Our approach to website development is very much that ‘form follows function’ and not vice versa. We recently launched the new website for recruitment-to-recruitment specialist Futura – and the development of that site was a case study in ‘thinking first, designing last’.

The problem with starting a website project by creating the design is that you almost certainly don’t have enough background information on which to base the design. What will be the structure of the site? What will be its functionality – will it have news, blogs, events, or whatever? Who is the target audience? How is it performing in search engines? How does it compare to the sites of its competitors? The questions are almost endless.

There are two reasons why most website development companies start with the design. The first is that, for most of them, they don’t have the expertise to help with anything other than the design – they are just design companies. They don’t typically offer marketing help, usability or accessibility expertise – in fact, most don’t even offer copywriting, despite content being the heart of every website! The second reason is one of sales – once you’ve got the customer emotionally committed to the design, it opens the door for the rest of the project (while shutting the same door in the face of your competitors).

The upshot is that there is almost no chance of the website meeting the needs of the business – however good it looks. How could it, when no one has even looked at the needs of the business? Designing a website first, when you don’t even know what a site needs to do, is very much cart-before-horse territory.

A key difference with Labrow Marketing, is (as our name suggests) that although website development is our core business, we are essentially a marketing company, with over twenty years’ marketing expertise. We also undertake key website creation work, such as copywriting, in house – indeed, Peter Labrow is a Fellow of the Institute of Copywriting.

When we started work on Futura’s website, there was no denying that the current website had a lot of problems. It was easy to see that search engine performance was very poor, that the site had few visitors and that was returning very little back to the business. The question was: why?

I’m sure that if we had started work on an alternative design then, we’d have produced something that was a great improvement – but it wouldn’t have been as good as the site we finally came up with, for one reason. When we did start work, we’d answered that question: why?

We undertook a very extensive analysis of the websites of Futura’s main competitors. This included an in-depth look at how each site performed in leading search engines for various search phrases, using software that enables us to chart (and compare) the exact search engine position of each site. We also looked under the bonnet of each site, to ascertain not just how well they performed, but how well they could be expected to perform. There is a distinction here, and it’s always one worth looking at. Certain Web technologies introduce what we call ‘speed bumps’ to how well a site performs in search engines. Some are trivial; some prevent indexing altogether. But even the trivial ones add up: put four or five trivial speed bumps into a site and you can have a significant problem. The kinds of things we looked for were badly written HTML, certain types of JavaScript, Flash and so on – in fact, more than fifty different things.

As well as the more empirical tests, we also looked at things subjectively – how well the copy was written, how easy information was to find, what kind of features were used, how good the design was, that kind of thing.
It was a detailed analysis that gave us a very clear picture of how Futura’s competitors’ sites work, what their key messages were and how well the sites performed in search engines. (I’ve seen plenty of Web companies offer a ‘free audit’ of your website, but such audits are typically a cursory glance designed to provide enough fear, uncertainty and doubt – FUD – to convince the client that a new site is needed. Our analysis is much more in depth – and never free.)

Our research gave us a very clear picture as to how Futura’s website should be structured, the functionality needed, the key messages, the kinds of technologies to be used – even how it would look.

The resulting site raises the bar for functionality on a (relatively small) recruitment website, including:

  • a postcode search to find jobs nearest to you.
  • tools to let visitors shortlist jobs and send job information to friends.
  • a choice of job alerts to keep people up-to-date, using SMS (text messages), RSS (newsfeeds) and e-mail.

Despite this functionality (and more) there’s nothing to stop search engines fully indexing the site – indeed, the whole site is built from the ground up to be very search engine friendly.

A content management system enables Futura to edit almost every part of the site – including all of the advertised jobs – without needing any HTML skills.

The design of the site is punchy and modern, and is based on promoting the key part of Futura’s proposition: its focus on the Northwest rec2rec market, using pictures of well-known Northwest landmarks. As part of the design, we even produced a new logo for Futura – because our analysis showed that the previous logo had not aged well and did not properly reflect the size or nature of Futura’s business.

The design, functionality and content of the new site were based on what we really knew, not (as it would have been if we’d have started work right away) on what we thought we knew. We weren’t guessing at what Futura’s website would need to outperform its competitors’ – we had ascertained it as fact. It’s on these kinds of solid foundations that a website should be built, not on assumptions