Six Revisions

The Secret to Building Large Websites: Website Architecture

Jun 5 2013 by Nikita Semenov | 18 Comments

When I started writing this, the idea of a skyscraper construction project came to mind.

I thought of a huge skyscraper with restaurants, retail stores, offices, gyms, and residential spaces — a large self-contained, compact community all by itself.

Source: Bernt Rostad

No one would ever start the construction process of a skyscraper like that until everything is properly planned and drawn out.

Source: Steve Newfield

I’m not a building architect or construction contractor, but I can still see the innumerable requirements you need to draw out before proceeding to construction. Room planning details, sourcing of good construction materials, managing the different teams involved in the building’s construction, zoning permits, funding allocation, natural disaster planning in case of earthquakes, the list goes on.

Everybody considers design as an important component of things; whether it’s the design of a skyscraper or the tires of your car.

Design is about not only bringing convenience, innovation, and comfort into people’s lives, but also in many cases such as skyscrapers and your car tires, people’s lives and safety becomes dependent on it.

I’m not an architect.

I’m an IT person. I’m a concept designer to be more exact.

For years, I’ve been designing strategies and conducting research for very large, ambitious website projects.

Concept design is the foundation of a robust website architecture. Like in the construction of a skyscraper, you need to have a sound blueprint for building large-scale websites.

In this article, I’ll share our company’s process for architecting large websites.

The Website Architect

Let’s first figure out whose role it is to do this thing called website architecture .

To me, this job is carried out by a website architect.

I deliberately avoid mentioning UI/UX designers and the IA guys here because website architecture goes beyond — or rather encompasses — the user interface, user experience, and information architecture of the site.

The website architect needs to have a solid understanding of usability, in-depth knowledge of web development tools, online marketing technologies, and everything else involved in the construction and maintenance of a website.

Just like an architect of a skyscraper or a residential home, she must be well-versed with the tools, materials, and processes of construction in order to plan the product efficiently and effectively.

This person, our website architect, should possess strong logical thinking, has an analytical mind, is smart with commercial aspects of websites, and be attentive to details.

Of course, for a guaranteed quality product, the architect can/should consult other specialists: designers, developers, etc.

As you see, the ideal web architect in my mind should be a broad specialist, because, as you’ll soon see below, there’s no getting away from that.

Overview of the Website Architecture Process

I’ll give you just a general overview of my company’s website architecture process.

The process is divided into these 11 stages:

  1. Project Brief
  2. Website Goal Definition
  3. Define the Target Audience
  4. Competitor Analysis
  5. User Goal-Problem-Solution
  6. Scenario Mapping
  7. Mind Mapping
  8. Information Architecture
  9. Prototyping
  10. Prototype Usability Testing
  11. Project Specification

As you can see, all these stages are related to each other, and we’ve organized it in a sequential manner.

Let’s discuss each stage.

Stage 1: Project Brief

Gathering the needed data from the client and your team can usually take 2 days. Though you should be as thorough as possible, also keep in mind that there’s always room for elaboration and additional data-gathering in the other stages of the website architecture process, so don’t get too off-track if some pieces of information haven’t been transmitted to you.

Determine Goals and Expected Outcomes

What is the client’s goals and expected outcomes of this project, and how does she envision the end result of the project?

You should be clear about the evaluation criteria of these goals and expected outcomes to make sure you’re both on the same page.

You have to be as specific as possible; goals and outcomes should be quantifiable and measurable.

Brainstorm with the Client

Ask the client to tell you everything he has on his mind. Listen to what he says patiently and thoughtfully. Take notes. Focus on what they’re saying and resist the urge to chime in. Your ideas and remarks can wait.

If the client is passionate about his ideas for the project, he can spend hours talking about it, which is completely normal.

When the client is really into the project, he’s a great help and pleasure to work with.

Client Idea Summary

At the end of your brainstorming session, you should ask the client to sum everything up — if he succeeds in boiling his idea down to one sentence, then the idea is clear. If not, you will need better clarity and focus.

Determine the Target Audience

Who is the client’s target audience? Who’s going to use this site, and how might they benefit from the site?

The client should have a clear idea of who the end user is, so that we can produce a website for them. Otherwise, it’s like playing darts with your eyes closed: You know where the target is, but it’s going to be nearly impossible to hit it.

You can also start discussing what the client already knows about their target demographic: gender, age, location, etc.

Determine Competitors

Who are the website’s direct and indirect competitors? The client and the website architect should be aware of the existing competitive environment.

There are always competitors. Even if the website’s idea is completely unique, there are at least indirect competitors.

Meet the Decision Makers

Meet with the people who make decisions. Discuss the deadlines, the budget limit, resource availabilities, and so forth.

Organizational matters, matter.

Results and Deliverables

Some of your other questions

will need to wait to be answered later on in the website architecture process. What you get out of the project briefing stage will be basic data and just to get a general feel of what your client already knows about his project.

It’s crucial to understand the client’s needs and expectations at this early stage, and to choose the right direction for the project right at the starting line. The price you pay for not giving enough time to this simple but critical first stage exponentially grows as the web architecture process and website production progresses.

A project brief template. Source:

The deliverable of the briefing stage is a written document with detailed information given to you by the client and the decision-makers. This document should be approved and verified by the client. It can be in the form of a design brief .

Stage 2: Website Goal Definition

A website needs goals. The client’s goals might be these: to monetize the site, to increase the offline market share through online marketing, to better engage customers online, and so forth.

The goals define the direction of the entire website production process .

Besides determining the website’s goals, you also need to define success criteria according to the client.

A good way to establish goals is by using the SMART criteria. That is, each goal should be:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

For example:

  • Generate $50,000 income within 5 years through ads, information products like e-books and paid subscription plans
  • Assist users in making a choice of what pet to own
  • Provide users with advice on pet issues
  • Create a marketing platform for pet products

Results and Deliverables

As a result, you will have a document containing 2 lists:

  • A list of project goals
  • A list of the client’s goals

This document needs sign-off by the client/decision-makers.

Stage 3: Define the Target Audience

This stage involves researching the target audience. We need to identify what types of users will go to the site, and also define the needs of each group.

Gather Characteristics Data

We need to create a common persona for each group. The user interface design depends greatly on the results of this stage. To get started with this, we first need to define what our audiences’ common characteristics are.

Define Socio-Demographic Characteristics: We should figure out the sex, age, education level, and occupation of our target audience. Targeting teenagers (15-18) is going to differ from a site meant for people over 60.

Define Psychological Characteristics: We should determine the lifestyle, personality, temperament, motivation, value system, philosophies, etc. of our target audience. This information is even more important than socio-demographic characteristics in terms of user interface design. If, for example, our users are early adopters, the user interface and pre-launch strategy will be different than other websites.

Define Wants/Needs Characteristics. We should figure out why our user would want to sign up to our website, what problems they’re looking to solve with our site, etc. We define their pain points and aim to solve it with our website.

This information is vital, though it’s hard to find. If you’re working on a website redesign project, the client may already have this information if they have user feedback tools in place.

Sometimes the competitor can have it (but good luck getting them to share it with you). In this case, you need to perform user research studies and conduct surveys.

Geographic Location Characteristics: Country, city, region, continent — these are all helpful information. Being online does not completely eliminate the location factor.

Sometimes geotargeting is the first thing to think of when creating a national site, government website, or any location-dependent website.

Moreover, website content and website copywriting is heavily determined by the audience’s location.

You will need this when you’re in the information architecture (IA) stage.

Create User Personas

When the target audience portrait is well-defined, we can then create personas .

Example of a persona. Source:

The main goal of the web architect here is to determine all the possible groups of users, starting from the largest (core) group, and ending with the smallest one.

Then we create a persona for each group.

Each of the personas you develop should have a:

  • First and Last name (Don’t use the names of real people to avoid distortion of the story)
  • Photo
  • Age
  • Location
  • Occupation
  • Marital status
  • Hobby
  • Skills
  • Problems they need to solve
  • Personal and professional experience

To get a better image of your target audience you can interview potential users. This is about marketing research at this point.

Results and Deliverables

After finishing this stage, you should now have two things:

  • A document presenting the general characteristics of the target audience
  • Personas

Stage 4: Competitor Analysis

To ensure the success of the project, you need to know your competitors and have good ideas on how to get ahead of them. You should discover their strong points and weak points.

There are several methodologies involved in conducting competitor analysis research, including market participant polling, and Internet and print media research.

If you’re creating a local website, don’t limit yourself only to your country. Look through international websites that are doing similar things. Most likely, there are similar or analogous projects up and running somewhere in the world. Some of these projects can be rather inspiring.

For example, we’ve been working on a social networking site for pet lovers for a client in Russia. We didn’t find direct competitors in the local market. However, there are several foreign sites and indirect local competitors. They are:

Category: Architecture

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