Planning is the most important part of any website, to fail to plan is to plan to fail. Planning needs to take on a certain format but every company is different. However this is my process:
Planning starts with a site map for the front-end pages. This is the main plan for the outline of the site, the pages that will contain the content. Here we must effectively outline the page hierarchy, the difference between a hub page and a section page, an article page and a sub-section page. This will be decided by the nature of the content, along with a common-sense approach to how a user will naturally expect to access said content.
The site map usually looks like a family tree diagram. As an analogy this is quite relevant, as there is a parent/child relationships between pages. The homepage is at the top of the tree, next are the primary navigation pages, the hub pages to each sub-section. Each navigation item usually fits in a primary, secondary or tertiary level form. You don’t want the user to have to click too many times to find the piece of content they require. From grandparents, to parents, to children, the pages flow down. Of course, the most important pages are nearer to the top. Web users are inherently impatient, and will only drive down the tree so far.
Once the site map is nailed down, the wireframing and interface diagrams can be prepared. Much discussion has been made regarding who is responsible for wireframing. My thoughts are that it should be a joint effort between a good internet architect and a designer with a great deal of usability/interface experience. At the end of the day, the client needs to feel comfortable with this process, and may want to get involved. As long as there is good cohesion between the relevant parties, then everyone will benefit from this.
Wireframes can be created in any form, but depending on what they are exactly used for, they will need to follow a certain format. The primary objective of a wireframe is to convey what content goes on each page. For everyone on the team, each person will need a simple diagrammatical reference to the actual site pages, what links to what, what are the generic items, what are the relationships between content, what is the journey. The wireframes should reflect this. Wireframes will be used by the client, the design team, the front and back end developers, and project managers. It is essentially a playbook for the design and build of the site.
Once all parties have agreed on the architecture of the site, then initial visual design can commence.