A robot opening a door to a bricked up wall.

There's a famous mansion in San Jose, California called the Winchester Mystery House. The legend is that Sarah Winchester, heiress to the Winchester Rifles fortune, was haunted by the ghosts of people killed by the rifles. She saw a psychic who told her that she had to build a house for the ghosts and she could never stop building it or they'd kill her. The mansion was under construction for thirty-two years and contains doors that go nowhere, stairs that vanish into the ceiling, and other architectural oddities.

That's the legend. The reality is that Sarah Winchester had an interest in architecture and a bottomless budget and built things that caught her fancy rather than that fulfilled a specific function.

One of your desires for your website is that it looks great with, "engaging design," and "visually appealing features." No matter how sophisticated or unsophisticated someone is, we all understand beauty. The visual nature of websites makes it so that we often evaluate their value based on the design.

There's nothing wrong with that.

But! And this is important:

Websites are not art. Their purpose is not to flash and pop with a myriad of fancy user interface effects. Their value is not actually their beauty.

Consider your car. You probably want it to look cool. But you wouldn't buy a two ton sculpture in the shape of your car to sit in front of your house. We buy cars to take us places. Similarly, if people wanted to see pretty things they'd go to an art museum and not peruse websites.

Our visual orientation can cause a big misstep when it comes to doing a website design or re-design. That error in approach is that clients often want to put design ahead of content.

You want the designer to come to you with a design and only then figure out what to put in it. "Make a really cool website and then we'll just fill it with content."

Design first is how you end up with a Winchester Mystery website. The design may initially look good, but it will have things you'll never use. Once you try to populate it with content, you'll realize it doesn't enable you to say what you need to say on specific pages. Other parts of the design you can't use at all, because there is no content for it. Still other areas you'll find yourself making up content that isn't needed. The design will shift and warp, iteration after iteration, as you try to figure out what you should be saying.

This is all fine as long as you, like Sarah Winchester, have a bottomless budget and no need to ever see the website completed.

Most people aren't in that situation though. Eventually, you're going to have to step back and say, "Wait, what are you trying to do here? What do we need to say?" You'll have to do the work of developing a content strategy and messaging.

This will put you on track to how websites should be implemented:

  1. Establish goals and organize site structure around goals
  2. Write or revise content to match the specific goals for each page
  3. Give the content to a designer to make it pretty

To sum it up:

Starting with design puts function (content) after form (design.) This is a big problem because websites serve a function. That means that you're doing it backwards and instead need form (design) to follow function (content.) Skin should come after skeleton. Fancy windows for living rooms and not closets. Intelligence before beauty.

John Hooley
President, Steward

John is a graduate of 10,000 Small Businesses, a certified Customer Acquisition Specialist, and a Zend Certified Engineer. He speaks and writes on connecting digital strategy to association goals. Outside of work he's an avid traveler, climber, diver, and a burgeoning sailor. He also volunteers with Rotary and Big Brothers Big Sisters.