What makes a good website?

I used to have a personal blog on all things web design; I shut it down a few months back and am migrating some of my old posts back. I wrote this blog on 3 April 2008 and whilst a reference to a particular technology is no longer relevant, it is remarkable how so much remains relevant today.

Sure, my views on matters such as SEO have changed and our process around content and UX is far advanced, though on the whole, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Here's my six year old blog:


What makes a good website?

I was asked by a contact to offer any ideas I had for a tender he was preparing for his organisation for the full redesign and redevelopment of their website.

The organisation is an NGO with assets of $3.9bn, and stakeholders including government, community and industry.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter what industry the website is in; the fundamentals of a good website are consistent and the best website is one with a focus on best practice; best practice planning, best practice design, best practice content.

My submission below is by no means definitive and it was written in the middle of the day in a real rush. I believe however that it offers useful guidelines to any business or organisation assessing what is and is not important in a website redevelopment; on reflection, it is not appropriate for transactional websites and is more akin to marketing/communication-based websites. I have added several notes throughout to explain my rationales.

Please also bear in mind that this is not a website strategy; how a website is built is very different to how it is used.


Contract: the contract with the web development firm

There are several potential contracts you might consider:

  • Time and materials
  • Milestones (monthly, on deliverable, other)
  • Purchase of CMS, design module etc

My view is that you should try and identify a web development firm that will ultimately enter into a fixed-price contract (shares the risk).


Strategy: the strategy behind the website

There needs to be a strategy behind the website, and if the web development firm doesn’t devise it, they must at least be able to work with you to understand and implement it.

Ultimately, you want more than a business to design a website; you want the web development to be behind the website and to make decisions in your favour and towards the goals.

I leave this to you, though in your position I would outline the key challenges and objectives you have and see how the web development firm responds.



The CMS is a very important component of a website’s success – the backbone; a poor CMS can restrict the front end of a website, and significantly hinder the efficiency of the management (publishing) of the website.

  • A fair number of the websites we take over are because the CMS simply never quite worked.
  • The web development firm must be able to demonstrate at least half a dozen, completed websites on their proposed platform.
  • The CMS should be .NET/SQL2005 (N.B. this was true for my colleague because he was in a Microsoft environment).
  • License fees (if any) must be fully disclosed, including support; completely, avoid Licenses where you do not own the CMS and cannot take it away and have other developers work on it. (N.B. This is not always true and there are some excellent CMSs out there (we use Ektron for some projects) though only agree to restrictive licenses with the end CMS firm, and not with the web development firm and its home-made CMS).
  • Your IT team can advise on this, however if the CMS is compiled (DLLs), you must receive the source code.
  • The web development firm must outline SLAs, warranties and how they manage upgrades and so forth.
  • Ask for screenshots, and ensure that content is not merely managed through a WYSIWYG editor; this is not acceptable and will lead to a poor and unstructured front-end over time.
  • Determine what features you really need – many CMSs see an over-investment on workflow management when realistically, you don’t need this. Many CMSs come with feature lists – multi-lingual content, RSS builders – and this is one way to achieve it, though the lists are often not always true.

Subsequently, the website will likely be built on a Microsoft platform, maybe using XML/XSLT or similar.



I wouldn’t ask the web development firm to specifically outline their Specification processes, though in reviewing the suitability of web development firms, this is central.

There is simply no question that the Specification is vital to the success of the project and without this phase, the project will be a disaster.

The reason I wouldn’t preempt the web development firm is because it is important to understand how much onus they genuinely place on this phase. The web development firms suitable for the project should not need to be asked.

  • Expect to see an example Specification.
  • Expect to see the process to completing the Specification; ensure that the process works for you.
  • Because the Specification really is the architectural drawing of the whole project, make sure you are happy that the web development firm’s Specification and associated process achieves this.
  • Try and determine how much time and effort you will need to invest in the Specification. 


IA and Usability

Increasingly, web development firms have their own IA/usability resources or at least outsource this; there are still many however that do not. The key to a successful website is firstly setting the goals of the website and secondly, ensuring that users can achieve those; there you have usability.

  • Determine what resources the web development firm has on hand and where in the project they are utilised; upfront, throughout, at the end.
  • Ask for example IAs and the rationale behind them.
  • Ask the web development firm to outline the challenges they see based on your existing content and users – NOT your existing IA which is clearly flawed (N.B. my colleagues was, your may well not be).
  • Do they recommend focus groups?



This is objective and so I leave it to you! This said, consider how the web development firm uses the screen “real estate” and if it is effective. Consider the breadth of their portfolio – engineers on slow 800x600 laptops in the sticks will not appreciate Flash and heavy graphics.

Information and content design is a design in itself without the need for gratuitous gradients, dramatic photos and Flash.

Welcome Flash by all means if it adds visual and/or functional benefit.


CSS/HTML (“Slicing”)

It should be a minor point; have the web development firm outline their standards in respect to CSS and state that these will be audited at the end of the project. This will scare most web development firms into actually complying with their promise.


Makeup of the website

Microsites, landing pages, flash pages and so forth. It will hard to determine all of these functions until you move to the wireframes in the Specification.

In any event, document the obvious features and attributes you see within the website.

In this respect (and it is also a bit of an IA consideration), identify the different audiences of your website. Consider how you think the website should best communicate with each, taking into account the PR/comms requirements you have. Microsites might be one answer?



Security is a bit of a non-issue these days, though look at security and how the web development firm handles this; are there systems in place if the website is hacked or defaced. Are any forms encrypted if they probably should be?



The web development firm should stipulate how it undertakes content development and population if this is required by you. Content is the biggest stumbling block in any web development project so ensure it is document, planned and costed upfront.



You will need to document the system(s) you see the website being integrated with, including if the website needs to place collected user data in a CRM or similar. The more the information you can provide, the better their breakdown.

Get examples of how the web development has integrated with other technologies in the past.

(N.B. I deliberately keep this short because it is a blog in itself).



Search is usually an after-thought in websites and yet it is the most utlised component of websites.

Usability is about getting users to where they want; when a user uses search to achieve this and cannot find what they want, the website has failed… think of how many times you have used a website’s search, the results are rubbish, it’s all too hard and you move on.

I would consider a broad search solution that includes indexing capabilities, logical and relevant results and statistics for you.



Regardless of what or where it is, every website should be optimised for search engines. Ask how the web development firm achieves this, including whether it is outsourced… which ideally, it will not be.


Project Plan

  • What resources will be allocated to the project and who are these resources?
  • What are your required inputs?
  • Ask for a project timeframe with clear milestones.
  • Does the web development firm use a project methodology, or can it explain its process?
  • How does the web development firm capture and manage variance?
  • When do you receive project updates, prototypes and demos?
  • What is the signoff process?
  • Are their penalties if the project is delayed?
  • What is post-launch plan?
  • Does the plan include content and testing (QA)?



Very few web development firms have internal hosting capabilities and if they want their facilities included in any consideration, they should list clients that utilise their internal capabilities.

I would suggest a dedicated box (one should be sufficient), and have the web developer outline ALL costs including Microsoft SQL Server 2005 Licenses. (N.B. Hosting is horses for courses and only you will know how big your website is, how much traffic it gets and what service you need – a hosting company such as NetRegistry will be able to help with this.)

Also, require that the web development firm be responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of the website in respect to where it is hosted. Otherwise, down the track, you will end up experiencing endless finger-pointing while your website is down.



  • What statistical packages do the web developers recommend?
  • What are the statistics you will receive; are they of benefit and do they tell you anything useful?
  • Can you set goals for the website and how are these shown?
  • Do you have to pay license fees and so forth?


Change management and training

In this day and age, every organisation should be fully bought into its website, and understand the benefits of any new website development. This involves change management and in instances, training.

Training includes your training over and above the CMS; the web development first should help put together a publishing schedule and framework, advise on the different publishing models they recommend and how they will be involved if at all.


Moving on

Ultimately, you know what you want from the website and what it should look like; your organisation is different and the web development firm needs to be adaptable to that.



Because my colleague is an NGO, I forwarded a great article in the Economist on the failures of NGO websites; it is worth the time to read.