their new website, or a colleague who wants to launch a blog, and when I ask them what their primary goal is for the thing, they give me a blank stare.
Rule 1: the goal cannot be “to have a website,” or “to make an app.” Websites and apps and social media platforms and whatever else aren’t a goal; they’re the process to accomplish some other goal.
So, what’s your goal? Are you sure that’s your goal, and not some means to another goal?
❌ Launch a website that gets a shit-ton of traffic
✅ Fund 25% of our organization’s operating costs through online sales
If your goal is something that is beyond your skillset, don’t see that as a roadblock, but a detour. Make it a project to use as the basis for teaching yourself, or learning, a new skill.
A good way to know if you’re working with a goal, and not process, is asking a few “Why?” or “So what?” questions.
If you ask “Why?” about a hypothetical goal, it’s probably a process if the answer takes you to a higher level of reasoning/rationale. For example:
Hypothetical Goal: Get People to Download our Curriculum
“Because we want them to teach others about X.”
Actual Goal: Get People to Teach Others about X
You can apply this a few times, or do other “overthinking” type exercises on any goal, to make sure you’re really getting to the bottom of it.
For example, following from the above example, you might ask “Why do we want to get people to teach others about X?” and realize your true goal is to “Reduce Y negative effect caused by a lack of knowledge of X.” And, if that’s true, you just found your actual-actual goal.
You goal-finding rockstar, you.
Rule 2: it’s okay to have a few goals, but you’re not allowed to have more than 3.
What are your top 3 goals? The answer to this questions is the thing or things that you want this new design project to accomplish.
Rule 3: if you have more than one goal, you need to rank them based on priority, in case you end up at a fork in the road where one goal obstructs the other.
What’s essential? What goal would you not budge on, in service of the others?
Rule 4: your goals needs to be measurable.
✅ Determine How You’ll Measure Progress Toward Your Goal(s)
Now that you have a goal, you need to figure out what it will look like to inch toward it. And you need to figure this out beforehand, because you will build this into your project.
Rule 1: you’re not allowed to use any bullshit/jargon/buzzwords in measuring your goals (e.g., “increase engagement” or “establish authority”).
Instead, make the measurement something you could easily explain to someone outside of your niche, or a child, or, ideally, both. No measurements that beget more measurements.
Rule 2: you have to decide, beforehand, how you’ll know if you are accomplishing your goal, or not. With numbers. What those numbers are, and what number = win vs fail.
How do you know if you’re accomplishing your goal? How do you know if you’re not? How do you know what to tweak? How do you know if you’re actively obstructing your goal?
❌ Increase engagement on social media by 10%
✅Find 5 new paying customers every month on Facebook
Rule 3: if you have a goal that you cannot figure out a way to measure, you go back to “Establish a Goal.” Do not pass go. Do not collect 200 engagements.
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✅ Pair a Measurement Instrument and/or Corollary with Every Goal
There is no point in having measurable goals if you can’t measure them. But this is the hardest step, and one that most people I interact with (who run non-profits, create social good projects, or online campaigns) don’t take enough time to really think through.
And I get why: it’s not an instinct we’re usually pursuing.
In some aspects of life, measuring the impact of our actions is out of our hands, or would take a ridiculous amount of time, or money, or annoying-ness. So it would be foolish to obsess about this.
But this is one thing that the internet, and websites/apps specifically, do really well: they provide us with the tools and data to measure lots of things in real-time.
Here, I’m defining a measurement instrument as a tool that allows you to directly see if you’re accomplishing your goal; a corollary is some outcome that you can measure that you’re inferring is happening because you accomplished a goal.
An astute reader will realize that any corollary needs its own measurement instrument, which might feel like we’re getting a little distant from the thing we’re actually trying to look at. That’s true, but sometimes all you can do is measure a corollary.
Let’s make these definitions a little more concrete with an example.
Say your goal was “to have 100 people who visit your website every month know X.”
A measurement instrument could be a quiz administered to visitors testing their knowledge of X after reading an article, and you’ll know you accomplished this when 100 people pass the quiz.
A corollary could be knowing when a visitor scrolled all the way to the bottom of an article about X. Here, you’d be inferring (1) that they read it; and (2) that by reading it they learned X. But you don’t know. They might have scrolled to the bottom to find your contact info. Or they might have read it but not understood it. (X, you elusive vixen).
You might not be familiar enough with the technology, or the lay of the land, to know what’s measurable, or how you might measure things. That’s okay. This is a step that you might need some help with. In that case, make sure that anyone you’re hiring, or asking for help, follows the rules.
Rule 1: pick a your measurement instrument or corollary based on your goal, not the other way around.
What number are you going to check to see if you’re making progress to your goal? What tool will generate that number?
Hopefully, if you’re following this list sequentially, this isn’t a problem for you. You already established your goal above, and now you’re coming up with ways to make sure you’re accomplishing it. Good on you.
But I’m including it as a redundancy, because it’s really easy to find a measurement instrument like Google Analytics, see all of the data/numbers you’ll have access to, and then let that determine your goals based on what you see you have access to.
Rule 2: only measure that which is related to your goal, and ignore vanity metrics.
Is that number really a measurement of your goal? Or is it measuring something else, or does it just feel good to see it go up?
It’s so easy to measure things with Google Analytics, and every other metric provided by online platforms, that you can spend all day staring at numbers without learning anything, or benefitting from them. With that in mind:
Vanity metrics like social shares, likes, views, and upvotes can easily appeal to a short-term goal almost all of us share “to feel like the work we’re doing matter.” Which, in turn, can lead us to doing things that bumps these numbers up, like making social media buttons more prominent, or writing articles that elicit rage clicks — even at the expense of our true goals.
Do you have your goal, measurement, and the instrument to do so?
Congrats! You’ve just put more useful thought into the website, blog, or app you’re about to create — or hire someone to create — than 99% of people in this statistic I’m currently making up.
Now, use the results from this checklist as the primary boundaries for the project you are creating.
Let your goals, progress indicators, and measurement instruments be the primary driving force as you draft up initial designs, user experience flows, and layouts.
Your goals are the answer to:
- what platform is right for your project (e.g., whether that be a website, or blog, or app, or social media platform);
- what items to include in a menu or navigation;
- what buttons/actions to highlight/call attention to;
- subscription options, social media integrations, newsletter sign-ups, etc.; and
- what content you focus on creating.
Don’t get caught up in some new trend, or let a designer/developer tell you that you need a certain feature, or that everyone is wanting this widget, or you will look unprofessional unless you have some bell or whistle… unless, of course, they make a clear case for why that will help you accomplish your goal.
Every design decision you make that isn’t in direct service of your goal is a distraction, and might even be an obstruction.